During training camp, players for the Minnesota Vikings and the other 31 NFL teams spend a lot of time in meeting rooms and watching film to improve their games. One video session many of the players dread is when the officiating crews show up to let them know what is no longer allowed.
Typically following the evening meal during the early portion of camp, league officials get all the players together to play a video of the new rule changes and points of emphasis that are going to get called tighter.
This year, referee Craig Wrolstad – in his 14th NFL season as an official – made the presentation to the team as well as local media members. A crew of NFL officials spend several days with teams at training camp to familiarize coaches and players to define the new rules changes.
The 10-minute video explains the changes to players and lets them know it’s not something frivolous that brings change, stating, “The rule changes we are about to review are the result of many hours of discussion and film study. Before any rule changes, there are several questions asked during this process. Does it improve the game? Can it be officiated? Can the change be coached? Can a player play by the rule?”
For 2016, there will be six points of emphasis that will be made. They include blindside blocks on field goals and extra points, a better defined set of rules for when quarterbacks slide feet first, redefining what constitutes a penalty for low hits on the quarterback, a renewed emphasis on the use of the crown of the helmet by tacklers, tightening what is allowed by centers in terms of the pre-snap movement of the ball, and stricter enforcement of rules designed to keeping coaches off the field of play and on the sidelines.
Wrolstad made it clear that it isn’t the referees themselves that make the changes. That would be the league’s competition committee, which accepts proposals for potential rule changes and implements the ones deemed necessary, forcing officials and players alike to change how they do business.
“The competition committee are the guys that make the rule changes,” Wrolstad said. “The officials are not the competition committee. The competition committee is made up of owners, general managers, coaches, players and team presidents. There is an official representative on the committee, but it’s a committee of about 30 (people). We weigh in on what should be officiated or not, but we don’t make the new rules.”
Five rule changes were outlined. The first dealt with chop blocks. All chop blocks – a high-low hit on a defender by two offensive linemen on running plays – are now illegal. Prior to this year, adjacent players (a tackle/guard or guard/center) could legally chop block a defender. In hopes of player safety, when a defender is locked on to any lineman, any hit at the thigh or below by a second player will be called.
A new rule was instituted to deal with unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. As of this year, any player who gets called for two such penalties in a game is automatically ejected. Unsportsmanlike conduct fouls include throwing a punch or kick without making contact, abusive or threatening language, or taunting. Players can get ejected for a single unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if he lands a punch or makes a flagrant personal foul.
There was an expansion of the horse-collar tackle rule to include any area from the name plate or above on the outside of the jersey to go along with the current ban inside the shoulder pads. The key element on that change is whether a player’s knees buckle when the horse-collar is used, which can happen whether a player’s hand is inside the jersey or not. The new rule doesn’t apply to quarterbacks in the pocket or a runner in the tackle box, but once either leaves the area inside the tackles, the rule takes force.
Another rule change deals with touchbacks. Starting this year, a touchback will move the ball out to the 25-yard line as opposed to the 20-yard line in previous seasons.
The last change makes it a 5-yard penalty when a player or coach calls a timeout when his team is out of timesouts. Officials have been told to ignore such requests, but, if they blow the whistle to stop play, a 5-yard penalty will be assessed.
Wrolstad opened the rules changes to questions and two of them had a direct impact on the Vikings. On the video concerning quarterbacks sliding, the hit by Lamarcus Joyner on Teddy Bridgewater that put quarterback out was shown as an example. Although it didn’t meet the standard of when a forward slide was applicable to protect a quarterback, Wrolstad said a penalty would still be called due to contact to the head.
“(Bridgewater) slid a little late so he was going down and the defender had already committed himself to the hit,” Wrolstad said. “If he were to hit him in the body, it would have been a legal hit. But, since he hit him in the head, it was illegal.”
When the topic turned to coaches coming out on the field, which was clearly inspired by Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter actually impacting the result of a game by coming out on the field and pushing a Cincinnati Bengals player during their playoff game in January, this is something that the competition committee wants to curtail. Wrolstad said the officials are in agreement with that rule change because, even in the heat of battle, coaches don’t belong on the field.
As part of the league’s explanation as to what would now constitute a penalty, a clip of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer coming out on the field was shown. Wrolstad said some teams are very different than others in terms of coaches going out on the field at various times of the game and said the league doesn’t want the NFL to look like a high school or college game, where coaches routinely come well out onto the field multiple times a game.
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While Zimmer wasn’t singled out as an offender, despite being shown in the video, the officials are being told to take it seriously – including a 15-yard penalty to go along with the infraction.
“Coaches are now supposed to remain off the field at all times,” Wrolstad said. “We’re going to try to have a pretty good demarcation that, if they’re coaches, they need to be on the sideline. A head coach may have a little more leeway than a fourth assistant coach, but they’re supposed to stay off the field.”
Over the years, the officials that come to training camp often feel like substitute teachers. There typically aren’t a lot of questions from players when they open up the post-video dialogue and they often feel like the players are there only because it’s mandated – like a Marshawn Lynch interview.
But the rules are going to be enforced as the changes and points of emphasis have been every year when changes are made, so whether they pay attention during training camp, they better pay attention when wins and losses matter because the yellow flags will come flying if they don’t adhere to the new standards.