Every year when I come to Mankato, I always learn a lot more about the Minnesota Vikings and all of the players vying for starting positions and roster spots. But on Friday afternoon, I was able to learn a lot more about the game of football itself.
Well, at least the finer points.
The Vikings had Craig Wrolstad, a 14-year veteran NFL referee, and most of his crew come in and tell us media about the rule changes and points of emphasis the league has instituted for the 2016 season. Each season, referee crews go to one or two Training Camps to discuss the finer points of the NFL rule book and get everyone on the same page as the season begins.
Wrolstad started the meeting by showing the 15-minute video that all NFL coaches and players see before the season. Both the video and Wrolstad’s Q&A session afterward were incredibly enlightening and really helped me understand what the referees will be looking for this year.
Both the video and Wrolstad himself explained how the NFL Rules Committee always views all potential rule changes under the prism of safety while doing their best to protect the integrity of the game. The committee asks itself a handful of questions regarding any updates to the rules, including:
- Does it improve the game?
- Can the change be coached?
- Can players reasonably abide by the change?
Those of you that are a bit more cynical might be rolling your eyes a bit at that summary, but at face value all the rule changes do reflect those virtues. The changes we discussed are as follows:
- All chop blocks are now illegal. A chop block is defined as a two-man high/low block when a defender is engaged above the waist and another blocker makes contact with the thigh or below of the defender. The chop block penalty will be called on runs, passes, and the kicking game. To clarify, cut blocks, which consist of only one blocker going low on a non-engaged defender, are still legal.
- Two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls now result in an automatic ejection. A player can still get disqualified for one act, such as punching or fighting. Think of it like soccer’s yellow and red card system: you can get a straight “red card” from one foul but two “yellow cards” also means you’re automatically out now.
- The horse collar rule has been expanded to include the back or side of the jersey at the nameplate or above; it used to be exclusively grabbing inside the shoulder pads from behind. A player doesn’t need to be completely taken to the ground for the foul to be called; Wrolstad explained that any force that makes a player’s knees buckle backward or to the side will result in a penalty. The rule still does not apply to a passer in the pocket or a runner inside the tackle box.
- Touchbacks will now be placed at the 25 yard line instead of the 20. This one’s self explanatory and common knowledge by now.
- A five yard penalty will be enforced if a team calls a timeout that shouldn’t be allowed and referees incorrectly grant the timeout. I doubt this issue will come up very often but it’s a decent way for referees to cover a potential mistake that could happen in crucial late game situations.
Points of emphasis
The following updates discussed by Wrolstad and the accompanying video aren’t new rules, but they will be focused on closely by NFL referees this season.
- The roughing the passer penalty by hits on quarterbacks below the knee. Even when blocked, players must avoid making contact with their head or chest. Defenders swiping at a quarterback’s legs with only their arms is still OK. As soon as the quarterback assumes a “running posture” (i.e., scrambling or planning to throw on the run) the rule doesn’t apply.
- Sliding feet first. As soon as player slides feet first, he is treated like a player on the ground and any excessive hit will be penalized. If a player slides sideways or headfirst, he is treated like a normal runner. (And by “sideways”, Wrolstad said anything past about a 45 degree angle is not considered feet first.) Wrolstad discussed the hit on Teddy Bridgewater in the Rams game, explaining that if the defender would have hit Bridgewater in the body it would have been a legal hit since Bridgewater started the slide late. But since he made contact with the head, it was a penalty, which is unchanged this year.
- The crown of the helmet rule. A player cannot make contact with the crown of his helmet against any part of the opponent’s body unless it’s on a runner inside the tackle box. Again, this isn’t a new rule, but referees will be paying special attention to it.
- Pre-snap movement of the football. The center can adjust the football to get a better grip as the offense is setting up for the play, but after the line is set, and sudden movement of the ball that isn’t part of the snap will be considered a false start. This also applies to the kicking game.
- Blind side blocks on kick and punt returns. Anything to the head and neck area or below the waist on the blind side during returns will result in a 15 yard penalty.
- Coaches and players entering the field of play. NFL teams have always had “get back” coaches, but Wrolstad explained that coaches and players coming onto the field from the sideline has started to get a bit out of control. He said that coaches will likely get a warning or two before a penalty is called, but if they do it’s for 15 yards. I’ll be interested to see how strictly this rule will be enforced in the 2016 season.
Wrolstad pointed out that while the language surrounding the rule was tweaked this year, the actual rule and how it will be enforced will not change at all. One of the linesmen on the crew gave an analogy that I thought was helpful: he compared it to a catcher in baseball applying a tag at home plate. An umpire waits until the catcher shows him the ball before calling the runner out. NFL referees treat catches the same way—players have to go through the entire catch with the ball before it’s considered a catch. (Side note: so why can’t the language in the rule be that simple?)
The replay system hasn’t changed at all since last year, but Wrolstad did remind us that reviewable plays have been expanded this season. Just about everything that isn’t a judgement call is now eligible for review.
Wrolstad explained that the NFL referees are only in charge of enforcing the rules; there is only one referee representative on the nearly 30-member NFL Rules Committee so they have very little input with how the rules are created.
Hopefully this gives you a little more clarification of what the referees are looking for this season. I know I found a lot of the information very helpful.
Of course, it probably won’t prevent you from screaming at your TV when one of these new rules or points of emphasis goes against the Vikings. But at least you’ll know why you’re so upset now.