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Vikings Training Camp: NFL Referees visit to review rule changes, points of emphasis

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Veteran NFL official Mike Spanier and former referee Phil Luckett addressed the Twin Cities media to discuss what officiating crews will be looking for in 2017.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons
Mike Spanier, Phil Luckett, and a crew of NFL officials fielded questions from the media to clarify some of the rule changes and points of emphasis for the 2017 season.
Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

The job of an NFL official is not an easy task. Split-second decisions must be made while looking for a variety of infractions that may or may not be committed by some of the largest and fastest athletes in the world. Every call made is ultra-analyzed by fans, coaches, players, and league officials.

And if that isn’t enough, every year the league tweaks the rules.

Even as someone who writes about football, it’s tough to keep track of everything when it comes to NFL rules and guidelines. Which is why I love the fact that the NFL sends officials out to every training camp to meet with the media. On Friday afternoon, 19-year veteran official Mike Spanier led a meeting in Mankato to go over the finer points of the rule changes and points of emphasis. Among the crew that was with him was former NFL referee and current Official Supervisor Phil Luckett. (If that name sounds familiar, you probably remember the 1998 Thanksgiving overtime coin toss.) Spanier, a native of Sartell, showed a video they show to every team in the league to clarify updates to the rules and took some questions from us afterward. Both the video and Q&A session were incredibly helpful for understanding what the referees will be looking for this year.

Rule changes

The first rule was the relaxing of penalties for touchdown celebrations. The league got feedback from over 100 players in the offseason to help them create their new guidelines to allow “more expression.” What players CAN do now:

  • Use the ball as a prop
  • Group celebrations
  • Go to the ground

What players still CANNOT do when celebrating:

  • Anything directed at an opponent
  • Anything considered obscene and/or violent
  • Using props other than the football

There were some clarifications to each category as well. For the legal celebrations, the length of time spent celebrating is important since the NFL is trying to keep game length down. A new wrinkle: the 40 second play clock begins as soon as the referee signals the touchdown. So teams better have those group celebrations choreographed or risk getting a delay of game penalty.

On the illegal side, the referees reminded us that any prop includes the goalposts. So no dunking or hugging the support. “Violent” celebrations include anything involving weapons. So the throat slash gesture is still out. And sadly, Teddy Bridgewater’s “sniper” from Thursday’s practice probably wouldn’t be allowed either.

The second big rule change was to outlaw jumping over the offensive line to block kick attempts, regardless of whether the player makes contact with the offensive line while he leaps. Player safety was the reasoning behind the change. (Personally, it’s one of my favorite plays, but I get why.)

The defenseless receiver rule was expanded slightly to include contact from behind at any time. So for instance, if a wideout is running across the field on a route without the ball and a defensive back pops him from behind, that’s now a penalty.

The final rule change discussed was the expansion of crackback blocks. Crackbacks are where a player spread out wide near the sideline will run back towards the ball at the snap in order to seal off a defender from to open up the field for a runner. Last year, the blocks were considered illegal if a player did it more than two yards away from the tackle. This year, a player going in motion toward the ball at the snap can’t do it at all, regardless of where they are on the field. The usual downfield blocking that wideouts and tight ends do is still fine.

The instant replay has also been tweaked a bit for 2017. Much like the NHL, the league office in New York now has final say on all instant replay decisions. (Apparently that has been met with mixed reviews by NFL referees.) Tablets are now the primary source for referee reviews on the field, and the tablets will be brought out to them on the field to shave off a few seconds.

Continued rules

Two rules that went into place in 2016 as one-year trials were carried over to the 2017 season:

  • Touchbacks still go out to the 25 yard line instead of the 20. The league still wants to collect more data on how the change affects the game.
  • Two unsportsmanlike penalties will still result in an automatic ejection. (For those of you familiar with soccer, it’s just like the two yellow cards equaling a red card.)

Points of emphasis

These rules aren’t new, but special attention will be paid to them by officiating crews this season. Again, the motivation behind most of these points is player safety.

  • Hits below the knee on the quarterback. Swiping at the legs and wrapping up is still OK. Getting pushed into it still isn’t a foul. But referees will remain wary of anything that goes low on QBs.
  • Leaving the ground to launch at players and unnecessary hits away from the play will be looked at with extra scrutiny.
  • Holding and pushing off by both the offense and defense at the line of scrimmage and the top of routes.
  • Blindside blocks. Most of the examples shown in the video for this one were on kick returns, so this one probably affects special teams units the most.

Etc.

A few final tidbits that were addressed in the Q&A session:

  • No changes have been made to the catch rule, which technically hasn’t changed for several seasons now. The main directive referees have been given is for consistency in interpretation. (Good luck with that!)
  • The NFL officiating crews for the season have already been set. There are five “swing” officials the league keeps as substitutes if needed.
  • All money from player fines that are collected for rules infractions goes to NFL Foundation charities. (So Ndamukong Suh is technically a philanthropist.)

As a football fanatic, I always find these meetings about the finer points of the game fascinating. Hopefully you learned a few things as well.