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Decoding the NFL's Playing Rule Changes

The biggest sport in America will look a little different in 2024.  How different?  Well, that’s a little hard to say.

Every year, the NFL owners get together in some swanky hotel in Orlando, Florida to hash out what needs fixing.  Sometimes, these rule changes are insignificant – like in 2023 when they allowed players to wear the number “0” on game jerseys.  Sometimes, the changes fundamentally alter the way football is played – like the legalization of the forward pass in 1906.  Today, we recognize how massive a change like the forward pass had on the game – but would you be surprised to learn that it wasn’t for another 72 years (in 1978, when the five-yard illegal contact penalty was implemented) before NFL teams consistently passed the football more than they ran?

The forward pass is the perfect example of a rule change that shifted the course of football history, but it wasn’t always so obvious.  Sometimes modifications take years for their full scope and breadth to manifest.  Back in March, the NFL owners approved six new playing rules, four new bylaws, and two resolutions, and while some appear more impactful than others, the reality is we really won’t know the true ramifications until much, much later.  Still, we can always try and speculate!

Today, I’m going to attempt to decode the NFL’s six new playing rule changes for the 2024 season, and explain how these can impact teams, players, and fans alike – and how soon we might feel that impact.  There’s a lot to get into, so let’s dive right in!

The Six Playing Rule Changes

1.  By Detroit; amends Rule 15, Section 1, Article 1, to protect a club’s ability to challenge a third ruling following one successful challenge.

This one is fairly obvious, but it still deserves some attention.  Remember that weird subplot that existed in NFL games where an NFL head coach had to be really careful about conserving his challenges because if he wasted one on a less-than-impactful call he might not have one for a major-impact call later?  Before this year, head coaches only got a third challenge if they went two for two earlier in the game.  Thanks to the Lions, now all you need is one.

For teams, the benefit is clear: they’ll have more opportunities to overturn calls.  This is a good thing.  Officiating has been a small (but not quiet) bugaboo for the NFL over the years.  It hasn’t kept the league from growing like bamboo on steroids, but it’s been a noxious stain for quite a while now.  This new rule, at the very least, gives teams a little extra reprieve from poor officiating.  Player will appreciate the greater consistency as well.

But now, the stakes have changed.  Because coaches are no longer penalized for losing a 50/50 challenge early in the game, the risk/reward prospect has shifted.  Suddenly, heaving that red flag in the first possession doesn’t seem so premature.  Even if the call stands, that third challenge is still sitting there – provided the coach wins his second challenge.  If you thought reviews already took too long, wait until there are six per game.

Besides, many of the NFL’s most frustrating calls are penalties, and those remain unreviewable. That B.S. pass interference or roughing the passer call?  Yep, those’ll still be backbreakers, and they’ll still be untouchable.  So as fans, did we really win with this?  I guess only time will tell…

2. By Competition Committee; amends Rule 14, Section 5, Article 2, to allow for an enforcement of a major foul by the offense prior to a change of possession in a situation where there are fouls by both teams.

This one is a little confusing, but that’s not because it’s hard to understand in principle.  Rather, because it’s hard to fathom why the hell weren’t they enforcing major fouls on the offense in these situations already.

For those who need a reminder, majors fouls include unnecessary roughness and unsportsman-like conduct.  Apparently, the Competition Committee decided it wanted to stop ignoring these infractions by the offense and desired “consistency with an effort to enforce all major fouls.”  Well, good for you NFL!  You finally came to your senses.

Jokes aside, this is a rule change that really needed to happen.  There are already so many ways the offense has the advantage over the defense in the modern NFL without the offense getting bailed out from a significant penalty just because they turned the football over.  Defenses get something for once.  This is a win for everyone.

3. By Competition Committee; amends Rule 15, Section 3, Article 3, to include a ruling of a passer down by contact or out of bounds before throwing a pass as a reviewable play.

Why do I have a bad feeling about this?  A handful of plays every year will be reviewed now…and a smaller number than that will be overturned.  Whoop dee-freaking-doo.

I don’t mean to be a sourpuss.  Of course, I’m happy that we’ll have a more correctly officiated game – even if it’s in one very specific area.  But I’m not excited about what this might mean for the reviewing process moving forward.  The NFL seems excited about the possibility of potentially having anything and everything up for scrutiny.  Teams and players will certainly appreciate the greater level of accountability toward the referees.  But what happens if the pursuit of a “perfect” game starts to get in the way of the game itself?

Maybe I’m overreacting.  It’s just one more play with the potential to be reviewed.  There’s a non-zero chance that this doesn’t come into play once this season.  But Pandora’s Review Booth has been opened, and there’s no telling what will or won’t remain out of its tedious grip.

4. By Competition Committee; amends Rule 15, Section 3, Article 9, to allow a replay review when there is clear and obvious visual evidence that the game clock expired before any snap.

I may sound like a hypocrite here, but this one has merit.

Like the second rule change on our list, it’s a little confusing that this wasn’t already allowed.  Regardless, we finally got here.  The Packers benefited from this play being unreviewable in Week Four against the Lions.  The Packers ended up losing, so nobody cared, but at least now we don’t have to worry about this screwing up the Super Bowl.  Can you imagine how embarrassing that would have been?

Yes, this will probably be a traditional “red flag” challenge with the referee going under the booth and yada yada.  I’m holding out hope that this can be an insta-booth review.  Either way, a review like this shouldn’t take too much time.  Was the game clock zero?  Yes.  Was the ball snapped?  No.  Okay, let’s move on.

5. By Competition Committee; amends Rule 12, Section 2, to eliminate a potentially dangerous tackling technique.​

What is this so-called “dangerous tackling technique?”  It’s none other than the dreaded hip-drop tackle known as such because it involves a defender doing all of the following:

  1. Gripping the ball carrier with one or both hands

  2. Using that grip to rotate his body to a position behind or to the side of the ball carrier

  3. Dropping the bulk of his weight on the ball carrier’s legs

Sound oddly specific?  Yup.  Will this undoubtedly create massive consternation and outrage amongst teams, players, coaches and fan bases everywhere?  Absolutely.  Is it probably for the best?  Yeahhh…

I’m not going to kid anyone – this will suck.  At least, it will in the short term.  This is a classic judgment call, and expecting referees to get every single one right is foolhardy.  Prepare yourself: this will affect the outcome of a game.  Hopefully, the rule is applied consistently, but there’s no guarantee.

Either way though, players will eventually learn to appreciate that one unfortunate (and crucially, preventable) tackle which could end their season or career is no longer permissible.  Teams will be happy to see their players injury-free for longer stretches of time.  Fans will be happy to see their stars available for more games.  It’s a win for all, but it won’t feel like it at first.

6. By Competition Committee; for one year only, amends Rule 6, to create a new form of a free kick play that is designed to: (1) resemble a typical scrimmage play by aligning players on both teams closer together and restricting movement to reduce space and speed; and (2) promote more returns. Permits the Replay Official automatically review whether a free kick legally touched the ground or a receiving team player in the landing zone.

Here we go, this one’s a doozy.  Remember the kickoff that you’ve always known and loved but that’s become a tragic afterthought after the NFL neutered it a hundred times over?  Mercifully, it’s been put out of its misery.  Instead, the NFL is going with the XFL’s new kickoff format – but they’d never admit that publicly.

The basic principle of the new kickoff is this: reduce the high-speed collisions which make the kickoff such a relatively dangerous play.  This is achieved by bringing the kicking and receiving team units much closer together.  The kickoff will still take place at the kicking team’s 35-yard line, but the ten players beside the kicker will stand on the receiving team’s 40-yard line.  At least nine players from the receiving team are permitted to stand on their 35-yard line, while up to two kick returners can stand by the goal line to return the kick.  That’s already a lot to unpack, but there’s more!

A touchback used to be brought to the receiving team’s 20-yard line, but in an attempt to reduce the amount of returns, the NFL moved that up to the 25-yard line in 2018.  Predictably, teams opted to take the good starting field position and all but gave up on kickoff returns, dooming one of the most exciting plays in football to irrelevance.  This new rule aims to change that trajectory and it does that by creating a “landing zone.”

Kickers are now asked to land their kickoff between the goal line and the 20-yard line.  If the kickoff lands short of the 20, the receiving team will be rewarded possession at the 40-yard line.  If the kickoff lands in the endzone for a touchback, the offense will now be awarded possession at the 30-yard line.  The end result should be fewer injuries and more returns – a win/win.  Most of these new rules should result in a better football game, but this one takes the cake (or the pie, if you prefer).

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