The NFL Rules System is Broken

Growing up, before video-games became so prevalent in today’s culture, everybody used to have “Game Night” with their family and friends. You’d order some pizza and play cards and classic board games like Clue, Monopoly, or Sorry. Nothing was better than getting a juicy dice roll to vault you ahead of your competition, and at the same time it was the absolute worst when you got sent to jail or back to the start of the board. The reason those games are designed like that is to take away competitive advantages so players of all ages and capabilities can play together and still have fun. In one game you could finish in last place, and the very next game change nothing about your strategy and win by a mile. It makes for great family entertainment and good, clean fun – although let’s be real, the night wasn’t finished until somebody cried.

It reminds me of the current state of officiating and rule enforcement in the NFL. It’s a completely broken system that has continuously compounded its mistakes hand over fist for years. To be blunt, it’s a little embarrassing that rule enforcement can be compared to a board game, but that’s honestly what it feels like in the NFL today. The latest example of this was on Monday night, when Trey Flowers of the Detroit Lions was flagged not once, but twice on phantom “hands to the face” penalties, the second of which essentially allowed the Packers to drain the rest of the game clock before kicking a chip-shot field goal, walking off with the win.

This general confusion for how rules and replay is enforced can be tracked back to the, “What is a catch?” season in 2017. We heard official-speak such as the “process of the catch” and “surviving the ground” used to explain officiating decisions that were obviously and egregiously garbage, and like the pass interference issue now, nobody could guess as to what Riveron was going to rule – it just depended on the weekend. This reared its ugly head most notably in a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, when a ruling made by Riveron cost Pittsburgh the game and home field advantage in the post-season. The following spring the NFL unanimously voted to simplify the catch rule, and just like that, the problem ceased to exist.

There would’ve likely been much less controversy in 2018, but the NFL just couldn’t let things be. Because of injuries, specifically at the quarterback position the season before, the league implemented a much stricter, borderline unrealistic interpretation of its “roughing the passer” rule, legislating so no longer could defenders forcibly land on the quarterback with their body weight or “drive them into the ground.” It was a nice way to try and protect their stars in theory, but in practice it’s been nothing shy of a disaster. It cost teams games and points throughout the season, including a game between the Packers and Vikings when a questionable roughing call negated what would have been a game-ending interception, instead giving Minnesota another opportunity to score and send the game to overtime, which they did. The NFL’s gross overreaction to string of injuries the season before 100% led to the rule change, and over a larger aggregate of time, the negative impact it’s had on the product is obvious.

2018’s “body weight rule”, like the catch issue in 2017, can have its shortcoming summed up in one word; complicated. If the 2012 referee lockout taught us anything, the officials are elite at their jobs. These bad calls aren’t their fault. Before the league simplified the catch, it was a subjective judgement call, which led to inconsistency. The same can be said of the body weight rule, and now 2019’s latest edition, “what is pass interference?” As the NFL continues to over-complicated the game and how it’s officiated, it continues to remove objectivity, and with it, consistency in officiating.

The aforementioned pass interference rule has been completely out of control in 2019. After a horrendous call in the NFC Championship game that cost the Saints a win and a Super Bowl berth, the league again had an extreme overreaction, making pass interference a challenge-able call. It marks the first time in modern football a penalty has been challenge-able, outside of the mandatory review for “targeting” in college, since it comes with an automatic ejection. When the rule passed, it was surprisingly applauded by some (probably Saints fans), but the second it passed you could see it being an issue, and it has been. The rule was implemented for “egregious and obvious” missed pass interference calls, but then we have the issue of what constitutes egregious? We now have two separate standards for one penalty; the standard used by officials on the field, and the standard used during the review process if challenged. It’s been a huge issue, including a few weeks ago during the Packers and Eagles primetime game. The NFL has again over-complicated the issue, writing the rules to be enforced in a manner that is subjective – which is the theme of their struggles.

Like the board game analogy, the challenge flag when it comes to pass interference is basically a game of chance – and that’s because of the subjectivity legislated into the rules today. If it wasn’t when the rule was passed in the off-season, it’s now painstakingly apparent making penalties challenge-able is an utter disaster. It slows the game down, halts momentum, is ineffective at its basis because the rule is so grey, and it also sets a precedent for other penalties to also become challenge-able in the future. Imagine if you could challenge a strike three call in baseball, or a foul call in basketball. While you’d maybe impact a call here or there, the biggest impact would be watering down the product.

The NFL’s key to alleviating its officiating issues lies with a correction they’ve already made once before. When the catch became complicated and subjective, they simplified it, and that’s what they must achieve with the body weight rule and pass interference. Will the NFL accomplish this on its own? Doubtful. But with the new CBA right around the corner, change is sure to be on the horizon.