NFL rules have
changed a lot ever since American football, otherwise called gridiron football, became a mainstream American past time.
Many people cannot imagine that there was a time when player substitutions were out of question, or that communication
from the sidelines was illegal. Generally, over the league's history, the rules have changed substantially to make the
game fairer, safer, and more entertaining. Here is a look at trends in NFL rules over the years.
It is worth
noting that the rules are changing a lot faster today than they did back in the days. NFL was established nearly a
century ago in 1920. In its first 12 years of existence, it relied on collegiate game rules, from which it was derived.
However, after a little more than a decade in existence, it created its own Rules Committee, which would develop league
rules independent of its collegiate ascendant. The Rules Committee was later succeeded by the Competition Committee,
which is currently made up of eight members consisting of popular coaches and NFL team
Before any recommended changes are adopted by the league, they undergo a vigilant
vetting process. In particular, the Competition Committee is responsible for introducing new rules or changing the
existing rules based on majority consensus. So, if the proposed rule changes are overwhelmingly popular, they get adopted
pretty fast. On the other hand, proposed rule changes that lack a clear support drag through the approval process for
years before they adopted or abandoned altogether.
There are even times when a rule change is
adopted quickly based on majority vote, recognized to cause more problems than it solves, and then changed again and
again until its impact on the game proves to be beneficial. For instance, the kickoff line rules were changed for the
third time in 2011 since 1974. The more recent revision to the kickoff rules was intended to reduce the unusually high
number of injuries resulting from this popular play. Only after the Competition Committee combed through hours of video
footage on kickoffs did they arrive at the decision to effect the change.
But, how does the
Committee get the ideas to implement rule changes? In general, it takes into consideration the concerns of NFL team
owners, Coaches Subcommittee, Player Safety Committee, as well as surveys conducted on the teams. The committee also
listens to opinions from medical experts. So, it is not just a handful of people sitting behind closed doors calling all
In fact, the rule changes do not end with their implementation either. Close
monitoring is done to ensure the changes have the expected outcome with regard to the quality of the game. There are even
cases where the experts are unsure as to the impact of a proposed rule change, in which case they use the preseason games
to test it and determine whether to implement it, modify it, or do away with it.
are changed for a multiplicity of reasons. As mentioned earlier, the desire to improve fairness, make the game safer, and
make it more entertaining are some of the main reasons NFL rules keep changing. Sometimes, rules can be changed because
the current versions bring about controversies, unnecessary penalties, injuries, and unusual scoring behaviours. The
point is, there has to be a concrete reason behind every rule change implemented by
For instance, there was a time when passes had to be thrown from at least 5 yards
behind the line of scrimmage. This was until a player executed this play suspiciously by faking a plunge and then
stepping back to complete the play, making the opposing team unsatisfied with the final ruling, which favoured that
player's team. As a result, the rules were changed to allow all passes behind the line of scrimmage to avoid similar
controversies in future.
Other rule changes have been aimed at improving the game's
entertainment value. For instance, there have been rules to improve the number of scores, make NFL matches more exciting
to watch, and even promote the more entertaining passing plays by changing the shape of the ball to make it easier to
pass. In fact, the Rules Committee recognized the need for each game to offer as much entertainment as possible way back
This, according to the committee, meant that the officials had to change the
rules so that the plays fans like the most would be promoted through rule changes. For instance, in 2014, there were
preseason tests on a proposal to move the line of scrimmage from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line to make the extra-
point attempts less predictable, and hence, make the game more entertaining.
couple of rule changes have been implemented to increase scoring, which statistics have proven attracts more fans to the
game. For instance, in 1994, it was noticed that touchdowns had decreased by 22 percent with half of the teams in the
league getting less than 2 touchdowns per game. So, the league introduced rule changes that would make scoring through
touchdowns, a fan favourite, increase. This would make the game more entertaining.
fact, the NFL could currently do with rule changes that can better the game's entertainment appeal, as it is having
problems filling up the stadiums. The league has even had to cede ground on its controversial TV “blackout” rule, which
limits local broadcasts for football games if they fail to sell out. The rule, initially meant to encourage game
attendance, is now having a negative effect on the game.
Local broadcasts will now be
allowed to air the matches even when only 85% of the tickets are sold. But the league will also encourage team owners to
sell tickets that exceed this benchmark by letting the teams share revenues when this minimum is exceeded. However, even
as stadium numbers have decreased by 4.5% since 2007, there has been an increase in viewership for NFL matches on TV and
over the Internet. Actually, the popularity of the game over the broadcast channels is at an all-time
As a matter of fact, TV broadcasters have guaranteed the league $27.9 billion from
2014 to 2022 for its games, which is the largest sports broadcasting contract in the world by far. But, watching the
match over the television is a lot cheaper than attending a live game, which is why the league favours the latter. This
is why NFL has plans to provide Internet connectivity in stadiums and a matching mobile app that lets the fans listen in
on players wearing microphones on the pitch.
The league wants to make live games exciting enough to make
watching them over television less appealing by changing the rules a bit. To this end, the league is considering lifting
limitations on fan noises and the rule that public address announcers cannot incite racket for some critical game
This would not be the first time the league has decided to change the rules to make the
game more attractive to the fans. For example, over the years, the position of the hash marks has been changed several
times in a bid to bring more excitement to the game. Initial changes to the hash backs brought on unexpected problems,
unfortunately. For instance, the 1972 hash mark position changes caused a rise in rushing yards, made the passing plays
harder, made field goals easier, and made the sabotage of passing attacks a lot easier. Fresh changes had to be done to
counteract these setbacks.
So, two years later, in 1974, NFL made changes that improved
the passing plays and reduced the temptation to make field goals. The rule changes also helped improve scoring through
touchdowns as opposed to kicking field goals – a less exciting scoring play. The changes included moving the goal posts
10 yards back to make field goals harder, making missing a field goal to result in the other team getting possession at
the line of scrimmage, and other changes that eliminated the undesired changes the initial rule modifications had caused.
In 1978, the sporting body also allowed offensive linesmen to extend their hands during passes. This discouraged
conservative playing and added considerable excitement to the game.
Fans have not always been
welcoming of some of the rule changes NFL has introduced over the years. For instance, many football fans think the rules
generally change in favour of the offense, a claim the league denies. One of these rules pertains to the interaction
between the receiver and the defender, which was modified through rule changes in 1978. Before the change, the receivers
would run with the defenders. However, after the 1978 rule change, the defender and the receiver can avoid contact, and
either of them has can avoid the other.
This, the committee claims, is the traditional
relationship between the two playing positions, and it does not favour the offense. In fact, the league says it has
instituted rules that have been of considerable benefit to the defence. For instance, several rules regarding player
safety protect the defence from knee injuries when offensive players block low.
the league is willing to make changes as necessary. For instance, in the 30's the body was concerned about the number of
ties in NFL matches, and introduced a rule that lowered the ties to less than 5% down from about 20%. Unfortunately, the
change also increased the number of field goals. So, goal posts had to be moved in 1974 to reduce scoring through field
Unfortunately, improved talent and better techniques essentially made these changes
ineffective. This means the league should consider effecting rule changes from a different direction, for example,
narrowing the goal posts or moving the hash marks. But then again, such changes might affect the game in several other
This millennium has witnessed a number of NFL rule changes as well. For
one, it became illegal for hit a quarterback helmet-to-helmet after possession has changed in 2002. A few years later, in
2005, the “horse-collar tackle”, whereby a player could grab the inside collar of the shoulder pads of a runner during a
tackle, also became illegal. In the same year, it was also ruled that running, diving, and jumping into another player
unnecessarily was not allowed.
In 2006, low hits on a quarterback when such action could
be avoided was also prohibited. Additionally, personal unsportsmanlike behaviour during halftimes and intermissions would
also be penalized in the forthcoming kickoff. From then, each year from 2009 to 2012 saw a notable NFL rule change. For
instance, the “bunch” formation on kickoffs was prohibited in 2009. Then in 2010, a player who has just completed a catch
was protected from blows to the head and neck by an opponent who launches.
In the same
year, a rule that the ball would be dead at the moment a runner's helmet came off was instituted. Then in 2011 the NFL
sought to increase touchbacks by moving the restraining line for the kicking team from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard
line. In 2012, all NFL players were required to wear protective knee and thigh pads as of the 2013
Currently, the passing and scoring rates are higher than ever. Offensive numbers
are hitting historical highs as the long-standing Don Marino's 5,084 yards record is about to be broken again after being
toppled in 2011 after nearly three decades at the top. As a matter of fact, several players could surpass the decades-old
record this year, relegating the football legend to the ninth position overall. The reason for these changes could be
faster passing offenses.
The more likely reason, however, is the 1978 rule changes, which
were intended to improve the scoring and the passing game. Among the 1978 rules was the “Mel Blount Rule”, which
prohibited contact with receivers beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage. The rule change that allowed pass-blocks
with extended arms also helped improve the passing game, and is partly responsible for the explosive offensive play
output we see today. Prior to the 1978 changes, there was more running than passing. So, once again, it might be time for
NFL to institute rule changes that keep offensive game statistics from losing their
When NFL started, it adopted the rules of its
collegiate ancestor. Soon, it realized the need to effect its own changes to make the game entertaining, safer, and
fairer. Hardly a decade after it was started, the league was already changing the rules of the game. The rule changes
have touched on goal post and hash mark positions, interaction of the players on the pitch, behaviour of the players on
and off the pitch, shape of the ball, tackling tactics, handling of the NFL matches by the broadcasters, and so
Over the recent past, the league has had to make constant rule changes to deal with the increased
dynamism within the game. At the moment, the league is dealing with an unusually explosive offensive period in the
game's history and drastically changing stadium attendance trends. The league's Competition Committee, charged with
implementing the rule changes, faces a time like no other in its history as the sport demands constant and radical rule
changes to retain its integrity and place as a favoured American past time.