Although it never came into play, the NFL playoff overtime rule implemented last season was a welcome change. No longer could a team win the game with a field goal on the first overtime possession. It made sense. No one enjoyed seeing a team drive all of 25 yards before kicking a game-winning field goal, without the opposing offense ever getting a chance. This season, the rule will be used in the regular season as well.
To refresh your memory: If Team A converts a field goal on the first overtime possession, Team B will get a chance to score. If Team B fails to score or gets a touchdown, the game is over. If they kick a field goal, overtime continues, and the next team to score (field goal or otherwise) wins. It is one of five on-field rule changes approved for the upcoming season.
Safety has been a focus of commissioner Roger Goodell, and the league has expanded the rule to protect "defenseless" defensive players. On a crackback block, in which the offensive player — often a wide receiver — takes on an unsuspecting opponent, it is no longer legal to hit the defensive player in the head or neck area. Previously, players were barred from attacking the knees on such blocks. Now, anything other than a square hit to the shoulders or chest will draw a flag.
"We just think that player is in a very vulnerable position inside, and we are trying to give that defensive player a little more protection," Rich McKay, chairman of the Competition Committee, said in a conference call in March.
Instant replay was expanded last season to include all scoring plays. This season, all turnovers will also be automatically reviewed. It may add a few minutes to each game, but for game-changing plays, the most important thing is to get the call right.
Though neither come into play too often, two other on-field rule changes were approved, both borrowed from the college game. A loss of down has been added to the penalty for kicking a loose ball (previously it had been just a 10-yard penalty). "Just think of a field goal attempt on fourth down when the ball is muffed by the holder and the kicker kicks the ball out of bounds," McKay said. "Instead of a 10-yard penalty and a re-kick, in this case, you would have the 10-yard penalty and the down would go over for a change of possession. They would not get a re-kick of the field goal."
The rule for too many men on the field changed as well. It is now a dead-ball foul and a five-yard penalty if the offense lines up with too many men for more than three seconds or the defense has too many players and the snap is imminent.
Off the field, Thanksgiving and Christmas are now considered business days in the NFL, meaning teams that play on those days can make roster changes.
Who will be enforcing these new rules is still unclear. The NFL referees are on strike. The participants in this summer's training course for officials were low-level college and high school referees. With the league focusing more on player safety, having the most experienced and qualified officials on the field in September is imperative, so expect the league to resolve this issue.