Commentary

Time to get the 'tuck' out of here

Mailbag: NFL mulls removal of unfair rule, keeps working on player safety

Originally Published: March 17, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One rule proposal fixes a controversy from the past. Another rule proposal will be a headache for the running game in the future.

The NFL owners meeting opens Monday in Phoenix with a couple of controversial adjustments. The first involves the "tuck rule." Eleven years after Tom Brady got an incomplete pass instead of a fumble on what was a great play by the Oakland Raiders' Charles Woodson, the competition committee thought it was time for a change.

I say hurray, and I hope it passes. What looked like a fumble turned into an incompletion when officials went to the fine print of the rules. As it turned out, the NFL's officiating supervisors back then were trying to take the gray area out of calls. Referees have always had a tricky time trying to distinguish a fumble from an incompletion when a defender tries to strip the ball from the quarterback's hand.

To help the officials, the NFL told them the passing arm must come down to the belt for the play to be called a fumble. If the ball comes out before then, it's an incomplete pass. Cleaning up that gray area cost the Raiders a chance at the Super Bowl.

"Playing rule proposal No. 3 basically changes our tuck rule so that it is a fumble if the player loses possession as he attempts to bring the ball back to his body," committee co-chairman Jeff Fisher said. "Obviously, if the passer loses control of the ball as the arm is moving forward, it will still be an incomplete pass, but we now say if in the passing motion he attempts to bring the ball back to his body, even if he completes the tuck, and loses the ball in an attempt to bring the ball back to his body, it will be a fumble. The officials on the field now are ruling that it is a fumble and the plays are going to review. We are going to change this to clean this up and eliminate the tuck rule, so to speak."

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Matt Campbell/AFP/Getty ImagesThe NFL might throw out the "tuck rule" that benefited Tom Brady and the Patriots against the Raiders 11 years ago.

There never should have been a tuck rule. It penalizes a great play by a defender and salvages a shaky play by the quarterback. To give the quarterback the license and time to bring the passing arm to his belt level and protect him from a fumble was wrong.

You figure the Patriots won't vote for this, and why should they? They tucked away a Super Bowl thanks to that call.

The proposal that has running backs furious is one to penalize a ball carrier who uses the crown of his helmet to hit a defender when he's outside the tackle box. Hall of Fame halfback Emmitt Smith has already ripped this idea. He says backs run with a forward lean and it would be hard to prevent the crown of the helmet from hitting a defender.

The competition committee disagrees. It says in open space, the back has a choice. He's allowed to duck his head, but it's a penalty if he delivers a blow with the crown of his helmet.

From the inbox

Q: There has been a lot made lately over the contributions of Roger Goodell. On the one hand, he's made the league a lot of money. On the other hand, he's making strides toward making the game safer while burning bridges with players. One (terrible) decision he made was to eliminate NFL Europe. While this decision saved the NFL a small amount of money (about $1 million a year I think), it was detrimental to the game because it removed a developmental ground for NFL prospects. There were solid players who went through that league (Brad Johnson, for example). The league gave NFL teams and fans a chance to evaluate players they would otherwise be clueless about. It was also a good chance to watch football during the offseason lulls. NFL Europe didn't sell out many, if any, games. Let's be honest, American football really isn't that popular with the rest of the world at this point. But for a guy who preaches spreading the NFL to international markets, Goodell really gave up on NFL Europe when he should have tried to improve its appeal to European sports fans.

Miles in Seattle

A: It's hard to say whether the NFL was getting more popular in Europe with that league. The model was getting stale. We'll see if efforts to get two regular-season games overseas will work. There is no doubt it is a priority in the NFL to expand the brand overseas. What is needed is a developmental league, and I'm confident that will happen in the next couple of years. The NFL needs to work with the pool of young players who are released and try to integrate them back into the league. It would be more economically prudent to handle a developmental league in this country. The NFL could hold a coaching camp for released players somewhere in Florida. With owners making unprecedented profits, they need to reinvest in the game to help grow it.

Q: I know that plenty of teams have restructured contracts to be under the salary cap this year, but what I was wondering was this: If teams indeed restructure star players' deals in order to better the team overall, how does that impact on the amount of money free agents expect when they sign their deals?

Travis Smith, Strasburg, Va.

A: Restructuring contracts can catch up to a team, but at least it gives the team flexibility. The New Orleans Saints, for example, restructured the contracts of five players. For each of the next three years, those five contracts eat up $4.2 million of cap room. The Pittsburgh Steelers did even more. They restructured three contracts that eat up $5.55 million of the cap a year for the next three years. A $4 million to $5 million cap number equates to a starter. Eventually, it catches up to teams. But if those teams draft well, they can make up the difference because successful young draft choices fill the voids.

Q: With the costs of rookie contracts decreased in the new CBA, I'm curious if you agree with me that the old way of waiting three years to see if your first-round QB develops is obsolete. Isn't it currently possible to draft QBs with high picks (first/second rounders) in back-to-back seasons now? Since it's no longer cost prohibitive, why aren't teams reloading when they see Gabbert/Ponder-level play in Year 1? You always say it's a QB-driven league. If money isn't a factor, why not draft the most important player high in the draft until you hit on a good one. I know these GMs have a lot of their egos invested in these high draft picks, but with the current financial changes as well as the fad of letting rookie QBs run some of their college offense, now more than ever it seems like by not redrafting the position immediately they are doubling down on their initial pick after mediocre-at-best returns in Year 1.

Skippy in Los Angeles

A: There isn't anything wrong with it, and it's being done. The Carolina Panthers invested a second-round pick on Jimmy Clausen. When they had the chance to take Cam Newton, they did. The Seahawks invested $19.5 million over three years on Matt Flynn, but they hit a home run the same year by getting Russell Wilson in the third round. Every teams needs to hit a home run with the quarterback position. A first-round quarterback needs time to start and show his potential, but if there are questions about that talent and a potentially better option is there, the team needs to consider taking that quarterback.

Q: Can you please explain how a team can release a player without paying him with no consequences but a player who is underpaid cannot decide to leave their team early and test free agency. How did the players ever agree to this? We are constantly hearing from fans and ownership in sports berating players that do decide to leave in free agency, but there is never any backlash against a team for breaking its commitments to the players at will. Other than a career-ending injury, why are agents not more savvy about the language in the contracts?

Adam in Seattle

A: Players have been saying that for years. They say that teams don't hold to their contracts if they release them, but the player gets criticized if he holds out despite his contract. Agents and the union can't change that. Why? Unlike baseball and basketball, football contracts aren't fully guaranteed. Could you imagine the cost for a team guaranteeing 90 contracts going into a training camp and then being forced to make cuts. It wouldn't work financially. Players had to fight for more than a decade just to get free agency.

Q: Would it make sense for the Jets to "donate" Mark Sanchez to a team with cap room. For example, the Jets trade Sanchez and a sixth-round pick for a seventh-round pick. This will allow the Jets to get rid of Sanchez without the cap penalty and the other team will have a solid backup quarterback.

Iaplush in Baton Rouge, La.

A: The Jets would donate that deal in a second, but it won't work. No team would want to take Sanchez's $8.25 million guaranteed base and use him as a backup. Top backup quarterbacks are making $4 million. Others are making $2 million. As you can see, this season for the Jets is all about cleaning up the cap. For now, the Jets are stuck with Sanchez.

Q: Now that the Seahawks have signed higher-tier pass-rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to not-super-lucrative contracts, how far does the value for players like John Abraham and Dwight Freeney drop? It seems we were just talking about how the older free-agent defensive ends might make $4 million to $5 million annually. Now, it seems, they're worth precious few NFL dollars.

Miles in Seattle

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireJohn Abraham's market value is being held down by the abundance of pass-rushers in free agency.

A: What Freeney and Abraham have to fear is that their market is in the three-year, $8 million range that recently went to Cullen Jenkins (New York Giants) and Chris Canty (Baltimore Ravens). Because of their age, I'm sure they won't sign longer than a two-year deal. If the deal is longer, it would include voidable years in order to pump up their first-year salaries and let them out after a year or two. There are too many good pass-rushers available. Look at Osi Umenyiora. He's a little younger and is struggling to find a market. He turned down $6 million a year from the Giants last year. In tight cap years, teams pay for youth and try to be patient waiting for veteran bargains.

Q: It looks like it might take a while for any kind of Darrelle Revis trade. I think the Bucs should go after Brent Grimes or a veteran corner, taking one of the better corners off the board. They need all the help they can get at CB, and unsettling the market might compel the Jets to a more agreeable trade offer. Is something like this likely, or will this be a protracted trade?

Zach in Philadelphia

A: The more rumors you hear from the Jets about a Revis trade, the more you think something will happen. It does make sense for the Bucs. The longer this goes, the more you know the Bucs or the 49ers or the Broncos aren't going to give up a first-round pick this year. The first-round pick will more likely be in 2014, which is horrible for Rex Ryan. Ryan wants to win now and probably won't have much of a chance. I'm wondering if a No. 3 this year and a No. 1 next year can get something done.

Q: Is there any way you can guess the thought process of how a team like Denver, who did not need any offense, signs Wes Welker but my Chiefs sign Donnie Avery with all the big-name receivers that were available (Harvin, Boldin, Jennings, Wallace)? Not that Avery is a bad receiver. How does that say we want to win a championship?

KV in Kansas City, Mo.

A: I've got $60 million reasons. The Chiefs re-signed Dwayne Bowe to a five-year, $60 million contract. Plus, they have Jonathan Baldwin. They've been one of the busiest teams this offseason. They can't afford to pay Bowe and then go out and pay another receiver a lot of money. I'll give you a little tip on Avery, though. The Colts signed him to a one-year, $665,000 contract last year. Former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians thought he would be his Mike Wallace in the Colts' offense because Avery has great downfield speed, and he was right. The Avery signing is a good one because it adds a different dimension to the offense.

Q: I am concerned with the long-term cap health of the Dallas Cowboys. Will all of their restructuring of deals this year hurt their chances to re-sign their young superstars like Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Dez Bryant in the coming years? They seem to use the restructure option more than most other teams. I think it's going to bite them in 2014 and 2015.

Mike in Mountain Home, Idaho

A: You should be concerned. The more the Cowboys restructure deals, the less chances they will have keeping top young players. You can see it this year. Anthony Spencer finally came on and became a pass-rusher. The Cowboys struggled to keep him. They cleared enough room to give him the franchise tag, but that only keeps him for one more year. They could lose him after this year unless they get a long-term deal. Jerry Jones will find a way to keep Bryant and Lee. That might come at the expense of Carter. More than anything else, the Cowboys have to draft well. If they can't find starters in the draft in Rounds 2-4, they are doomed.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer