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Why the NFL rule book desperately needs to be simplified

Watching NFL football games is a difficult task in today’s day and age. Why? Because no one really knows what the rules are...

Seattle Seahawks v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

In the aftermath of Thursday Night’s Eagles-Packers game, the NFL is buzzing about the newly reviewable pass interference penalties that were (or were not) fairly called. Packer’s coach Matt LaFleur says he doesn’t know what a PI call is anymore, and Mike Florio is even calling for Dean Blandino to come back to head officiating (as though NFL referees were perfectly on-point under his leadership).

Many of these discussions also point to an overturned DPI non-call which eventually went against the Steelers in their home opener against the Seattle Seahawks. The call was hugely consequential, extending a Seahawk scoring drive and potentially handing the game to Seattle. To watch the Steelers-Seahawks play, you might think the pass interference is clear and obvious, but not by the standards of the Packers-Eagles game twelve days later.

Meanwhile the NFL, as has been its habit, is neither admitting to its errors nor taking public steps to remedy them. Like LaFleur, we’re all left simply not knowing what constitutes pass interference at all.

It’s easy in moments like this, when individual judgment calls are obviously failing, to do like Florio, and demand that a more competent individual take over the reins, but the truth is that no one could successfully run the system as it is. Another solution that sometimes gets bandied about is to do away with replay and let the real-time officiating stand in all cases. I am more amenable to the opposite (allowing all penalties to be reviewed) but neither more nor less instant replay would solve this problem. Remember, it was dissatisfaction with the status quo that brought us to this point in the first place. Going back to the “old” ways won’t bring us fairness on the field.

Instead, my suggestion is that the league dramatically simplify the rule book, cutting out as many of the judgment calls as possible, and giving the officials less to worry about on the field, while making reviews much easier to resolve.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

One rule which has several moving parts, but is almost never disputed, is intentional grounding. In order for a pass to be intentional grounding, the quarterback must be under pressure, there must be no potential eligible receiver in the area, and the passer must still be within the pocket (defines as “between the tackles”) or the pass must not travel past the line of scrimmage. These stipulations are clear and total; they make the penalty obvious and they protect a quarterback from the misfortune of being penalized for simply throwing a bad pass while under duress. They are also easily discernible circumstances—clear in real-time, and also clear in review. Intentional grounding penalties are therefore easy to spot, and easy to agree on. There might be a slight judgment call as to what constitutes a receiver “in the area,” but even that is rarely challenged.

Because the rule is so clear, quarterbacks know how to avoid it—they know to escape the pocket if they don’t see an open receiver, and they know to look for an option downfield before throwing (to make sure the pass crosses the line of scrimmage and that they’ve slung it toward an eligible man). That means fewer yellow flags get thrown, but it also encourages better play. Just like the rules are supposed to. You don’t see too many intentional grounding penalties called, and even fewer argued against. Intentional grounding as a reviewable penalty makes perfect sense too. Coaches, players, referees, and fans all know exactly what they’re looking for and looking at. It is in this context that I’d like to see most penalties work.

Some rules could use this type of clarifying immediately, such as roughing the passer, pass interference, and what constitutes a catch. But I’d also like to see this same simplifying touch applied to commonplace penalties like holding (a move that seems to happen on every single play, but only gets flagged when officials decide to call it).

Some penalties would have to retain their ambiguity, I suppose. “Unnecessary Roughness” has a built-in vagueness to account for dozens of unrelated infractions. And it probably should.

But most on-field judgment calls are unnecessarily complicated. Bringing back Dean Blandino won’t solve that. Nor will hiring more full-time referees, eliminating instant replay, or adding more nuance to the rule book. Instead, this sport needs to be streamlined. Referees are too big a part of the game as it is. Clarify the rule book and you put the game itself back in the center, where it belongs.