NFL rule tweaks and trends you should know as the 2022 season begins

The NFL has relaxed some rules this offseason after several years of fiddling with the game. We can interpret this in a number of ways, and Competitions Committee Chairman Rich McKay took the most positive view.

“The game,” he said, “is in a really good place.”

There was only one major rule change that only applies to the postseason. Each team is guaranteed possession when a playoff game goes into overtime, in response to the Kansas City Chiefs winning touchdown in the opening overtime drive last season to a 42-36 division round game against the Buffalo Bills to win. Otherwise, the owners opted not to adopt the sorts of weighty rule changes that may be on the horizon in the future, from sky judges to a punt redesign to an alternative to the kickoff. These debates could surface in the years to come.

In the meantime, however, the competition committee has tweaked the interpretation of several rules in a way that will likely impact the 2022 season. Below are five customizations that you may notice.

Unlawful contact cleared

Historically, the illegal contact foul has been one of the NFL’s most reliable tools for ensuring growth in the passing game. Put simply, it prohibits certain touches by defenders with receivers and other pass catchers while the quarterback still has the ball in the pocket.

Even with the addition of a 17th game for all teams, the number of illegal contact flags declined noticeably last season, from an average of 97 per season from 2001-2020 to 36 in 2021. This decline coincided with a 13% drop in touchdowns. combined passes per game as of 2020, and lowest average yards per attempt (7.1) in four seasons.

As a result, the competition committee asked officials to pay more attention to contacts that fall under illegal contact. Penalties skyrocketed in the first week of preseason, with a total of 15 flags for illegal contact in 16 games. But according to further communication from the league office, there were eight in total in Weeks 2 and 3 combined – suggesting there will be a bump in the regular-season flags, rather than a flood as some have feared.

Roughing the passer clarified

The NFL will always value and protect quarterbacks, but the competition committee has taken steps during the offseason that could reduce the number of flags for roughing up the passer.

There were 153 such penalties in 2021, a 12% increase per game over 2020. That increase, by itself, wouldn’t necessarily bother NFL decision-makers because quarterback play is a priority throughout the league. But as anyone who watched last season’s games knows, some of those flags came on the helmet for light and unintentional hits that fell well below the rulebook standard of “forced” contact.

As much as the league wants to protect quarterbacks, it doesn’t want games that turn on 15-yard penalties against players whose fingers may have grazed the passer’s helmet en route to a legal sack. As a result, officers were asked to recalibrate their approach to ensure contact was forced – as best they can in real time – before a flag is thrown. This request could result in pedestrian flags becoming less harsh than in 2021 and a return to historic norms.

Changed overtime – but only in the playoffs

The overtime format for regular-season games remains the same—a team can win if they score a touchdown (but not a field goal) on their opening ball without their opponent getting the ball. Convinced that longer overtime games are not always better, the owners decided to only apply the new format to the major competitions.

In the playoffs, the rule is simple: “Both teams must have at least one opportunity to gain possession during overtime.” This tweak prevents a team from winning on first possession, even if they score a touchdown, and reduces the advantage , awarded to a team by winning the overtime coin toss.

If the game is tied after each team has possession, the next result wins.

There is one exception. If the team going to start postseason overtime scores a safety on the receiving team’s opening possession, they would win the game. The vast majority of NFL games will not be affected by this change. There have been 24 playoff overtime games since 2001, averaging just over one per season.

Kickoff optimization made permanent

Recovering onside kicks became nearly impossible after the NFL revamped its kickoff in 2018, prompting calls for relatively radical changes to keep the drama of fourth-quarter comebacks alive.

The owners rejected most of the suggestions, including one that would have given the scorers the opportunity to replace the ensuing kick-off with an offensive play. If they gained 15 yards or more, they would retain possession. Instead, the owners advocated a more subtle change that limited the number of players the returning team could place within 15 yards of the hold line.

The rule change came into effect on a trial basis in 2021 and contributed to a return to historical norms. The recovery rate in 2021 was 16.1%, up from 4.4% in 2020. The owners made the optimization permanent in March.

“Popup” kickoffs make profits

The 2018 kickoff changes had a clear intent: to encourage teams to kick the ball deep for a touchback, reducing the likelihood of injury-causing collisions. The main lure was to move the line of scrimmage from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line after the touchback.

However, over time, teams are less enthusiastic about automatic touchbacks. Now, they’re increasingly looking for ways to pin opponents inside the 25-yard line by kicking shorter and taller “popups,” a trend that’s expected to continue in 2022.

According to NFL data, 27.7% of kickoffs fell short of the end zone last season. In 2020, the rate was 23.4%. The touchback rate dropped to 57.6%, the first time it has been below 60% since the 2018 rule change, and coaches are now open about avoiding touchbacks.

As Minnesota Vikings special teams coordinator Matt Daniels said this summer, three of the four most likely outcomes of a kickoff return are favorable to the kicking team. Either the returner gets tackled within 25, he fumbles, or his team gets penalized for blocking. (The unfavorable outcome is, of course, a return beyond 25.)

“The chance [tell you to] Bring that thing into play,” Daniels said. “There’s a lot of factors that come into play … but if we’re just talking black and white, I say put the ball in play.” NFL rule tweaks and trends you should know as the 2022 season begins

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