The NFL rules are an ever-evolving set of regulations; the owners are constantly tinkering with the rules in an effort to maintain competitiveness, increase safety, keep up with evolving technology and increase the game’s popularity.
This year has seen a significant number of rule changes, and, as happens every season, the league has announced that an existing rule will be re-emphasized by officials — meaning more flags for less flagrant violations that in previous seasons.
While the list below is not comprehensive, it will offer an overview of some of the rules that are most likely to be noticed at some point during the season.
The jersey numbering system will undergo significant change
We’ve been hearing for at least a couple of weeks that the rules might change to allow single-digit numbers to be worn by a wider variety of players. Well, that happened, but the changes to rules for positional numbering were actually much broader, and may actually represent the most widespread change in the NFL numbering system in my lifetime.
As mentioned, running backs, fullbacks, receivers, tight ends, linebackers, and defensive backs will now be able to change to wear single-digit numbers.
The old rule: LBs could wear 50-59 and 90-99.
Changes: LBs will now be able to wear numbers from 10 through 49.
Interestingly, the choice to wear a low number (say, 26) might have consequences if an edge rusher is franchise tagged since it would demonstrate that he is a linebacker and not a defensive end. In 2021, franchised tagged DEs got paid about $2.1m more than LBs.
Running backs & fullbacks
The numbers 80-89 have been added to the list of numbers that RBs can wear, reducing the distinction between RBs, TEs and WRs.
Tight ends and wide receivers
In line with the change that allows backfield players to wear numbers in the 80s, the rules for WRs are being relaxed, and a whole new world of possibilities is being opened up for tight ends.
Old rule for TEs: they were limited to 80-89 in the past.
Old rule for WRs: they were able to wear 1-19 and 80-89.
New rule for WRs & TEs: these position groups can wear 1-49 and 80-89.
In effect, there will now be no distinction between RB, FB, TE, and WR, all of whom will be able to wear any number that isn’t 50-79 or 90-99.
Offensive & defensive linemen
Numbers 50-59 can now be worn by any of these players. Previously, numbers in the 50s were reserved only for centers and linebackers.
In line with this change, centers are no longer restricted to the 50s; they can now wear any number from 50-79, which will apply to all offensive linemen.
Who pays for number changes?
Many fans have been complaining for years that the NFL insistence on its traditional numbering system was archaic and outdated. Of course, some of those same fans may be unhappy if a player changes jersey numbers after the fans have already paid good money for the player’s current jersey.
Changing numbers can also affect a specific player’s wallet as well. By longstanding rule, any player who wishes to change jersey numbers must pay for all unsold stock of official NFL jerseys that have the player’s current number. For some players, this might be enough of an obstacle to prevent them from making a change that they might otherwise be keen on.
The NFL has been tinkering with kickoff rules for a while now, primarily in an effort to improve player safety. However, some recent changes that were made with safety in mind have led to a traditional play — the onside kick — heading the way of the dinosaurs and dodo birds. While the onside kick isn’t dead yet, it is certainly on life support, with the chances of kicking team success in recovering the onside kick falling to levels that make it almost infeasible as a tactical play.
Many suggestions have been put forward to remedy the situation, including suggestions that the “kicking” team (the one that just scored) gets the ball spotted on the field in a 4th & 15 situation, needing to get a first down to retain possession. This was not adopted.
The owners opted, instead, for a rule tweak for 2021 that will limit the number of players the receiving team can put in the setup zone — defined as being 10 to 25 yards from the spot of the ball for the kickoff.
Under the new rule, the receiving team is limited to 9 players in this zone. Last year, receiving teams lined up with either ten players (87% of all onside kicks) or eleven players (13% of all onside kicks) in the setup zone.
The hope is that with one or two fewer players in this zone, the kicking team will have a slightly improved chance of recovering the kick.
Something tells me that we haven’t heard the last of onside kick rule changes.
Replay booth changes
Some people have been agitating for an “eye in the sky” approach to replay, where the NFL would have someone empowered to use replay to fix any problem related to officiating that occurs in the game.
The owners as a group have been reluctant to embrace this approach, and that didn’t change this week.
The traditionally conservative group of owner rejected the more aggressive approach, but did expand the role of the existing replay official without adding a new guy to fulfill the ‘eye in the sky’ role.
The new language in the rules allows the official in the replay booth to advise the on-field officials on “specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present and/or to address game administration issues.”
As with the onside kick rules, I don’t expect this to be the final word on changes to how replay is used. It seems as if the owners adopt at least one new idea connected to replay every year. Some of them are short-lived, like the decision to allow coaches to throw a red-flag to challenge a non-call on pass interference, which was tried out for a season following the debacle in the Rams-Saints playoff game a few years ago, but given up for dead after just one trial season.
With every major gaffe made by the officials, we will hear renewed calls for a system that allows replay to fix anything and everything.
In this age of concussion and CTE awareness, helmets get a lot of attention from the league.
There are two issues that were discussed by the owners this month.
Firstly, three new helmet models were approved after testing showed them to be safer than many of the current approved models. Of course, just like draft picks push slower, older players off the roster, the improving technology means that some previously approved helmets will be dropped from the list, forcing some players to change helmets. You may remember that this type of change created quite a lot of drama for Antonio Brown a while back.
In a more fan-related helmet issue, the owners apparently have not reached any decision on the proposal to abandon the one-helmet rule. In a bid to enhance player safety, the owners adopted a rule several years ago that said that a player had to wear just one helmet for the entire season. The practical upshot of this for fans was that it meant that players could not wear “throwback” helmets whenever they put on “throwback” uniforms.
If the owners abandon the one-helmet rule on the basis that it has no actual effect on player safety, then players would be able to wear a slightly more authentic throwback helmet in games in which they wear classic uniforms from the past. Owners have not, based on the reporting I’ve seen, approved the change; neither have they rejected it. This is, as far as I can tell, in “wait and see” mode, and might still happen this season.
Rams’ double forward pass rule
This is one of two rule changes that resulted from an odd outcome on a specific play during the season — in other words, this is the owners trying to close a “loophole” in the rules.
This explanation comes from the Yahoo Sports explanation from Cameron DaSilva:
None other than Tom Brady burned the Rams last season with a bizarre double-pass after he caught his own deflected throw that and then completed it to Mike Evans. The pass to Evans went for an 8-yard gain, and because the Rams declined the penalty for an illegal forward pass, the 8-yard completion stood.
It was a bizarre loophole inadvertently exploited by the Bucs, but the Rams successfully closed it. NFL owners voted to pass the Rams’ proposal to add a loss of down for a second forward pass behind the line of scrimmage.
In the case of Brady’s pass, the Bucs would’ve had third-and-15 if the Rams accepted the penalty, giving them another chance to pick up the first. Now with this rule change, it would’ve put the Bucs in fourth-and-15 if the Rams accepted the penalty.
[The NFL] wanted to prevent a play like that from happening in the future – and who could argue with it?
Chicago’s extra point proposal
This is another loophole-closer that was prompted by a seemingly unintended consequence of recent rule changes to the extra point play -- or in this specific case, a set of plays.
I will again rely on a published explanation of the offending game situation and the newly-adopted remedy.
The Bears’ proposed changed wording to Article 3 is italicized below: “If a foul results in a retry, Team A will have the option to enforce the penalty from the spot where it attempted the try (previous spot) or from the yard line for the other try option, the location of which is determined by any previously enforced penalty, if applicable.”
The Bears’ interest in the change likely stems from their 2019 win in Denver. Down 13-12, the Broncos lined up for 2 and were flagged for a delay. That caused coach Vic Fangio to change his mind and send out the extra point team. As they tried to kick with the ball spotted at the 20, the Bears jumped offside. The result of the penalty: the Broncos got the ball at the 1. They went for two and converted it. The Bears later won on an Eddy Pineiro field goal.
In short, the Bears were unhappy that the Broncos started out at the 2-yard line, but — after a penalty against each team — lined up at the 1-yard line for the successful 2-point attempt.
Here’s a tweet showing the offending sequence:
There is no rule change here, but the league feels as if game officials have become lax about enforcing the existing rules, so the stricter enforcement of those rules will become “a point of emphasis” in the 2021 preseason and regular season.
Many fans will remember when this happened with offensive holding penalties in 2019 and the number of holding flags spiked dramatically at the start of the season before either players adjusted or refs went back to swallowing their whistles.
Players will get instruction during training mini camps, OTAs and training camp, and the officials will reinforce the emphasis during the three preseason games in an effort to get players to adjust prior to the start of regular season play, but these points of emphasis usually lead to a spate of flags in opening week that frustrate players and infuriate fans.
Despite calls from many fans to change the rules for overtime in the NFL, the owners rejected every proposal put forward. The same system used in 2020 will remain in place.