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Rule Changes Could Create Chaos

'Down By Contact' Now Reviewable
Celebrations and Taunting Reined In

Many people recognize that I have an eye for football, even if they have no idea who I am. I tend to see things the "average" fan doesn't notice, whether I'm watching on TV or at a live game. When I'm at Gillette Stadium (but not this year, since tickets were impossible to buy), people will stare at me as we stand high above the end zone and a play happens on the opposite 30-yard line, and I call out, "Holding, No. 76," only to see an official's flag fly an instant later.

That's going to be a little tougher this year. There are a bunch of rule changes, some that seem like they will make some calls a lot more subjective, even though their objective is just the opposite.

Before I get to the changes, I have to say the new officials' uniforms like a little too "fashionable" to me. If you haven't seen them, the black and white stripes are thicker and they flare out at the top. It appears they were designed by the same people who designed the recent logos of the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos and countless other pro and college sports teams -- all these sweeping curves that give a lot of logos a very similar look.

I've read that the new uniforms are supposed to be more comfortable to wear in extreme weather than the old polyester uniforms. I have no idea why they couldn't make more comfortable uniforms with the old stripes. My guess is that there were starting to be too many meatheads showing up at NFL stadiums dressed like game officials, and the league was trying to prevent one of them from strolling out to the 40-yard line and start making calls.

So, anyway. There are these new rules.

Down By Contact ... Or Not

Probably the biggest change, and it will be the most controversial, is that "down by contact" can be reviewed. Previously, no matter what really happened following an official allegedly blowing a whistle to end a play, everything was discounted after the player was ruled "down by contact." Now, there will be continuation, so if a player fumbles, the ball is live until it's recovered, and it will be up to the coaches to decide whether to challenge; and it will be up to the officials to make a final determination.

For all the horrible officiating we saw last year, and for every time we knew a player fumbled only to be "saved by the whistle," this is going to create more problems than it solves. It throws a whole lot of subjective grayness into a previously imperfect, but black and white, system. Coaches will never have enough challenges to question all the borderline calls. That, really, might be a good thing, but it's just going to make things worse.

And it's probably going to cause a few injuries, as guys dive and fight for "live" balls that may or may not be actually live.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn't seem to like it. "I think in this particular rule, we're kind of going into an area that we haven't gone into," Belichick said. "The old adage of 'play to the whistle' might not be good enough any more. ... [T]his isn't a rule we made. But we have to try to understand it and play it as it is going to be interpreted and officiated. ... [T]here are a lot of concerns that were brought up on the rule that is proposed and I think there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved." I'm going to venture that every officiating crew, and maybe even every official, calls it differently, and perhaps even "make adjustments" during the season, leading to utter inconsistency. But that's me.

Gone in 60 Seconds?

Sticking with reviewing plays, officials will now have 60 seconds, instead of 90, to view instant replays.

Ya. Right. Half the time, they're looking at stuff for 2, 3 minutes, the networks are taking commercial breaks, fans take the time to go chop up extra firewood. If more than 10 percent of reviews take less than 60 seconds, I'll eat my pants.

The officials supposedly won't wait for commercials, but we all know who's paying the bills here.

Another confusing "clarification" has been creating categories of offensive holding. I haven't read any specifics on this, so I can't even imagine what this entails. The new "fine points" are supposed to make the call crystal clear. It all sounds the same: "Offensive blockers may not grab, jerk, tackle or drag an opponent to the ground." So I don't know what's been clarified or redefined. Once again, I predict relative chaos.

There is at least one clear cut new rule: Kickoff teams must have at least four players on each side of the kicker. This will prevent "stacking" on onside kicks. It is intended to help prevent injuries and scrums. This one actually sounds reasonable to me, and it could make things a little more interesting.

There are a few more special teams rules. If a kicking team commits a penalty, a return team can have the extra yardage tacked on to the end of a runback or replay the kick. That's an interesting one. I don't think you'll see too many rekicks, unless a team gets pinned in deep, even after the penalty.

In Need of Some Protection

To protect long-snappers, a defensive player within one yard of the line of scrimmage at the snap must have his helmet outside the snappers shoulder pads. Infractions result in 5-yard illegal formation penalties.

There's yet another "protect the quarterback" rule (the "Carson Palmer rule"). Or is it "just a clarification"? Hitting quarterbacks below the knees while they are in the pocket with both feet on the ground is a 15-yarder.

"Horse-collaring" got a wider definition. Used to be a tackler had to have his hands inside the back of the ball carrier's shoulder pads. Now, any tackle inside the shirt collar will cost 15 yards. I see some subjectivity to that one, too. I bet some of the more "elite" players (those guys who get paid a lot) will get more calls. But that's not really anything new, right Peyton?

Getting More Respectable (Or Respectful)?

And then there are the "player hater" rules. Celebrations will be drastically reined in. No props (the "T.O. rule"). No "performing acts on the ground" (I guess that eliminates "the worm" among other things). No prolonged or group celebrations. Dancing is ok. Leaping into the stands is ok. Standard spikes, spins and goalpost dunks are ok. I'm sure the players' union has contacted the ACLU.

Also, no "in-your-face" taunting.

I applaud these last two rules. This is football, not pro wresting. Have some class. Play on a team. Unfortunately, I think the taunting rule will be unevenly applied, though. They already have a taunting rule that they call once in a blue moon.

So, it should be an interesting season with the changes. Personally, I think most of the officials had a hard enough times with the old rules. I'll be happy if they can learn to apply the rules consistently. But as long as things remain (and become increasingly) subjective, there are going to be problems and controversy.