Time for league to pare down the rule book

The NFL is America's pastime, hands down.

Imagine how much fun it would be if they got rid of about half the rule book.

The replay challenge penalty? The tuck rule? Muffed punts can't be advanced?

Ridiculously harsh. Completely unnecessary. No idea why it's like that.

The league clearly has too many folks on the payroll who have too little to do, so they get together from time to time in fancy hotels to come up with ways to justify their existence.

The result is a set of rules that have grown into a convoluted mess, with no sense of what is reasonable or even needed. It's as though the NFL is trying to keep everyone — the players, the fans, the coaches, even the officials — in a constant state of guesswork.

We can imagine a day when we'll hear the referee explain a call thusly:

"Due to the coach challenging a play that was already subject to an automatic review, but because he was able to tuck his red flag back into his pocket before he muffed it, we will assess a 15-yard penalty, run 20 seconds off the clock, and order his team to switch conferences."

A bit over the top, for sure.

But not by much.

The league needs to get busy, expunging the rules that aren't needed and bringing some common sense to the rest. Start with the head-shaking replay rule that may have cost the Detroit Lions a much-needed win on Thanksgiving Day.

That one should be erased from the books immediately.

"This comes up every year," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's director of football operations. "Can we simplify and be more cohesive and get rid of some rules that may be offshoots?

"We will go through that exercise again. We have rewritten some of the rulebook over the course of the last few years, to try to simplify it and get it to be more coherent."

Clearly, there's still a lot of work to do, thanks to a "we must have a rule for everything that can possibly happen on a football field at any given time in the course of human history" mindset.

The replay challenge penalty has already been called several times, including the previous week in Atlanta, but no team was impacted more than the Lions' in their overtime loss to the Texans. For those eating turkey at the time, the officials clearly blew a call on a long touchdown run by Houston. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, justifiably outraged, threw his red challenge flag to make sure the play was reviewed. That wasn't really necessary, since scoring plays are subject to an automatic check from the replay official.

So, a sensible person might say, what's the problem? The officials pick up their yellow flags all the time. They could just tell the coach to take a chill pill.

But the NFL decided that coaches wanting to challenge a call that was already going to be reviewed anyway was a potential menace that could ruin the very fabric of the game. That without some of rule to prevent unnecessary dissent and embarrassment of officials, the field could run red with challenge flags.

So, when a coach commits such a grievous act, he is assessed a 15-yard penalty (the same sanction that's handed out to a player who tries to rip off an opponent's head). And not only does his team lose the yardage, the officials are no longer allowed to review a play they were going to look at in the first place.

Huh?

Anderson, in perhaps the most obvious statement that will ever come from his lips, acknowledged the penalty "may be too harsh" and will be reviewed immediately.

Hallelujah!

Hey, while they're at it, here's a few more things the NFL needs to change or eliminate:

  • The tuck rule: Why this one is still around — more than a decade after it reared its ugly head in a New England-Oakland playoff game — remains one of life's great mysteries. If a quarterback's arm is going forward when he loses the ball, it's an incomplete pass. If not, it's a fumble. Simple as that. Allowing a team to keep the ball because the QB lost control while trying to tuck it away is utter nonsense.
  • A muffed ball can be recovered by the punting team, but not advanced: Apparently, this one stems from the theory that a returner who touches the ball but never has control of it didn't actually fumble. Hogwash. If the coverage team can recover the loose ball, they should be able to run with it. Period.
  • Interference penalties: The NFL is always reluctant to copy the college game, but this is one case where it clearly should. When a defensive back interferes with a receiver, it should be a 15-yard penalty (as it is in college), not marked at the spot of the foul (the pro rule). Maybe if the defender flagrantly drags down a receiver, the current penalty could still be applied. Otherwise, there's no reason for interference — a debatable call in so many cases — to potentially result in a much worse penalty than a horrific personal foul (which is 15 yards). While they're at it, increase the penalty for defensive holding from 5 to 10 yards, but get rid of the automatic first down.
  • Overtime: The NFL rightly decided a few years ago that it wasn't fair for a game to potentially be decided by a coin flip. Of course, they didn't just go with the obvious solution (allowing each team to have at least one offensive possession in overtime), coming up with a "modified sudden death" rule. If the receiving team scores a touchdown on its first possession, it wins the game. But if the team getting the ball first kicks a go-ahead field goal, the other team gets a possession. Another example of the NFL over-thinking a problem.
  • Icing the kicker: Coaches have become enamored with the idea of trying to call a timeout right before an opponent attempts a game-winning kick, which is just plain silly. First of all, it rarely works. Secondly, it leads to far too many unnecessary delays at the most dramatic point in the game. If a coach wants to call a timeout to make a kicker think about it, he should do it before the play clock gets down to 10 seconds. After that, only the kicking team can stop it.

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Just send them straight to the NFL headquarters in New York City.


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