Worst Rule Changes in NFL History
No sport in American history has undergone more changes than football. Some changes have been big. Others were small. All of them have made an impact on the game over the past 100-plus years.
Since 1978, the NFL has been preoccupied with rules designed to increase scoring. They have created quarterbacks who put up offensive numbers that were unthinkable in the days of Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham. These rules, meant to boost fan interest and television ratings, have changed the game, to the horror of football purists.
So why can't the rules gods leave a good thing alone? While many rule changes are made in the interest of enhancing player safety or making the game better, they actually have made the game less safe and worse. These are the worst rule changes in NFL history.
Defensive Pass Interference
Rule change: Penalty for defensive pass interference places the ball at the spot of the foul.
Old rule: 10 yards from the previous spot and automatic first down.
Year change was made: 1917
Why it was changed: To prevent defenses from intentionally fouling receivers to reduce big gains on pass plays.
Bottom Line: Defensive Pass Interference
For all the tweaking the NFL has done with various rules over the years, it’s incredible that the league has never touched one of the most punitive — and unfair — rules in the history of the sport: placing the ball at the spot of a pass interference call, even if it’s 60 yards downfield.
The spot-of-foul rule was the brainchild of football pioneer Walter Camp when the passing game was still in its infancy and defenses routinely interfered with receivers because a 10-yard penalty was preferable to a bigger gain downfield.
While the logic still holds up, the evolution of strong-armed quarterbacks and wide-open passing attacks has resulted in countless games being decided by mammoth yardage penalties on passes that may never have been caught.
Just as a foul on a slam dunk attempt in the NBA doesn’t result in a player being given the ball under the hoop, an often-subjective interference call on a bomb launched into the end zone shouldn’t result in the ball being placed on the 1-yard line for an almost automatic touchdown.
Pro Bowl Lives On
Rule change: The Pro Bowl game is revived.
Old rule: The game had been discontinued in 1942.
Year change was made: 1951
Why it was changed: Everyone loves an All-Star game.
Bottom Line: Pro Bowl Lives On
If there’s any sport that should do without an All-Star game, it’s professional football. Even as the NFL’s popularity has eclipsed Major League Baseball and the NBA over the years, the Pro Bowl remains an All-Star dud.
The reward for excelling in the most brutal, violent of sports shouldn’t be to play one more game at the end of the year, even if it is in Hawaii. But now, players don't even get the trip to Hawaii as the venue has moved to the mainland.
That may explain why as concern has grown over safety and injury issues over the years, players selected for the Pro Bowl increasingly don’t show up. Or try to avoid each other like the plague if they do.
New Hash Marks
Rule change: Hash marks moved to the present-day location of 23 yards, 1 foot and 9 inches from the sidelines, exactly in line with the goalposts.
Old rule: Hash marks had been placed 20 yards from the sidelines since 1945.
Year change was made: 1972
Why it was changed: It was designed to open up offenses by widening the short side of the field.
Bottom Line: New Hash Marks
A rule that was intended to benefit offenses actually had the opposite effect, at least for the passing game, which the league was eager to see grow in importance.
Quarterbacks found it more difficult to get pre-snap reads on defensive alignments, as defenses no longer found it necessary to commit players to one side before the snap. Coaches soon became adept at disguising their defenses.
While the change boosted the running game (O.J. Simpson eclipsed the 2,000-yard season rushing mark in 1973), passing yards per game declined, and within a few years, the league moved into overdrive in an effort to supercharge the air game.
Rule change: The implementation of the overtime rule.
Old rule: No overtime for regular-season games that were tied at the end of regulation.
Year change was made: 1974
Why it was changed: Everyone hates ties.
Bottom Line: Overtime
They say settling for a tie is like kissing your sister, so it only made sense that the NFL would want to implement an overtime system as the game’s popularity continued to grow in the 1970s. The problem, of course, was coming up with a system that was fair and made sense. The league is still trying to figure out that puzzle nearly a half-century later.
By 2010, it had become crystal clear that the sudden-death system gave a huge advantage to the team that was lucky enough to win the coin toss and get the ball first, so the NFL launched a series of modifications and tweaks that have never resolved the fundamental problem of how best to settle a game that is tied after 60 minutes of regulation.
With ties largely eliminated from regular-season standings as the playoff system grew to incorporate more teams, another problem arose: teams on the playoff bubble increasingly finishing the regular season with identical records. Fans soon grew accustomed to seeing their team’s playoff fate decided by byzantine tiebreaking formulas.
And, perhaps most critically, extending games into overtime made the sport less safe and increased injuries. Sometimes, a game is simply fit to be tied.
Rule change: NFL regular season lengthened to 16 games.
Old rule: 14-game regular season.
Year change was made: 1978
Why it was changed: More games = more money in the form of attendance, television ratings, merchandise, everything.
Bottom Line: Longer Season
There’s a reason the NFL season is so much shorter than sports like baseball, basketball and hockey. It’s a brutal sport that takes a heavy toll on the human body.
For all the efforts the NFL has made in recent years to make the game safer, it’s not been interested in one of the simplest solutions: making the season shorter, which would mean fewer concussions and risks for long-term brain damage.
One of the perks of the limited NFL season has always been that each game takes on magnified importance and, with it, more potential for drama. That was even more true when the regular season was limited to 14 games.
Rule change: Contact between defenders and receivers prohibited beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage. Also known as the "Mel Blount Rule."
Old rule: Contact was allowed beyond five yards.
Year change was made: 1978
Why it was changed: The NFL’s desire to free up passing attacks and see more scoring.
Bottom Line: Five-Yard Contact
The rule changes of 1978 designed to benefit the passing game forever changed the complexion of the NFL and ushered in an era of high-powered air attacks and prolific quarterbacks that continues to this day.
Despite the presence of such gifted signal-callers as Roger Staubach, Fran Tarketon and Terry Bradshaw, the passing game was becoming increasingly anemic by the late 1970s, with net adjusted yards per passing attempt hitting its lowest mark in 1977 since 1953.
The NFL needed to do something to juice the passing game and excite fans again, but the solution went too far and forever altered the balance of power between offenses and defenses. After 1978, the league became increasingly preoccupied with rules that benefited offenses, producing a game far different from the one Walter Camp fathered.
Rule change: Pass blockers are allowed to extend arms and push pash rushers with open hands.
Old rule: Use of extended arms and open hands was prohibited.
Year change was made: 1978
Why it was changed: The NFL’s desire to free up passing attacks and see more scoring.
Bottom Line: Pass Blocking
At the same time the league was severely restricting the contact that defenders could make with receivers, it was significantly expanding what pass blockers could do to prevent pash rushers from getting to their quarterback.
The result was that receivers found it easier than ever to get open while quarterbacks had more time than ever to find them. No surprise that the passing game and scoring exploded in the decades after the 1978 rule changes.
That may be what the NFL and many of its fans wanted, but that doesn’t make it fair.
'Holy Roller' Rule
Rule change: If a player fumbles after the two-minute warning in a half or overtime, or on fourth down at any time during the game, only the fumbling player can recover and advance the ball.
Old rule: Offensive players had no such restrictions on advancing a fumble.
Year change was made: 1979
Why it was changed: To prevent a repeat of the infamous 1978 "Holy Roller" game in which the Oakland Raiders defeated the San Diego Chargers after two Raiders players advanced quarterback Ken Stabler’s fumble for a game-winning touchdown in the waning seconds.
Bottom Line: 'Holy Roller' Rule
The ridiculousness of this rule can be summarized in its convoluted wording and the fact that it originated solely from one of the most memorable finishes in NFL history.
As Raiders play-by-play radio announcer Bill King prophetically said in his call of the play, "This one will be relieved forever!" Thanks to the NFL rules gods, he was right, because nothing like it would be allowed to happen again.
Rules generally are absurd when they’re tailored to specific times of the game in order to prevent a repeat of a particular play.
Play Clock Change
Rule change: Interval between plays changed to a maximum of 45 seconds from the time the ball is signaled dead to when it is snapped on the succeeding play.
Old rule: The previous play clock was 30 seconds.
Year change was made: 1988
Why it was changed: To give offenses more time to call plays.
Bottom Line: Play Clock Change
As if offenses weren’t given enough advantages in the years after the 1978 rules changes designed to open up the passing game, the NFL decided to make their job even easier in 1988 when the play clock was lengthened from 30 to 45 seconds (it now stands at 40 seconds).
In addition to needlessly lengthening games, the play clock change arguably made the sport less safe by removing an element of spontaneity from the game and making it more orchestrated and tactical, as well as giving teams more time to cycle in fresh bodies and gather energy for the next big hit.
When generals have more time to plan their attacks and soldiers are better rested, the results are usually more devastating.
Throwing the Ball Away
Rule change: A quarterback who is out of the pocket and facing a loss of yardage can throw the ball away even if no receiver is in the vicinity as long as it lands beyond the line of scrimmage.
Old rule: Such a pass would be penalized as intentional grounding.
Year change was made: 1993
Why it was changed: The NFL wanted to protect passers from taking big hits just because there was no receiver to throw to.
Bottom Line: Throwing the Ball Away
The goal of this rule change was admirable, but it gave one more unfair advantage to quarterbacks over defenses already hamstrung by pro-offense rule changes. From a fairness standpoint, it makes no sense to give quarterbacks the option to throw the ball to an empty patch of grass without penalty simply because they’ve found their way outside the pocket.
Besides, is there any evidence that this rule has actually prevented injuries? How many times have we seen a quarterback take advantage of this rule when he otherwise would have simply run out of bounds or slid to the ground for a loss?
A better option would have been to reduce the penalty for intentional grounding infractions that are committed outside the pocket, rather than eliminate it altogether.
Rule change: 2-point conversions allowed after touchdowns.
Old rule: Teams could only kick a PAT after touchdowns.
Year change was made: 1994
Why it was changed: To add more drama and strategy to games.
Bottom Line: 2-Point Conversion
The 2-point conversion, which long had been a popular staple of the college game, arrived in the NFL at a time when teams were scoring more points than ever, and games rarely seemed out of reach.
While it was exciting to know that your team still might have a flicker of hope even if it were down by 8 points in the waning moments of the game, the rule was just the latest in a litany of changes meant to give offenses the upper hand on an already uneven playing field.
In short, it was one more blow to the purity of the game. A team that has to methodically move the ball the length of the field to score six points shouldn’t get two more simply by punching it in from 3 yards out.
Quarterback Communication Via Helmets
Rule change: Quarterbacks allowed to receive communication from the bench via radio transmitters in their helmets.
Old rule: The league had banned radio receivers to communicate with players since 1956.
Year change was made: 1995
Why it was changed: You guessed it, the change helped offenses score more points by aiding play communication.
Bottom Line: Quarterback Communication Via Helmets
Remember the good old days when plays were sent in from the sidelines via hand signals or carried directly by players, or even when quarterbacks had the acumen and daring to call their own plays?
If only Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath had the ability to communicate directly with their coaches on play selection by hearing voices in their helmets, imagine the numbers they may have been able to put up?
With the likes of Steve Young, Troy Aikman and John Elway shredding opposing defenses in the high-octane 1990s, the league just couldn’t resist another rule change to make their lives even easier. Technology is not always a good thing in sports.
No Flinching for Defenses
Rule change: Defensive players prohibited from flinching before the snap of the ball to draw movement from an offensive player.
Old rule: Flinching was allowed.
Year change was made: 1998
Why it was changed: To prevent defenses from triggering false-start penalties by offensive linemen
Bottom Line: No Flinching for Defenses
This change wouldn’t have been such a bad idea if the balance in league rules hadn’t shifted so drastically in favor of offenses over the preceding 20 years. It might be considered only fair that defenses shouldn’t be allowed to draw offenses into false-start penalties with flinches, given that offensive linemen weren’t allowed to flinch defenses into jumping offsides.
But then again, was it fair in 1978 that offensive linemen were given new freedom to use their hands against defenders, even as defenders were severely restricted in the contact they could make with receivers?
One of the few advantages defenses had left against offenses was eliminated with this rule change.
Transparent vs. Tinted Visors
Rule change: Only transparent visors are allowed on facemasks. Tinted visors allowed only for medical needs.
Old rule: No restrictions on tinted visors.
Year change was made: 1998
Why it was changed: The NFL apparently didn’t want its players to resemble comic book villains.
Bottom Line: Transparent vs. Tinted Visors
Some rule changes are just plain silly and an attempt by the league to exercise undue control over its players. When the league decided to ban tinted visors in 1998 except for medical reasons, it wasn’t because the visors gave players an unfair advantage. It was because the league thought it was a bad look to have its star players’ faces obscured.
Since those faces are already partially obscured by helmets and facemasks, and these players are putting their bodies on the line while making the league a gazillion dollars in revenues, they should be allowed to wear any visor they want.
Of course, the league is always open to persuasion when money is involved, such as its recent deal with Oakley to become its official visor provider. It just so happened that Oakley’s visors are slightly tinted with technology designed to enhance color and contrast, so presto, the league’s rules on tinted visors were suddenly loosened.
Rule change: Any intentional forward movement of a passer’s hand is defined as a pass attempt, even if he is trying to tuck the ball toward his body (the "tuck rule").
Old rule: Losing possession of the ball as the passer is moving to tuck the ball back toward his body was ruled a fumble.
Year change was made: 1999 (rescinded in 2013)
Why it was changed: To clarify that any forward motion of the passer’s throwing harm is ruled a pass attempt, even if the intent is clearly not to throw a pass (and, of course, to find yet one more way to benefit passers at the expense of defenses).
Bottom Line: Tuck Rule
This infamous rule launched the New England Patriots dynasty in 2001, when Tom Brady’s obvious fumble that should have sealed an Oakland Raiders playoff victory in the snow at Foxboro was instead ruled an incomplete pass.
The Patriots rallied to win in overtime and went on to capture their first Super Bowl. Raiders fans who still hadn’t gotten over the indignity of the "Immaculate Reception" nearly 30 years earlier now would endlessly decry the injustice of the "Tuck Rule Game."
Any rule that discounts a player’s intent with the ball is illogical on its face, and anyone who watched the game could clearly see that the young Brady had no intention of throwing the ball when Charles Woodson knocked it from his hands.
It’s no wonder the league voted overwhelmingly to rescind it in 2013. It never should have been implemented to begin with.
No Multiplayer Celebrations
Rule change: Player celebrations were restricted to one player.
Old rule: Celebrations were permitted by two or more players.
Year change was made: 2000
Why it was changed: The NFL decided that exuberant touchdown celebrations are unsportsmanlike.
Bottom Line: No Multiplayer Celebrations
The NFL has earned the moniker of the No Fun League with its never-ending war on touchdown celebrations that began in 2000, when it decreed that group efforts were out of bounds.
In the years that followed, it continued to crack down on player exuberance for crossing the goal line. But given the physical toll exacted on players while making it to the end zone, who are some front-office execs to begrudge them their right to celebrate as they see fit?
Plus, banning group celebrations only succeeded in promoting more outlandish displays of individual showmanship. Were the Washington Football Team’s "Fun Bunch" leaps of the 1980s really worse than watching Doug Baldwin simulate a bowel movement with the football?
Rule change: Taunting rules are tightened, with 15-yard penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Old rule: Looser rules and enforcement governed taunting.
Year change was made: 2001
Why it was changed: The NFL wanted its players to act more sportsmanlike to one another between plays.
Bottom Line: Taunting
This was another one of those rules that had nothing to do with the quality of play on the field but how players behaved once the whistle was blown. Referees have been struggling ever since with how best to enforce these rules in a way that promotes sportsmanship without impacting the outcome of games for reasons that are unrelated to how it is played.
Not surprisingly, the inherent subjectivity of the rule has led to no shortage of controversy in the years since. In a game as violent as football, the most severe penalties should be reserved for actions that imperil player safety or directly affect the outcome of games, not as part of a broader effort to control what players say or how they act after the play has ended.
New Division Format
Rule change: NFL implements eight-division format, with four divisions in each conference.
Old rule: Six divisions split evenly between conferences
Year change was made: 2002
Why it was changed: The addition of the Houston Texans expansion franchise led to league realignment.
Bottom Line: New Division Format
As longtime fans know well, one of the flaws in the NFL’s division format has always been the frequency with which strong teams end up bunched in one division and weak ones in another.
The 2002 realignment that created an extra division in each conference made an already bad situation worse. Teams with mediocre or even losing records now were more likely to make the playoffs as division champions, while superior teams in other divisions were relegated to wild-card status or left out in the cold altogether.
How many times do we have to see a 12-4 wild-card team forced to go on the road to face an 8-8 division champion before something changes?
Incidental Facemask Grabs
Rule change: Incidental facemask penalty is eliminated. All facemask penalties are 15 yards.
Old rule: Incidental facemask penalty is 5 yards.
Year change was made: 2008
Why it was changed: The NFL decided that it was no longer reasonable to penalize players for incidental grabbing of the facemask that didn’t involve twisting or pulling.
Incidental Facemask Grab
Given the league’s focus on improving safety over the years, the decision to get rid of the incidental facemask penalty is a head-scratcher. The league presumably decided that the penalty was too arbitrary and, since it was accidental, should not carry a penalty, even one as mild as five yards.
But many penalties are accidental in nature. That doesn’t mean they should be eliminated. Has anyone proposed eliminating penalties for defensive backs who trip and accidentally collide with a receiver moments before the ball arrives?
By limiting facemask penalties to the flagrant, 15-yard variety, the league basically gave defenders a license to be more careless with their hands around an opponent’s facemask. That is not the way to advance safety.
Instant Replay After Every Score
Rule change: Every score is automatically reviewed by replay officials.
Old rule: Only scores that occurred after the two-minute warning were automatically reviewed.
Year change was made: 2011
Why it was changed: To make sure the refs get the biggest plays right.
Bottom Line: Instant Replay After Every Score
For the most part, instant replay has made the game better, but automatically reviewing scoring plays was an example of overkill that did little more than further slow down games and make them longer to complete.
One of the absurd elements of this rule change was the provision penalizing coaches 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct if they tried to challenge a scoring play, which was now unnecessary.
The shame of not knowing the rule should have been penalty enough.
Kickoff Starting Point
Rule change: Kickoffs are moved to the 35-yard line.
Old rule: Kickoffs were from the 30-yard line.
Year change was made: 2011
Why it was changed: To reduce injuries on kickoffs.
Bottom: Kickoff Starting Point
While any effort to make the game safer should be applauded, this change largely brought the same dynamic to kickoffs that long existed for extra points: making them an exercise in boredom.
The touchback became the norm after this rule was changed, much as the extra point had become automatic before that rule was changed to make it more challenging.
If kickoff returns are so dangerous, why not just eliminate them altogether or address the issues that make them so in the first place, rather than simply make them much less frequent?
Touchback Starting Point
Rule change: Touchbacks on kickoffs are moved to the 25-yard line.
Old rule: Touchbacks were placed at the 20-yard line.
Year change was made: 2016 (made permanent in 2018)
Why it was changed: Another effort to reduce the number of kickoffs returned and, by extension, injuries.
Bottom Line: Touchback Starting Point
This was another laudable effort to make the game safer, but it came with more unintended (or maybe intended) consequences. It followed the league’s history dating back to the 1970s of giving the advantage to offenses over defenses, making it easier than ever to score points.
While that may be what the league and many fans want, purists would prefer that offenses had to work a bit harder to score touchdowns and defenses weren’t constantly placed at one more disadvantage.
And to repeat, if kickoff returns are so dangerous, why not eliminate them altogether and just put the ball at the 20? It’s not as if kickoffs have retained much suspense anyway.
Rule change: The kicking team must line up five players on each side of the ball for kickoffs in a specified configuration.
Old rule: Teams were allowed to "bunch" players on one side of the ball, a technique often used for onside kicks.
Year change was made: 2018
Why it was changed: Another effort to make kickoff plays safer.
Bottom Line: Kickoff Alignment
The drama of an onside kick by teams hoping to pull off a late-game comeback has largely disappeared from the NFL, as the play has become close to impossible to execute (only four of 52 attempted in 2018 were successful).
While the NFL’s kickoff alignment rule requiring all players other than the kicker to line up within one yard of the spot of the kickoff made sense for safety reasons (eliminating the dangers posed by running starts), the rule prohibiting the bunching of players seems superfluous and unnecessary.
Making the game safer should be more about eliminating dangerous hits than controlling where players line up for a play.
Rule change: Revised standard for making a catch.
Old rule: The receiver must "survive the ground" with a ball for it to be ruled a catch.
Year change was made: 2018
Why it was changed: Never-ending controversies over what constitutes a catch.
Bottom Line: Catch Standard
You’d think the complexity of what constitutes a football catch was on par with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, given the league’s tortured history of trying to solve this particular mystery. But its latest attempt again falls short, and seems destined to again fall victim to the curses of subjectivity and nuance.
While the ambiguous "survive the ground" provision has thankfully been purged, the latest definition still includes a mandate that a receiver "perform a football move" after controlling the ball in bounds in order to be credited with a catch, such as taking a third step or a lunge, or having the ability to do so.
How about this instead? Let the refs use common sense. In that sense, defining a football catch may be a lot like the task the U.S. Supreme Court was given in 1964 when it was asked to define obscenity. What Justice Potter Stewart came up with then should also be good enough for the NFL today: You know it when you see it.
Instant Replay for Pass Interference
Rule change: Pass interference calls are subject to review by instant replay.
Old rule: Pass interference calls cannot be reviewed.
Year change was made: 2019 (rescinded in 2020)
Why it was changed: Outrage over a blown call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams.
Bottom Line: Instant Replay for Pass Interference
Pass interference has always been one of the most subjective and contested rules in the NFL, and making it subject to instant replay only led to more controversy, second-guessing and arm-chair quarterbacking. That's why it lasted only one season as a rule before the league rescinded it.
In the future, there might be some particularly egregious cases where replay could clearly right a blown call (as in the case of the 2018 NFC championship game), but it more likely would further slow down the game and allow reversals for largely subjective reasons.
Replays shouldn’t be used to enforce rules that are inherently nuanced, and as much as fans, coaches and players alike would like to see technology eliminate human officiating error from the sport, this rule simply caused more problems than it solved.