Changing the Rules archived

History Published on : 10/7/2011

Each Sunday during the NFL season we examine one of the league rules that shape the game as we know it.


Week 4


Oct. 2, 2011

The game of professional football is one of the most physically demanding sports to play. Imagine playing the game on any level without a helmet. That is exactly how some players in the early days of the NFL battled on the green gridiron.

The last known player to play without a helmet was Dick Plasman, a two-way lineman for the Chicago Bears. He went helmet-less from 1937 until 1941 when he enlisted in the military to serve during World War II. Plasman played one more year after his service but by then he had to use a helmet. That's because in 1943 the NFL finally got around to making it a requirement. In the 1943 NFL Rule Book, a small note about the requisite was sandwiched in between two separate items about how hard or unyielding knee pads and elbow pads and detachable kicking toes were illegal.

     1943 NFL Rule Book Excerpt

Chicago Bears end Bill Hewitt played all but one season of his Hall of Fame career without a helmet.

Rule 5, Section 3

All players must wear head protectors

The 2011 NFL Rule Book is far more descriptive regarding the wearing of the helmet (which is now also required during pre-game warm-ups).

Rule 5, Section 4, Article 3 - Helmets, face protectors

(a) Helmet with chinstrap (white only) fastened and facemask attached. Facemasks must not be more  than 5/8-inch in diameter and must be made of rounded material; transparent materials are prohibited.

No visible identification of a manufacturer's name or logo on the exterior of a helmet or on any 
attachment to a helmet is permitted unless provided for under a commercial arrangement between the  League and manufacturer; in no event is identification of any helmet manufacturer permitted on the visible surface of a rear cervical pad. All helmets must carry a small NFL shield logo on the rear lower-left exterior and an approved warning label on the rear lower-right exterior. Both labels will be supplied in quantity by the League office.


Week 3

Instant Replay

Sept. 25, 2011

The 2011 NFL season marks the 13th straight year that there league's current format of Instant Replay has existed. Instant Replay allows each team two challenges per game. A challenge initiates a review of the play in question by the referee at a monitor located on the field. A decision is reversed only when the Referee has indisputable visual evidence to overturn the call. Inside two minutes of each half, all replay challenges are initiated by the Replay Assistant in the booth. In 2011, a change in the Instant Replay format now requires all scoring plays to be reviewed by the Replay Assistant. If there is some doubt about the validity of a score, a challenge is initiated.

      Excerpt from the 2011 NFL Rule Book

      Section 9 Instant Replay

          The League will employ a system of Referee Replay Review to aid officiating for reviewable plays as defined
          below. Prior to the two-minute warning of each half, a Coaches' Challenge System will be in effect except
          for plays when the on-field ruling results in a score for either team. After the two-minute warning of each
          half, throughout any overtime period, and after all scoring plays, a Referee Review will be initiated by a
          Replay Official from a Replay Booth comparable to the location of the coaches' booth or Press Box.

From 1986 to 1991, a limited system on Instant Replay was used on a year-by-year basis. That format gave the Replay Official in the booth sole responsible for initiating replay reviews and making the decision to overturn a call on the field.

NFL's history of Instant Replay reviews:

NFL's history of Instant Replay reviews
Year Games Plays Reviewed Reversals
1986 224 374 38
1987 210 490 57
1988 224 537 53
1989 224 492 65
1990 224 504 73
1991 224 570 90
TOTAL 1,330 2,967 376

Year Games Total Replay Reviews Challenges Reversals
1999 248 195 133 57
2000 248 247 179 84
2001 248 258 191 89
2002 256 294 208 94
2003 256 255 184 66
2004 256 283 233 88
2005 256 295 223 92
2006 256 311 237 107
2007 256 327 250 122
2008 256 315 229 117
2009 256 328 228 126
2010 256 361 252 133
TOTAL 3,048 3,469 2,547 1,175

One of the most famous Instant Replay challenges occurred in Super Bowl XLIV. In that game the New Orleans Saints were trailing the Indianapolis Colts 17-16 when the Saints scored on a two-yard pass from Drew Brees to Jeremy Shockey. The go-ahead TD gave the Saints a five-point advantage with 5:46 remaining in the championship matchup. The Saints chose to go for a two-point conversion after the touchdown in an effort to extend their lead to seven points. On the conversion attempt, Brees' pass to a diving Lance Moore was ruled incomplete, but New Orleans coach Sean Payton thought otherwise. He threw a challenge flag and after further review the on-field ruling was overturned which gave the Saints a crucial 24-17 lead. The momentum from the challenge and reversal seemed to lift the Saints as they eventually won their first Super Bowl championship. The Pro Football Hall of Fame now houses that Instant Replay challenge flag (pictured above) as part of its permanent collection.


Week 2 


Sept. 18, 2011

The National Football League drew much attention with its rule change in 2011 that has resulted in the KICKOFF BEING MOVED FORWARD FIVE YARDS to the 35-yard line. The main reason behind the change was to help eliminate injuries which had increased on kickoffs over the years. Furthermore, the kicking team formation was altered so all players other than the kicker must be lined up no more than five yards behind the line.

Mel Gray had 3 of the Detroit Lions' league-leading 4 kickoff returns for TDs in 1994.
This is not the first time that the NFL has tinkered with the kickoff line. From 1920 to 1973 the ball was booted at the 40-yard line.

          Excerpt from the 1920 Official Foot Ball Rules printed in the Spalding's Official Foot Ball Guide

          Rule VIII, Section 1. – Position of Players at Kick-Off; Point of Kickoff.

                      The side having the kick-off shall kick off from its own 40-yard line at a point equidistant from the side lines.

Then in 1974 the league moved the kickoff back to the 35-yard line.

           Excerpt from the 1974 NFL Rule Book

           Rule 6 – The Free Kick; Section 1 Putting Ball in Play – Article 4

                     The initial free kick lines during a given free kick shall be as follows (plus or minus any distance they might be moved because of a distance
enforced prior to the kick):

                     (a) Kickoff – offensive 35

The kickoff remained at that spot for 20 seasons until 1994 when it moved back an additional five yards to the 30-yard line.

            Excerpt from the 1994 NFL Rule Book

            Rule 6 – The Free Kick; Section 1 Putting Ball in Play – Article 4

                     The initial free kick lines during a given free kick shall be as follows (plus or minus any distance they might be moved because of a distance
enforced prior to the kick):

                     For the kicking team:

                     (a) Kickoff – offensive 30

There has been much fan debate as to what the effects of the current rule will do to the league's return game. Below is a glance of the NFL's kickoff stats before and after each kickoff yard line change.

Year Kickoff Yardline Total Kickoff Returns Average Returns Per Team Average Yards Per Return KOR for TD
1973 40 1,264 48.6 22.5 10
1974 35 1,390 53.5 22.2 4
1993 35 1,381 49.3 19.5 4
1994 30 1,842 65.8 21.2 16
2010 30 2,033 63.5 22.3 23
2011 35 ? ? ? ?

Week 1 

Two point conversion

Sept. 11, 2011

The 2011 National Football League season marks the 18th year that the league has allowed the option of a TWO-POINT CONVERSION following a touchdown. The rival American Football League had used the two-point conversion during the 1960s but it wasn’t adopted by the NFL until the owners meeting
in Orlando, Florida on March 22, 1994.

Excerpt from Rule 11 (Scoring), Section 3 (Try), Article 1
After a touchdown the scoring team is allowed a Try. This Try is an attempt to score one or two additional points during one scrimmage down with the spot of a snap.
(b) if a Try results in what would ordinarily be a touchdown by the offense, two points are awarded. If a touchdown is not scored, the Try is over at the end of the play or if there is a change of possession.

The first successful NFL two-pointer was scored by a punter. Yes, that’s correct. On Sept. 4, 1994 the Cleveland Browns opened their season on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium. The Browns scored on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde to running back Leroy Hoard in the first quarter. The Browns then lined up as if they were going to kick an extra point. Tom Tupa, the team’s punter and placekick holder took the snap from center and surprised the defense when he ran the ball into the end zone. The two-point play made the score 11-0 in Cleveland’s favor en route to a Browns 28-20 victory.

The 1994 season saw 59 successful conversions on 116 total attempts. As it turns out, those numbers have never been matched as attempts and successful conversions have been on a downward trend since that time. Last season the league combined for a total of 26 successful two-point conversions off of 53 attempts.

Year Conversion Attempts Team High No. Att.
1994 59 116 Miami 6 10
1995 40 104 Arizona 5 6
1996 44 92 Baltimore/Jacksonville 5 9/6
1997 47 109 Minnesota 6 8
1998 41 105 San Francisco 5 9
1999 31 84 Jacksonville 4 5
2000 35 85 St. Louis/Detroit 4 9/4
2001 40 90 multiple teams 3 -
2002 47 98 Pittsburgh 5 6
2003 29 66 Baltimore 4 6
2004 37 76 Jacksonville/St. Louis 4 4/4
2005 27 53 Atlanta 4 4
2006 21 41 Tennessee 3 3
2007 30 61 New Orleans 4 5
2008 28 68 multiple teams 2 -
2009 24 60 Green Bay 3 5
2010 26 53 multiple teams 2 -
  606 1,361