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Three rules the NFL should adopt to help improve the game

With all the complaints about referees, here are three rules the NFL should consider implementing.

NFL: DEC 22 Steelers at Jets
What did you say to me?
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There has been a lot of litigation of the Steelers last two games. First, a slew of strange calls tainted the win over the Bears two weeks ago; then ugly play and questionable choices created a tie against Detroit this past week. I don’t have anything to add to the Lions game, but I’ve been thinking about officiating after the Chicago contest last Monday.

In particular, everyone seems obsessed with Cassius Marsh’s taunting penalty (Peter King simply can’t stop writing about it, for example. It’s getting annoying). In the end, I suppose I fall into the Dan Patrick school of thought, who said last week that taunting may be a dumb rule, but it was correctly applied. Marsh clearly stared down the whole Steelers sideline, moving toward the bench as he went. That wasn’t “celebration”; it was the same thing JuJu Smith-Schuster did after laying out Vontaze Burfict back in 2017. And while that was fun to watch (because Burfict is a trash-person), it’s not exactly sportsmanlike. If sportsmanship is what the NFL wants to promote, then you don’t want JuJu standing over Burfict, you don’t want Baker Mayfield staring down Hugh Jackson in 2018, and you don’t want Marsh chesting up AT the entire opposing sideline.

But I digress. I didn’t sit down tonight to write an essay about taunting. The reason I’m here is because I’ve noticed other league sanctions recently that I’m more interested in. These aren’t solutions to lousy officiating (such as including a sky judge in games, or allowing penalties to be red-flag challenged). They’re more like rules that, even if they’re correctly applied, are still unfair. I’ve got three below, and maybe there are more we’ll hash out in the comments. Here goes:

NFL: SEP 26 Bengals at Steelers
False start? Delay of game? Go right ahead. There’s nothing to lose here...
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

Offensive penalties committed inside the offensive 10.

The situation:

After a punt is downed at the 2 yard line, the offense takes the field, 98 yards from pay-dirt. They line up and snap the ball, but whistles immediately blow. It’s a false start. If this were at the 25, the offense would be backed up to 1st and 15 back at the 20 yard line. But since we’re at the 2, the penalty becomes “half the distance to the goal line” — one yard. It’s essentially just a replay of the same situation. This is the only scenario I can think of where a unit can commit a penalty and not be penalized.

My proposal:

If there’s no room to back the offense up, move the first-down marker forward.

To use the example from above, if it’s 1st and 10 from the offense’s 2 yard line, a first down is at the 12. When the guard false starts, it will become 1st and 15 from the 2 yard line – the first down simply gets bumped to the 17.

This would affect false starts, delay of game, holding (outside of the end zone), personal fouls (outside of the end zone), illegal blocks (outside of the end zone), etc.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
Attempted murder on the offense; letting the parking meter expire on the defense. Penalties off-set. Replay the down.
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images

Offsetting penalties that are unequal.

The situation:

It’s 3rd and 2 at midfield. The play clock is ticking down, and just as the ball is snapped, a flag flies and whistles blow. Most players on offense and defense relax, but one DT shoots the gap and hurls the unprotected QB to the ground like a rag doll. More flags. After untangling the mess, the refs announce: “Two penalties. Delay of game on the offense. Personal foul on the defense. Those penalties off-set. Replay 3rd down.”

The trouble here is that delay of game is a 5 yard penalty; unnecessary roughness is 15 yards. No one believes these are equal (including the rules committee, who set their lengths). And yet, the game allows them to offset.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The NFL currently has a “5 and 15” rule which addresses the situation when one team commits a 5-yard penalty and the other team commits a 15-yard penalty. They do not offset. Under current rule, the 5-yard penalty is ignored and only the 15-yard penalty is enforced. This proposal would still apply to “5 vs. 10” and “10 vs. 15” situations and could also supersede the current “5 and 15” rule.

My proposal:

If both teams commit fouls, and they aren’t equal in penalty, the difference is applied. In the above scenario, the offense nets 10 yards, which is enough for a first down.

Green Bay Packers vs Pittsburgh Steelers
That’s right, man, fight the power, with your $33.5M/yr salary.

Fines as a flat rate.

The situation:

A quarterback, we’ll call him “Aaron,” breaks multiple league safety protocols and lies about it very publicly. During the previous season, several other teams/figures have been fined six figures or docked draft picks for similar infractions. But when “Aaron” is caught, he is fined approximately $14k. “Aaron” makes, on average, $33.5million per year.

Ignoring the inconsistency of the punishment, this fine is something on the order of 0.04% of his yearly salary. If the average American makes around $50k, this would equate to a fine of $20.89. Twenty bucks. Half a tank of gas. A couple beers at a bar. A haircut.

Meanwhile, a player making league minimum is paid $660k. That $14,000 fine is 2.12% of his salary. That’s quite different. Put in “average American” numbers, it’s a $1060 fine. (At “Aaron’s” pay grade, the 2.12% fine represents $710,606. That would get anyone’s attention…)

The problem here, if it’s not clear, is that the NFL highly manages player salaries, then applies flat-rate fines as though they have no idea what people make. And the result is that the highest paid players (who already get rules bent in their directions on reputation alone) get to flout rules that lesser paid players have to follow, because the fines just don’t have to matter to the stars.

That’s wrong.

My solution:

On all finable offenses (uniform infractions, personal fouls, health/safety requirements, etc.), draw up the fines as percentages of salary, rather than flat rates.

For anyone already thinking, “they’d get out of this by taking their salaries as signing bonus, and then making peanuts in salary,” I’d suggest that contracts must be drawn up with a “penalty number” in black-and-white. Teams already move tons of money around to navigate the salary cap. Adding one number on which potential fines will be calculated seems like an easy move.

The league likes to pretend that no one’s above the law. This would be a step toward actually operating that way.

Anyway, those are just three solutions that don’t fix NFL officiating, but help mitigate some of the wired-in problems. Maybe you all have other suggestions. I’ll see you in the comments. Go Steelers.