NFL officials explain new rules, emphases

NFL officials are making their annual training camp visits and explaining the new rules and the new points of emphasis.

There was a time in the NFL when it was effectively jungle rules on the field – pretty much anything was fair game when it came to beating up an opponent and getting physical on the field.

But as the game has transitioned over the last few decades, the league finds ways to address issues as they arise and make changes to the rule book that governs the league. Some changes, like the 5-yard contact rule for defensive players with receivers, have had a significant impact on how the game is played. Others are rules that are put in when it is deemed that a team is seeking an unfair advantage, such as the Patriots’ move in last year’s playoffs where players with eligible jersey numbers reported as ineligible and lined up outside the tackle box. In that instance, it was something the league had never seen before and, once it did, changed to rule to prevent teams from copying the ploy that previously had no rule covering it.

Following a Minnesota Vikings practice this week, four current and former officials – side judge Rob Vernatchi, former official and current supervisor of NFL officials Neely Dunn, umpire Ruben Fowler, and back judge Dale Shaw – played a 12-minute video for players explaining the 2015 rules changes and points of emphasis that will be called whenever spotted by officials.

“The idea of all of these rules changes and points of emphasis is to either make the game safer or provide more clarification on existing rules,” Vernatchi said. “It is our goal to have consistency in officiating and make the game safer for players.”

Players were shown a video explaining the rules changes and points of emphasis that officials will enact. The one that got the most attention was the moving of the line of scrimmage for extra points from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line with the added notation that, if the defense gets its hands on the ball – whether there is a fumble or interception or a blocked extra point attempt – it can return the ball. If the defense goes all the way to the end zone, the defensive team scores two points.

The other changes to the rules in 2015 include:

  • The league will mandate a medical spotter on the field for each game. The spotter can stop the game if he or she believes there is “clear visual evidence that a player displays obvious signs of disorientation.” The spotter will be in direct communication with the on-field officials and can stop the game to get the player removed from the field.

  • Additional protection will be provided for defenseless receivers. This rule already exists, but now will include passes that are intercepted. An intended receiver is deemed defenseless in the case of the immediate aftermath of an interception. The intercepting team will receive a 15-yard penalty at the spot of the foul, but will retain possession.

  • Additional punishment for peel-back blocks will be included. A peel-back block is defined as blocks to the side or below the waist of a defender who is chasing down a play. The rule was already in place to cover players lined inside the tackle box but will now apply to all offensive players, regardless of where they line up on the field. Illegal peel back blocks will be subject to a 15-yard penalty.

  • An expanded definition of a chop block. A chop block is a block against a defender who is already engaged with another offensive player above the waist. The new definition involved running backs going after defenders lined up outside of the area that was originally occupied by the tight end and will carry a 15-yard penalty.

  • An expanded definition as it pertains to defenders pushing teammates from behind across the line of scrimmage. Such a rule already existed for field goals and extra points, which don’t allow pushing or lining up directly over the long snapper. The definition has been expanded to now include the same ruling for punt formations and will be viewed as an unnecessary roughness penalty that brings with it a 15-yard penalty.

    There will also be three points of emphasis that will be enforced more strictly this season. They include:

  • An expanded definition of players involved in on-field fights. Players who are not directly involved in a one-on-one altercation will be subject to a penalty or ejection if they get involved in the fight as the third or fourth player.

  • Penalties will be assessed for players who come up on a pileup where there has been a fumble that causes a pile of players to pounce on the loose ball. Players who try to pull opponents off the pile will be subject to a personal foul.

  • Tightening up the definition to what is commonly known as the Calvin Johnson Rule, which defines what constitutes a receiver having full possession of the ball. A controversial non-reception reception by Dez Bryant in last year’s playoffs against Green Bay was shown on the video to explain when a receiver becomes a runner with possession of the ball. That play led to the tightening up the language of the rule.

    With all of the rules changes, the idea is to provide consistency from one play to the next and one officiating crew to the next.

    “That’s the onus on us in the office of supervisors because we grade every play,” Dunn said. “We’re striving for consistency. If one crew calls more fouls and they’re correct, that’s what we want. If they’re calling fouls we don’t want called, we will let them know that we don’t want those fouls called anymore.”

    For many players, the session with the officials is similar to being called to the principal’s office at high school. There aren’t many questions asked and the session typically goes pretty quickly. They take in what is said, but don’t always have much in the way of give and take.

    The officials who do the annual team visits during training camp realize that players want to play the game as they always have, but the difference in the rules interpretations is, in the end, for their benefit.

    “Our goal is to provide consistency and, most importantly, safety of players,” Vernatchi said. “The game is physical. That’s football. But we’ve seen a lot of changes over the last five years once we started enforcing helmet-to-helmet hits and we’re seeing a lot less of them now than we did five years ago. At the end of the day, what these rules changes are looking to do is make the game safer for the players and to help prevent unnecessary injuries that can potentially end careers.”

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