By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NFL season is still 57 days away. Presumably, if there are any significant issues with the NFL’s new rule changes for 2018, then the league and its officials have a fair amount of time rectify them before the opening kickoff of the year.
But, well, that would be presuming a lot.
The fact is, the NFL has bungled — BUNGLED! — two major initiatives this offseason regarding the rules. And as it stands right now, nobody even knows what they are.
First, the NFL set to simplify the rule for what is and what is not a catch. This was a rule change prompted largely by Jesse James’ drop vs. the Patriots in the regular season, but also from the years and years of mysterious and occasionally confusing calls, reviews and overturns in games. The whole business of “surviving the ground” never made a ton of sense, so the NFL sought to “simplify” the rule. Here’s what the league settled on. In order for a completed catch to be made, a player must:
1. Have control of the football
2. Have two feet down, or another body part
3. Make a football move, such as
a. A third step
b. Reaching or extending the ball for the line to gain
c. The ability to perform such an act
I’m sorry, what? Did you just say “the ability to perform such an act”? So, in a full-speed play where a receiver is catching the ball and beginning to tuck it away while getting hit and then losing the ball, we’re now asking officials to surmise whether or not that receiver “had the ability” to reach the ball forward if he had wanted to? That’s a “simplified” rule?
This is subjective, and it will lead to even more unpredictable interpretation from both the officials on the field and the replay officials in New York, who were occasionally very wrong on calls in the past anyway.
(Quick side note: The previous catch rule wasn’t that complicated. If you go up in the air, come down with the football, and lose control of the football upon hitting the ground? You didn’t catch that football. Now under the new rules, you did catch it, even though you dropped it upon impact. That makes little sense. And to those who have said “the ground can’t cause a fumble”? The ground absolutely can cause a fumble. If you’re running with the ball, and you go down without being touched by an opponent, and the ground knocks the ball loose? Sir, you have fumbled. The ground can absolutely separate a player from possession, or at least it could. Now, we don’t really know. Guess we’ll find out together.)
The other area the NFL sought to address was one that wasn’t really garnering any attention before the league announced a hastily designed plan to eliminate the lowering of helmets on every single play. This was, in a word, madness.
It’s not that the league should ignore safety, or whatever it is that they claim inspired this rule. It’s that … this plan was perhaps designed by folks who have never played or even watched football before. The rule, when it was announced, stated that any player who lowers his head to initiate contact with an opponent would be penalized 15 yards and perhaps … ejected from the game.
Uhh. Say what?
This terribly thought-out plan was instantly questioned and panned by players, fans and analysts alike. Players lower their heads to initiate contact across the field on every snap. Ejecting players for doing so would result in no players being left to play the game. That would be a problem.
So the NFL powers that be went back to work, trying to fix the mess they created all their own. In June, they basically said no, the new rule is not as bad as you think! Yet they still can’t really define it.
Dom Cosentino of Deadspin and Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk have both dug quite deep on the matter in recent weeks. Cosentino talked to former head of officiating Dean Blandino as well as former officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos; both agreed that the new rule will be extremely difficult to enforce. Florio asked the league for clarity on some of the language, and he was given a different rule than the one the league provided to Deadspin.
Florio wrote: “This effort to clarify the rule actually creates more confusion, apart from the fact that the league office has now identified two different rules to two different media outlets as the codification of the new helmet rule.”
That’s just brilliant.
Florio summed things up rather well: “So, yes, it’s got the potential to be a mess. In large part because it already is a mess. And depending on how the rule is applied, it could be the biggest single change to the game of football since the legalization of the forward pass.”
Hyperbole? To an extent, sure. But it does spotlight the potential problems that will almost certainly arise on Sunday afternoons this fall. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman also had a nice summation of the situation: “The [helmet] rule will force the NFL to face a level of uncertainty it hasn’t seen in decades. No one can say what NFL football will look like next season. Not the players. Not the coaches. Not the league. Not the media. No one.”
And when it comes time to enforce these at-time unenforceable new rules? Why, it’ll be a whole bunch of newbies asked to do the impossible. With the retirement of referees Ed Hochuli, Gene Steratore, Jeff Triplette and Terry McAulay all coming this offseason, the league will be introducing four new referees. The headline on FootballZebras.com read, “Staff changes highlight chaotic officiating offseason.” The story discussed a “seismic turnover” in the officiating staff, with six new hires and of course the four promotions of the new referees.
Complicating matters with this fresh officiating staff is this, from ESPN’s Kevin Seifert on Wednesday: “And because of late approval from owners, hardly any of the league’s 121 officials have been briefed in detail on a series of rule changes that will require fundamental changes in the way they administrate games.”
More from Seifert: “In short, the NFL will navigate the biggest collection of rule changes in recent memory this year with one of its least experienced groups of officials ever.”
(An additional problem for NFL officiating? Pete Morelli is still a referee.)
The recently retired McAuley, who was an official for 20 years and a referee for 18 years, told Seifert: “These are probably the most significant rule changes I’ve seen in my career in one season.”
While two of the promotions for the referee vacancies were planned ahead of time, Seifert said the retirements of McAuley and Steratore were very much unexpected. As such, “The NFL scrambled to promote Shawn Smith and Clay Martin, both of whom entered the NFL in 2015, as replacement referees.”
The use of the words “replacement referees” should be enough to make any football fan shudder. The first month of the NFL season was a disaster. An unmitigated disaster. And that was the case before the infamous “Fail Mary” play that finally inspired change. But we all saw in that month what can happen when unqualified and/or inexperienced referees are put in charge of the fastest football league in the world. And it was not good.
Oh, and there’s this, from Seifert: While the helmet rule has generated all the attention this offseason, the NFL’s rule changes for kickoffs will be extremely difficult to officiate, too. That’s a fascinating one, because it figures to be a play where flags fly often and fans watching at home will have no idea why. And considering it’s a new rule, there’s a very high probability that the hired rules analyst for the broadcast networks won’t know either.
Everyone will be figuring it out together, on the fly. Barring any drastic (and intelligent) changes in the coming two months, that will be the theme of the 2018 season.
The league set out to fix problems and ended up creating more of them. It was very much on brand for Roger Goodell’s National Football League.