NFL roster cuts: AFC | NFC

NFL Nation Says: Rulebook complexity

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
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Chris JonesMatthew J. Lee/Getty ImagesThe penalty on Chris Jones brings up the question: Are NFL rules too complex?
Knowing the rules seems the most essential requirement for NFL players, coaches, executives and, yes, officials. So why has 2013 brought so much confusion about the league's official rulebook -- what it says, what it means and how it should be applied?

In examining the issue this week, ESPN's NFL Nation learned that the league will analyze and possibly streamline a set of rules that has grown unwieldy with exceptions, specific scenarios and archaic applications. Indeed, even some of the league's most experienced officials have tripped this season in applying rules.

The issue should come as no surprise, according to former NFL referee Gerry Austin, now an ESPN analyst. A decade's worth of adding nuances to prevent specific instances, not to mention the expansion of instant replay, have taken its toll.

"Over the last 10 or 12 years there have been some changes in rules and interpretations," Austin said. "Up until that point, there were some truly basic guidelines that an official on the field could follow and apply in application of the rules. Now, one overriding factor is that every rule has numerous exceptions. Those all came about when an instance would occur and decision would be made to incorporate it into the rulebook. Now the NFL rulebook has such a large number of exceptions and that adds to the complexity of things. We always had a hard-core basic set of application guidelines and process, and I think that maybe over the past 12 years those got messed with some."

According to Austin, there is hope that NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino will conduct "an in-depth analysis and see where they can bring some of those changes back to the center, so you can get back to a core application of the rules instead of saying, 'This rule applies except …"

In a statement, NFL spokesman Michael Signora said the league is "constantly studying ways we can improve all facets of our game, including officiating. … That includes a rigorous review of the rules, which we analyze each season to identify areas for improvement. The goal of our officiating department is the consistent application of the rules across the board. If there are aspects of the rules we can simplify to aid in that effort, we will work with the Competition Committee to recommend those changes."

The complexities have at least contributed to a series of incorrect decisions, several of which occurred last weekend. Among the examples:

  • Referee Bill Leavy misapplied a dead-ball foul in Week 1, resulting in the San Francisco 49ers playing the wrong down. In Week 3, Leavy administered the wrong enforcement of a penalty against Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier for challenging an automatically reviewed play.
  • A Week 7 discussion between Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz and a member of referee Scott Green's crew ended with the agreement that an apparent forward pass after a blocked kick was not reviewable. In a statement released after the game, the NFL confirmed it was.
  • In Sunday night's game at Lucas Oil Stadium, referee Carl Cheffers lost track of an exception to the rule that gives a defense time to match an offense's substitutions. The rule doesn't apply in the final two minutes of a half, and it cost the Denver Broncos about 10 seconds as their comeback attempt fell short.
  • Referee Jerome Boger correctly penalized the New England Patriots for a never-before called infraction on a field-goal attempt. After the game and the following morning, Patriots coach Bill Belichick revealed he hadn't fully understood the intricacies of the rule himself.

None of these mistakes were issues of judgment. Coaches and officials weren't arguing whether a receiver was interfered with, or if an offensive lineman was holding or whether a running back got the ball past the first-down marker. They were a simple confusion of facts by officials who take weekly rule tests and discuss the answers in pregame meetings.

Technically, there are 17 rules listed in the 2013 NFL rulebook. Those 17 rules, however, are spread out in tiny type over a 121-page document in PDF form. That should give you some idea of the nuance now inherent in playing, administering and managing an NFL game. Is it reasonable to expect officials, let alone coaches and players, to have it all on quick mental recall during a game? ESPN's NFL Nation questioned a cross-section of the league to find out:

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"You've got to be able to take what's on the page [of the rulebook] and you've got to be able to say, 'OK, how are we going to coach this?' That's a process I go through with the officials every week. You send stuff into the officials for a reason. You don't send it in and say, 'You guys were wrong.' You send it in for, 'Now we have to coach our team going forward. Tell us what you're going to do here.' That [push play] is a great example. We're going to show that play to our team and reaffirm what you can and can't do and what the officials' interpretation is going to be."

-- Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, as told to ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer


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"I think the hard part is there is no real consistency in the way it's called, because it's a human [element], and the referees have to interpret. They do the best they can. That's the thing you have to understand. It's hard. … I don't think there are too many rules. The rules that are being made is because of the safety element."

-- Panthers coach Ron Rivera, as told to ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton


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"I heard that that one [field goal rule] was voted on by the players. So that's a rule that you have to abide by. They're stated pretty clearly. Sometimes you obviously have issues with some calls, but for the most part you understand all the rules. Sometimes some rulings can be ambiguous, but if you're penalized for something, especially at your own position, you know [the rule]."

-- Bills center Eric Wood, as told to ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak


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"The whole game has become more sophisticated over time, you've got to try to stay on top of things. I haven't gone back to count or anything, but the rulebook is thicker now, for sure. But playbooks are thicker now, too, on both sides of the ball. Things evolve, that's how it is."

-- Broncos coach John Fox, as told to ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold


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"There's a lot of [rules], all right? There's a lot of them and sometimes it's hard to keep them all straight, but that's part of what our job is and that falls on me as the head coach to make sure our players are informed of what the rules are and make sure that we don't have those costly penalties. But yeah, there's a lot of rules."

-- Raiders coach Dennis Allen, as told to ESPN Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez


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"There's a lot rules. We're asked to keep track of them, so I'm sure it's not too many for the referees and officials to keep track. It is difficult. It is difficult for us to know each and every time what is the right play in that situation. The rules are put in to protect the game, protect the players so you have to adhere to them."

-- Steelers safety Ryan Clark, as told to ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown


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"You could pull out something that happens on every play, but they're not going to throw that flag on every play. So it is a little weird at times with some of the calls, but they're trying to do the best they can in protecting people and getting all the rules straight. But it does get to the point where you're like, 'Huh? What?' Because all these games are real close. All these games are very close and games are going into overtime and everything matters. So if it's a little ticky-tack foul that they think they can just call or whatever, that can hurt the game."

-- Bengals WR Marvin Jones, as told to ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey


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"Yeah, I do actually [have a grasp or know all the rules], because you know why, because our coaches talk about it. Now, the better question is: Do I think New England knew that was the rule [prohibiting pushing a player into the line on a field goal attempt] and tried to get away with it? Most definitely. They coached it. And that's fine, because you're gonna get away with some things."

-- Saints guard Jahri Evans, as told to ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett


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"On a business side, I'll say no, I don't think they have too many rules because they have to cover themselves. From a player's point of view and just playing, I think there are too many rules."

-- Lions guard Rob Sims, as told To ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein


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"It's probably tougher on [officials] to remember everything or it's tougher on them to make the call when they know it's an infraction that could change the game. It puts a little stress on then. But they definitely know it. And if they don't, a lot of time they've got help with replay and all kinds of stuff."

-- Packers DT Ryan Pickett, as told to ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky.

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