The NFL took it easy on the rulebook this offseason after several years of heavy fiddling with the game. We can interpret that in a number of ways, and competition committee chairman Rich McKay took the most positive view.
“The game,” he said, “is in a really good place.”
Only one significant rule alteration occurred, and it applies just to the postseason. Each team will be guaranteed a possession if a playoff game goes to overtime, a response to the Kansas City Chiefs‘ winning touchdown on the opening drive of overtime last season to win a 42-36 divisional-round game over the Buffalo Bills. Otherwise, owners decided not to adopt the kind of weighty rule changes that could loom in the future, from sky judges to a punt redesign to an alternative to the kickoff. Those debates could surface in the coming years.
In the meantime, however, the competition committee tweaked the interpretations of several rules in ways that are likely to impact the 2022 season. What follows are five adjustments you might notice.
Illegal contact clarified
Historically, the illegal contact foul has been one of the NFL’s most reliable tools for ensuring the growth of the passing game. Put simply, it prohibits certain contact by defenders against receivers and other pass-catchers while the quarterback still has the ball in the pocket.
Even with the addition of a 17th game for all teams, the number of illegal contact flags dropped noticeably last season, from an average of 97 per season from 2001 to 2020 down to 36 in 2021. That drop coincided with a 13% decrease in touchdown passes per game from 2020, as well as the lowest average of yards per attempt (7.1) in four seasons.
As a result, the competition committee asked officials to pay closer attention to contact that falls under illegal contact. Penalties soared in the first week of the preseason, with a total of 15 flags for illegal contact in 16 games. But after further communication from the league office, there were a total of eight in Weeks 2 and 3 combined — suggesting there will be a bump in regular-season flags but not a flood as some feared.
Roughing the passer clarified
The NFL will always value and protect quarterbacks, but the competition committee took steps during the offseason that could reduce the number of flags for roughing the passer.
There were 153 such penalties in 2021, a 12% rise per game from 2020. That uptick in itself wouldn’t necessarily bother NFL decision-makers, given the league-wide priority on quarterback play. But as anyone who watched games last season knows, some of those flags came for mild and inadvertent hits to the helmet that fell far below the rulebook standard of “forcible” contact.
For as much as the league wants to protect quarterbacks, it doesn’t want games turning on 15-yard penalties against players whose fingers might have grazed the passer’s helmet en route to a legal sack. As a result, officials have been asked to recalibrate their approach to ensure — as best they can in real time — that contact was forcible before throwing a flag. That request could lead to fewer roughing the passer flags than in 2021, and a return to historical norms.
Overtime changed — but just in the playoffs
The overtime format for regular-season games remains unchanged — a team can win if it scores a touchdown (but not a field goal) on its opening possession without its opponent getting the ball. Persuaded that longer overtime games are not always better, owners decided to apply the new format only to the most important contests.
In the playoffs, the rule states simply: “Both teams must have the opportunity to possess the ball at least once during the extra period.” That tweak prevents a team from winning on the opening possession, even if it scores a touchdown, and decreases the advantage a team gets from winning the overtime coin toss.
If the game is tied after each team has one possession, the next score wins.
There is one exception. If the team kicking off to start a postseason overtime period scores a safety on the receiving team’s opening possession, it would win the game. The vast majority of NFL games will be unaffected by this change. There have been 24 playoff overtime games since 2001, an average of a little more than one per season.
Kickoff tweak made permanent
Recovering onside kicks became nearly impossible after the NFL overhauled its kickoff in 2018, prompting calls for relatively radical changes to maintain the drama of fourth-quarter comebacks.
Owners rejected most of the proposals, including one that would have given scoring teams the option to replace the ensuing kickoff with one offensive play. If they gained 15 yards or more, they would maintain possession. Instead, owners endorsed a more subtle change that limited the number of players that the returning team could place within 15 yards of the restraining line.
The rule change took effect on an experimental basis in 2021, and it contributed to a return to historical norms. The recovery rate in 2021 was 16.1%, up from 4.4% in 2020. Owners made the tweak permanent in March.
‘Popup’ kickoffs make gains
The 2018 kickoff changes had a clear intent: Incentivize teams to kick the ball deep for a touchback, thereby reducing the chances for injury-causing collisions. The primary enticement was moving the post-touchback line of scrimmage from the 20-yard line to the 25.
Over time, however, teams have grown less excited about automatic touchbacks. Now, they are increasingly looking for ways to pin opponents inside the 25-yard line by kicking shorter and higher “popups,” a trend that can be expected to continue in 2022.
According to NFL data, 27.7% of kickoffs fell short of the end zone last season. The rate was 23.4% in 2020. The touchback rate dropped to 57.6%, the first time it has been under 60% since the 2018 rule change, and coaches are now openly talking about avoiding touchbacks.
As Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Matt Daniels said this summer, three of the four most likely outcomes of a kickoff return are favorable to the kicking team. Either the returner will be tackled inside the 25, he’ll fumble or his team will be penalized while blocking. (The unfavorable outcome, of course, is a return beyond the 25.)
“The odds [tell you to] put that thing in play,” Daniels said. “There’s a lot of factors that go into it … but if we’re just talking black and white, I say put that ball in play.”