According to NFL Operations, rule changes are made to the game when needed to make it fairer, safer and more entertaining. What they don’t mention specifically, but is clear based on the changes made to the 2015 rulebook, is that controversy matters, too.
On the topic of entertainment, The NFL is trying to make extra-point kicks, or PATs, less of an expectation and into something a little more challenging, while adding opportunity for defensive players on botched offensive attempts at PATS and 2-point conversions.
Ball placement for PATs will be shifting from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line, which means that goalposts that last year were 19 yards away for Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham are now at a distance of about 33 yards.
Looking at Suisham’s career stats for field goals, he has been 40 of 42 from 20 to 29 yards, and 34 of 38 for field goals at 30 to 39 yards. Suisham, who holds the longest streak in the NFL for making kicks from 40 to 49 yards, recognizes there's a slight shift in stats as the distance changes, but it isn’t something that concerns him.
“I don’t have any other option,” he said with a light laugh. “It’s still the same kick. The degree of difficulty is just increased. I’m not striking the ball any different, preparation doesn’t change. Fifth-yard field goal and a 20-yard field goal, it’s still the same ball.”
In another effort to add tension, two-point conversions will now be open to defending teams intercepting and running for their own end zone to earn two points.
Controversy fueled other changes to the 2015 rulebook.
Exhibit A: Deflategate. It's addressed in this year’s version of the rules, undoubtedly because it simply had to be. The NFL response seems to be more about paperwork than anything.
“They’ve always been checked for as long as I can remember. We just didn’t have a form where you documented every ball and PSI on it,” said NFL referee advisor Gary Slaughter.
Game-day procedures have not been fully drafted, but the plan is to have balls individually numbered, tracked by officials on a new paper form with PSI recorded at the beginning of each game and then checked again at random games during halftime and after play.
The event of being found to have balls that are under- or overinflated will be noted and forwarded to NFL offices, with no action being taken unless a team trends toward this situation more frequently than the norm.
Exhibit B: A Football Move. In a similar high-profile controversy, the Dez Bryant (non-) catch during last season’s NFC Divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, the determination of how a catch is defined was changed for 2015. The key changes are removing the term “football move” as a qualifier and replacing it with more specific language. Byrant’s catch would still be illegal, but officials would have more protection in why they called it as such.
New language gives form to what was abstract in the term “football move.” For 2015, in order to complete a catch, player must become a runner. That means he must control the ball, bring both feet down and be in a position where he is able to defend himself from impending contact. Short of that situation (example: early, illegal hit from a defender) he must maintain control of the ball and protect it upon touching the ground.
Other issues of safety were also brought into effect, such as the following:
* Chop blocks, when offensive players team up to block a defensive player, one below the waist and the other offensive player engaged above the waist, are no longer legal in the area originally occupied by the tight end. Beyond that, if offensive linemen are adjacent to each other, or if the run is to the right side and they are not adjacent linemen, as long as they are on the front side of the run, they can still chop block.
* Offensive players may not hit defensive players from the side as the defensive player is running for his own end zone. Called a peel back, it is now eliminated at all points of play.