The Hot Corner: NFL's New Rules

It is not an easy time to work for the National Football League (NFL).

That is not to say that the people toiling away in the offices on Park Avenue have done much to make life easier for themselves. But, they are faced with several tasks that can be characterized as either Herculean labors or Sisyphean misadventures, depending on your view of the matter. Though neither characterization is optimistic, the latter is still the most accurate. The NFL’s hierarchy, at present, is attempting to find a solution to an intractable anthem protest debate, make the sport at least marginally safer than reenacting the end of “Thelma and Louise” and solve the metaphysical question of “what is a catch?” Not surprisingly for anyone who’s been paying attention to the sport for the past decade, the league is not doing very well in any area.

The league’s approach to each problem is the age-old tactic of authority figures: write new rules. The NFL, however, has yet to discover that it is not very good at this. For the anthem issue, the league announced in May that all players on the field would be required to stand at attention when the national anthem was played: players who “felt uncomfortable” could remain in the locker room. Leaving aside the fact that this completely missed the point of the protests, and indeed was patently un-American — I can think of a few contemporary and historical regimes that engaged in compulsory pledges, and the comparisons are not flattering — it also was completely ineffective. Instead of disciplining players directly, the league decided it would fine teams whose players knelt or sat during the anthem, thus letting the individual franchises sort out the coercion part on their own. This satisfied almost nobody. The NFL Players Association (rightfully) went into a tizzy, several owners announced they would not discipline their players regardless of whatever fines the league levied and opponents of the protests, one in particular, complained that the rule was not strict enough. So, the NFL did what it should have done before it announced the rule in the first place: it went back to the drawing board — after first trying to claim that the rule would remain on the books with a promise of non-enforcement.

Enough has been said about the catch rule, and plenty more will be said in the future. The second issue, player safety, is now the headline source of anguish for the league, players and fans. Over the summer, the NFL changed its rules regarding, among other things, roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness and helmet-to-helmet contact. The most inflammatory of these, so far at least, has been the first. Before this season, roughing the passer primarily applied to a rushing defender who, after the quarterback released the ball, took more than one step and then “drove through” him.

This had a nice linguistic logic to it: a quarterback only became a “passer” once he had actually “passed.” Now, a quarterback need not pass the ball for roughing the passer to be called.

An onrushing defender who lands squarely on the quarterback, even during a sack, can be called for roughing the passer. This exact situation occurred in a Week 3 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Washington Redskins. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews broke through the offensive line and tackled Washington quarterback Alex Smith using what had always been considered textbook form. He drove his shoulder into Smith’s torso and took him straight to the ground. Matthews quickly rolled off Smith, and both players stood up, ready for the next play. The referee crew, however, determined that Smith had been in a “defenseless posture” and that Matthews had landed on him with “all or most of his body weight,” qualifying the play for a penalty under the newly enforced provision in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(b).

There’s a nice easy logic to this, too. Since quarterbacks are defenseless most of the time and often smaller than the charging defensive linemen and defensive backs, it makes sense to put the burden on the rusher to avoid serious contact.

After the Matthews play generated fierce controversy, Ed Hochuli, a retired NFL official, tried to explain the rule to USA Today. “There were actually many opportunities for Clay to roll to the side,” Hochuli said. “And he is an amazing athlete. These guys are all amazing athletes and the things they’re able to do, I may not be able to do, but that’s all he’s got to do — make that mental adjustment that as he approaches the quarterback.”

This made some sense for about 24 hours, until a third-down play between the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders ended in disaster. Miami defensive lineman William Hayes sacked Oakland QB Derek Carr. He did it just as the NFL wanted him to: he wrapped up Carr in his arms, swung his own body off to the side, and brought Carr down about as gently as a 6’3”, 272 lb. behemoth feasibly can. The problem? In the process, Hayes landed awkwardly and tore his ACL. His season is now over, and at the age of 33, a comeback is anything but assured.

I would soft-pedal the idea that the new sack rule is solely to blame for Hayes’s injury, though most commentators have not been nearly so cautious. There was a quick, widespread condemnation of the league across many platforms, with many people arguing the league cares only about star quarterbacks, viewing the faceless, lower-salaried defenders as expendable parts.

However, the truly absurd notion in all of this is the idea that the NFL can, with a haphazardly written rule, legislate danger out of the game. This is a sport where physically enormous, spectacularly athletic and quick-thinking men crash into each other at high speed, for three hours each week, 16 to 20 weeks each year. This sport will never be safe, as William Hayes can tell us. Yet the NFL must justify the existence of this sport in a ‘civilized’ world, and it cannot do so unless it tries its darndest to make the sport as safe as possible. So, the league does the thing it most loves to do: it writes rules.

Writing rules is all well and good, but the reality is that rules have a very indirect bearing on the operation of actual games. If that sounds odd, read the NBA rulebook and see how clearly the language lays out the distinction between what will and will not be called a foul, or, even better, what will and will not be called a travel.

Yet, a devoted basketball fan will have a good sense of both of these things, even without knowing the precise language of the rulebook. These are understandings that referees, players, coaches and fans feel out as the game evolves.

When the NFL writes new rules to govern central concepts of the game, it throws these understandings out the window and replaces them with text. Referees and replay officials turn into textualist judges, who have to parse out the vagaries of incredibly technical language, looking for a meaning that they can apply generally to conduct on the field. This is not sports, it’s law. And nobody wants to spend Sunday watching Court TV.