• Pat Opperman

Seven of the Most Impactful NFL Rule Changes

I mostly write NFL and NFL Fantasy news and previews, but sometimes I write little features, like this one published by a US-based general magazine. (Not reproducible)

When the NFL moved the line of scrimmage to the 25-yard line for extra point tries, they hoped to remove some of the “automatic-ness” of the play.

It is safe to say, they accomplished their goal. Kickers missed a near-record 71 extra points in 2016, almost twice as many as the previous five seasons combined.

Arguably, the longer extra point is the most impactful rule change fans have seen in a while. It got us thinking about what other rule changes made meaningful differences to the game we love.

A Bit of History

College football rules governed the league that would become the NFL from its inception in 1920 through the 1932 season.

In an attempt to make their game more exciting and marketable than the college game, the league started tweaking rules in 1933. In fact, their first rule change made our list of the seven most impactful NFL rule changes.

Today, an eight-member NFL oversight committee reviews suggestions, monitors trends and problems in the game. Player safety and marketing the game are the two primary concerns of the committee.

This committee does not decide on rule changes. They simply recommend actions that team owners discuss and vote on at their annual meeting.

About our List

The seven rules we suggest as the most impactful all made a difference in the on-field game. Rule changes regarding contracts and administration are not included.

That’s why free agency, and revenue sharing did not make the cut.

We also disregarded most safety rules and penalty additions like personal fouls, horse collars and the concussion protocols.

What’s left are rules that visually affected the game and made it what it is today.

7. Moving Goal Posts

In 1940, the league was concerned about a dearth of scoring. For that reason, they moved the goal posts to the front of the end zone. It worked. There was a discernible increase in field goals and overall points for years.

In 1974, the league was concerned that there were more field goals than touchdowns. They moved the goal posts back to their current location behind the end zone. It worked…for a while.

Field goals initially became more difficult, but whether it is because of better equipment, stronger athletes, or more indoor stadiums, field goal percentages have been steadily climbing.

Who knows? Maybe someday the league will move the goal posts into the stands.

6. Don’t Touch Those Receivers!

In a playoff game of 1973, the Miami Dolphins consistently cut down the Bengals’ star wide receiver Lester Hayes.

Paul Brown, a prominent member of the rules committee and founder of the Cincinnati club, recalled, “I don’t think Hayes ever got further than five yards down the field.”

The 1974 season saw the introduction of the “one chuck” rule, which said defenders could only hit receivers once, and only after three yards.

In 1978, the rule changed to restrict all contact to within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

The result was added passing and receiving opportunities that helped open up offenses. It also started the honored tradition of cornerbacks complaining about pampered wide receivers having an advantage.

5. Unlimited Substitutions

Many football fans romanticize about how old-time football players played “both ways”…that is, they played offense, defense, and usually special teams, too!

The fact is that most had no choice. Game rules limited substitutions. The introduction of the unlimited substitution rule in 1950 allowed for the coming and going of players without consequence.

This opened the door for more players on each team and directly led to today’s offensive, defensive and special teams specialists.

4. Blow the Whistle!

Terms like forward motion, in the grasp, and down by contact did not exist before 1955. The key word for officials to determine a play was over was “stopped”…and he had to be sure.

This meant that as long as the referee thought there was a chance of escape, a ball carrier could keep trying to advance and defenders could keep piling on while other offensive players tried to peel them off.

The new rule dictated that if a defender was in contact with the ball carrier while any part of the carrier’s body (except hands and feet) touched the ground, the play was over.

This saved time and allowed more plays per game as needless piling on was restricted. It also probably saved many injuries over the years.

3. Play it Again, Sam!

Officials are human. The use of instant replay to check certain calls began in 1999. The rules governing its use are regularly tweaked.

In fact, review responsibility shifts to officials at NFL headquarters in New York for the 2017 season and field officials will use mobile devices to confer with the office team.

Challenge rules and Instant Replay have made a difference in the outcome of many plays and games over the years. Arguably, it has made officiating better and prevented many hours of Monday morning water-cooler arguments.

2. Going for Two!

The two-point conversion was an innovation used by both the American Football League in the 1960s and the World Football league in the 1980s.

After the WFL folded, the two-point conversion was included in a series of rule changes taken from the WFL rule book for the 1994 NFL season.

Despite the success of the rule for both rival leagues, the NFL seemed surprised at how often teams are losing by eight or eleven points late in games.

The introduction of the 33-yard extra point rule will do nothing to lessen the two-point conversion’s importance.

1. Making Quarterbacks Relevant.

When the league came into existence, forward passes had to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage and between the tackles.

Bronko Nagurski sparked a controversy over the legality of a pass he threw to Red Grange to win the first ever NFL playoff game for the Chicago Bears in 1932.

On the play, the fullback Nagurski faked a dive into the pile before stepping back to make his throw. The opposing Portsmouth Spartans insisted it was an illegal pass because he was too close to the line of scrimmage.

Regardless of who was right, the glorious vision of someone throwing the ball after a fake or run resulted in a new rule allowing a pass to be thrown from anywhere on the field behind the line of scrimmage.

Can you imagine how less exciting the game would be if quarterbacks weren’t allowed to move out of the pocket?

That is why we picked the first new rule ever implemented by the NFL as the most impactful one to date.

Honorable Mentions

Other rules have changed the game for the better over the years. We considered such innovations as holding the punting team back until the ball is kicked and placing the ball at the line of scrimmage after a missed field goal of more than 20 yards.

Changes to the Wild Card formats, the introduction of personal fouls, and the “Oakland Rules” that outlawed stick-um and the advancement of forward fumbles in the final two minutes of a game made our list of also-rans, too.

Without a doubt, future rule changes will further affect the game we love. For now, let’s look forward to the next kickoff and enjoy America’s favorite game.


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