The NFL is ever evolving. The players are getting faster, bigger, stronger. The positions change constantly, in the demands, the utility, and more. Another area of the NFL that has been changing at a rapid pace? Rules.
In 2013, a lot of focus was poured into the game in it's essence; how to make it safer while maintaining it's integrity.
Taunting And late hits
The association of NFL referees told the NFL franchises and the millions of fans worldwide that there would be an increased focus on calling fouls on taunting players and late hits, especially in the pile. The past season saw a turn-up on the both counts, even crossing boundaries at times concerning late hits and tackles (or shoves) out of bounds. On both counts I feel the NFL was justified. The taunting, celebrating, etc has gotten out of hand. That said, they should be careful to remember that the NFL is a game, and a game that is viable only because of it's entertainment value. They should tread carefully when over-analyzing hyped-up players in real time.
There was also a crackdown on peel-back blocks that is expected to continue. That one I am all for, it is a dangerous move that should be outlawed from football outside of incidental occurrence. The fines have been getting to insane levels for these types of plays, and rightly so. They end seasons, and sometimes careers, so that seems fitting. I see this trend only increasing in 2014.
Increased Review Freedoms
The NFL has been on a steady march to becoming more involved with review processes, and that is an excellent thing. Accuracy is key, especially when determining turnovers and scores. In a game like football, one call can change the game and often decides a match-up. Referees are asked to do a ton on the field, and having a more flexible review system to work with would ease the burden. A ref may be more willing to throw a flag if he thinks he saw a foul on the field if he knows that the play can be reviewed and accurately assessed, rather than err on the side of caution and end up missing a blatant penalty.
The major gripe is the further slowing down of the game, which is already ridiculously extended with commercial-saturated breaks. If that is the price of accuracy, so be it. The NFL will make even more money from sponsors and commercial ad space, so they care little about the time issue. As for the public, they will just have to accept that the increased officiating freedom will come with that added evil.
Possibility of eliminating kickoffs and extra points
The NFL put a huge emphasis on player safety, especially as far as concussions are concerned. They already took action to almost totally remove the biggest offender: the kickoff return, and may move further in that direction in the future, maybe sooner rather than later. The NFL has toyed with the idea of eliminating kickoffs entirely, as well as ridding the game of the extra point in favor of a more entertaining scoring system. By and by, they will be moving towards making NFL kicker a vocation of the past.
I disagree with this line of thinking entirely. The need to alter the game in that direction makes sense only to television with ridding the game of the extra point, but removing what is left of the kickoff return would do the opposite. The kick return may very well be one of the most electrifying plays in all of sports, so digging a grave for that alongside other auxiliary football plays would hurt the game more than help it. The money is in the entertainment after all.
The biggest subject that will remain under the proverbial microscope is split into two parts:
The NFL defines an hit illegal according to the following points:
(1) the striking player took an unobstructed path, (2) the opponent's position hasn't been affected by another player, and (3) contact was clearly avoidable. Mitigating factors will be taken into account if they are available.
Now this is primarily focused in on defenders. Safeties, corners, and linebackers were assaulted with these restrictive penalties often in 2013 compared to the past, and this will only escalate going into the future. These are primary culprits of long-term injury to NFL players, which everyone agrees with. The real kicker is that it leaves a huge gray area for officials to discern. In real-time, these plays are often missed, or receive premature reaction from referees. The idea of centralizing reviews and possibly plays where helmet-to-helmet intent was in question may aid this issue, but those changes remain possibilities at this point, and not reality.
Crown of the Helmet
The second half of the heavily-scrutinized rule focuses on both sides of the ball, including the running back outside the tackle box. The stipulations on this are as follows:
(1) The player must line up his opponent, (2) the player must lower his head, and (3) the player must deliver a forcible blow with his crown to any part of the opposing player's body. (Outside the tackle box) - 15 yard penalty for unnecessary roughness.
That will make plays like this one below a thing of the past before too long, and while that is understandable, it's also slightly overkill in my mind.
Battle was fined for this blow, but no penalty was assessed in-game.
While there are certainly more rule changes coming this offseason, we've heard little else beyond what has already been said above. Many gripe about the increase in rules, claiming it is watering down the game, and disturbing the integrity of a once-great product.
In the end of the day, this is still football, and it's still the dramatic, crazy, unpredictable sport we all know and love. It's impossible to appease everyone, and the NFL knows that. We'll just have to wait and see what happens at the next annual owners meeting, and how these rules play into the game heading into the unknowns of future NFL seasons.