The most reviled squad on a professional football field is not necessarily the opposing team but rather the group of officials that make up the officiating crew. The referees don’t make up the rules; they merely enforce them. However, tell that to any New Orleans Saints fan upset about the pass interference non-call during the NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams in 2019 or to a Buffalo Bills fan incensed about the current overtime rules for playoff games where a flip of the coin ultimately determines who wins and who goes home. In many cases, such controversial rules will be reviewed by the National Football League’s Competition Committee and perhaps amended to better reflect fairness and prevent outcomes such as those mentioned above. Love them or hate them, the rules are there for a reason. In the case of the NFL, the rules are designed to promote player safety and encourage fairness of play while still encouraging competition and consistency. With the big game* scheduled for this Sunday in Los Angeles, we thought it would be fun to look at the official 2021 NFL Rulebook and the process behind the creation and amendment of these rules.
Amendments to the NFL rules begin with the NFL Competition Committee, a group consisting of “two owners, two club presidents, two general managers and three head coaches,” all of whom are appointed by the NFL commissioner. Created in 1968, the Competition Committee “reviews all competitive aspects of the game, including (but not limited to) playing rules, roster regulations, technology, game-day operations and player protection.” The rules cover all aspects of the game, from the plan of the playing field and field markings to the timing of the game and scoring to player conduct and penalty enforcement. The process of changing or amending existing NFL rules begins with an end-of-season survey completed by the 32 NFL teams. Prior to the National Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, which is scheduled for February 28 – March 7, 2022, “NFL Football Operations meet with coaches, general managers, players and NCAA representatives to gather their input about potential changes to the rules. There is also a review of data on injuries, instant replay and technology.” The Committee develops an agenda based upon the feedback received and information received from medical advisors, subcommittees, and representatives from the NFL Players Association. Following the Scouting Combine, the Committee meets again and reviews the information gathered, drafts rule proposals, discusses any submitted proposals, and prepares a report that will be presented to the 32 league owners at the NFL’s annual meeting. The owners then vote on the proposed rules. Seventy-five percent, or 24 out of 32, must approve the rule or revision to be adopted.
Once the rules are established, they will need to be enforced and interpreted. The responsibility for implementing, enforcing, and interpreting the rules on the field of play are left to a team of seven officials who each has their own position and responsibility, depending upon whether it is a pass play, a run play, or a special teams play. Penalties are described throughout the official rules, but there is a handy summary found toward the end of the Rulebook. Penalties can result in a loss of yards, a loss of down, or a loss of time, and some are spot fouls, meaning that the ball will be placed at the spot of the foul. The rules specify the type of foul and the resulting distance penalty. On each play, the official must look for certain pre-snap penalties or fouls that might occur after the ball has been passed or handed off to the running back. Examples of pre-snap penalties include delay of game, illegal formation, and false starts. Other penalties that might occur during the play include unnecessary roughness, holding, and offensive or defensive pass interference. At times, these penalties can change the whole tenor of the game.
Rule 19. Officials specifically addresses the role of the officiating crew. The referee is the official in charge, who has “general oversight and control of the game,” who “is the final authority for the score,” and who is the final decision maker if there is a disagreement among the members of the officiating squad. However, Section 2 of Rule 19 permits the Replay Official and other members of the NFL’s officiating department to consult with the on-field officials to ensure that the playing rules are correctly and objectively applied.
Of course, any rule violation or interpretation needs to be communicated. Since the late 1920s, hand signals have been used to indicate scores and penalties. “These signals were developed to improve communication between the officials and the game’s growing audience.” There are now 36 signals that referees regularly use. Graphics and an explanation of these signals appear at the back of the Rulebook.
Before huddling with your friends to watch the big game and all of its attendant festivities on Sunday, have a look at the Rulebook for a better understanding of what occurs on the field of play. Additionally, if you want to know more about what happens in between those multi-million dollar commercials, check out the NFL’s Rookie Guide for NFL Basics and Formations 101. Enjoy the game!
*The jury is out as to whether you can legally use the term “Super Bowl,” but the consensus seems to be that you can. See https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/1/31/18202037/super-bowl-53-ads-trademark-the-big-game-2019