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NFL Nation Says: Rulebook complexity

10/23/2013
The penalty on Chris Jones brings up the question: Are NFL rules too complex? Matthew J. Lee/Getty Images

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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