The NFL's referee pool has begun circulating to the teams and the media, explaining some of the rule changes and "points of emphasis" for the 2011 season. The majority of the emphasis is once again established to increase the safety of the players.
Rule changes of note include a 15-yard penalty for running backs who grasp the facemask of a defender and twist. This is not to preclude stiffarms, which are still allowed, and can have incidental contact with the facemask, but will prevent dangerous plays where the running back foricbly turns the head of a defender.
Meanwhile, the league is still harping on the "spearing" dangers. If a defender leads with his helmet onto a defenseless player (i.e., quarterback throwing the ball, receiver in the act of catching the ball, or kicker in the act of kicking), it will be a 15-yard penalty.
The noted offseason decision to move the kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 25-yard line was discussed, with an addendum to the rule. The 10-non-kicking players cannot line up behind the 30-yard line. Basically, the rule will prevent players from the kicking team from getting more than a 5-yard running start at the kickoff, hopefully slowing them a little and lessening the blows as the run into members of the receiving team.
One major change involves scoring plays. Any play involving points being added to the board can no longer be challenged by a coach. Instead, it will automatically be reviewed by the replay official in the booth. He will then buzz the head referee and let him know if the play was confirmed, or if the referee needs to further review the play.
However, even if considered under replay, the infamous Calvin Johnson incomplete pass in the endzone during last year's Detroit Week 1 loss to the Bears. During that play, Johnson clearly caught the ball , but loss control of it as the ball touched the ground. The league confirmed that the ruling this year would be exatly the same. As Fox Sports' Mike Pereira, the NFL's Vice President of Officiating from 2004-09, and the league's Director of Officiating from 1999-2004, explains:
"First, you must get total control. Second, you must get both feet or another body part down. Third, and the trickiest, you must maintain control throughout the entire process of going to and hitting the ground. The ground can cause an incompletion in the field of play or end zone."
The league is also looking to cut down on the roughing the passer penalties from last season. Last year, any brushing of a quarterback's helmet resulted in a 15-yard penalty. The league has restated the rule, adding that the contact must be a "forceable blow" to the helmet.
The final rule change is not an on the field rule change. It's a field rule change. The NFL passed a rule this offseason, requiring Commissioner Roger Goodell to approve any changes to the color of the playing field. As Atlanta Falcons' owner Arthur Blank explained, there was fear that sponsor could begin approaching teams about painting the field. The league felt that it was better to be proactive to pass the rule before it had to react to a Boise State like blue field or an Eastern Washington red field.
Overall, the league's rule changes and "points of emphasis" should help the flow of the game, and keep players safer. However, as Pereira points out, the replay rule could actually lengthen games, as more replays may be required. As the NFL begins preseason games next weekend, and looking toward the regular season, the replay rule, and all of the new rules, will be an item to watch.