NFL rule changes and points of emphasis to watch in 2015

Chris Culliver and Steve Smith were ejected after getting into a brief fight during Saturday's Ravens-Redskins game. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

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The first quarter was nearing expiration Saturday night when Washington Redskins linebacker Keenan Robinson tackled Baltimore Ravens receiver Kamar Aiken after a reception. What followed is a sequence of events that have been familiar to NFL fans for years.

Robinson punctuated the hit by driving Aiken into the turf, mimicking a pile-driving motion. In quick succession, the ball fell loose, a whistle blew, and Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall dove into Aiken's back.

Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore took exception to Hall's contact. Gilmore, Redskins cornerback David Amerson and others fell to the ground as they were being separated. Off to the side, meanwhile, Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. and Redskins cornerback Chris Culliver began shoving each other. No punches were thrown before they were separated, and the entire incident consumed less than 30 seconds of real time.

What happened next less was less familiar, but fans should get used to it. Referee Terry McAulay took to the microphone with so much to say that he needed a note card to ensure he didn't forget anything. McAulay penalized five players -- Aiken, Smith, Culliver, Amerson and Hall -- for unnecessary roughness and then ejected Smith and Culliver.

"Terry McAulay is not jerking around," Ravens broadcaster Gerry Sandusky said.

McAulay, in fact, was precisely following a new set of NFL instructions. The league wants to crack down on in-game fighting this year, just as it did on defensive holding and illegal contact last season, and the Redskins-Ravens scuffle provides a perfect entry point for further discussion into what to expect in 2015.

Officials have been directed to strictly enforce existing fighting rules, and it's reasonable to expect future scuffles -- mild or otherwise -- to produce a similar cascade of penalties and ejections for actions that historically have not earned them. Players were warned during their annual preseason meeting with officials, and NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent re-emphasized the league's intent in a letter to all clubs after a series of fights broke out during training camp practices this summer.

Why the sudden change? Some league officials were mortified when a fight erupted on the penultimate play of Super Bowl XLIX, capping a season that included a handful of significant brawls. "The increase in fighting is unacceptable and casts a negative light on the game and everyone associated with the NFL," players were told in a video presentation.

Multiple unnecessary roughness penalties usually offset, so the biggest way to actually affect the game is to eject participants and subject anyone remotely involved to hefty fines. Needless to say, playing the final three quarters of a game without a No. 1 receiver and a starting cornerback would have an exceptional impact on a regular-season game.

In the video, the narrator warns: "The league policy on fighting is clear and states the following: 'Don't fight, and if a fight breaks out involving other players, stay away.' Any active participant in a fight will be penalized. Flagrant conduct will result in ejection, and any player that does not immediately leave the fight area will be subject to a fine."

The NFL rulebook defines "flagrant" as "extremely objectionable, conspicuous, unnecessary, avoidable or gratuitous." If you don't think what Smith and Culliver did Saturday night fit that description, then you would be advised to adjust your understanding for this season.

Those whom the NFL classifies as fighters will face minimum fines of $28,940 for a first offense and $57,881 for a second. The league also will pay more attention to players who enter the fighting area and will fine them at least $5,787 for being an "active participant" or at least $2,893 for wandering into the area. That includes peacemaking, which the video makes clear is not an excuse "for entering the area."

Fighting unquestionably drives fan and media interest, but in this case, the NFL isn't looking to extract value.

What other rule and procedural changes are in store for 2015? Glad you asked. We've already covered the new 33-yard distance for extra points, and the possible impact on two-point conversion attempts. So let's take a moment to point out a few other tweaks that you might notice this season.

Rule: Medical timeouts

Change: Athletic trainer (ATC) in press box can stop game to have injured player removed

Analysis: This change is also rooted in a play from Super Bowl XLIX. In the fourth quarter, as we noted at the time, New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman appeared staggered by a crushing blow from Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor.

Edelman remained in the game, even as the ATC at least twice radioed a suggestion to the Patriots' sideline that he be tested for a concussion, and eventually scored the winning touchdown.

(The Associated Press later reported that Edelman was tested and cleared on the sideline in between Patriots offensive series.)

Beginning this year, the press-box ATC will have the authority to radio the referee directly to remove the player via a timeout that won't be charged to either team. In a presentation to reporters earlier this month, the league specifically pointed to the Edelman play as an example of this rule's target.

According to Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairman of the league's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, symptoms in 90 percent of concussions can clear within minutes, making an immediate test essential to proper diagnosis and treatment. "It's very possible for a person to play, come out and then test normal," Ellenbogen said. "We're trying to get ahead of that."

The referee and team medical officials still have first responsibility for identifying and removing possible concussion victims, and the league views the medical timeout as a fail-safe measure that isn't likely to be invoked often, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said at the league presentation.

Rule: Legal catch

Change: Wording of requirements

Analysis: Let's be clear. The rule that disallowed an apparent catch by Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in the NFC divisional playoffs, and another by Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson in 2009, remains unchanged in substance. The NFL did modify its wording, however, in hopes of making the rule make more sense to players, fans and media members in cases where a player is falling while in the process of making a catch.

Instead of requiring a nebulous "football move" to confirm a reception, the player must now demonstrate he is "clearly a runner." Here is how the league explained the change to players via video presentation:

"In order to complete a catch, a receiver must clearly become a runner. He does that by gaining control of the ball, touching both feet down, and then after the second foot is down, having the ball long enough to clearly become a runner, which is defined as the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact.

"If, before becoming a runner, a receiver falls to the ground in an attempt to make the catch, he must maintain control of the ball after contacting the ground. If he loses control of the ball after contacting the ground, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. Reaching the ball out before becoming a runner will not trump the requirement to hold on to the ball when you land. When you are attempting to complete a catch, you must put the ball away or protect the ball so that it does not come loose."

The last sentence is key. Players can do only one thing to ensure a catch in these instances: Don't let the ball fall loose. At all. Not even for a second.

Rule: Eligible/ineligible receivers

Change: Players reporting ineligible must line up in core of formation

Analysis: You might remember the impetus for this tweak as well. In the 2014 AFC divisional playoffs, the Patriots debuted a surprise and legal formation that called for a player with an eligible number to report ineligible and then line up in an eligible position.

The effect was to leave the Ravens confused about whether to cover a receiver who had declared ineligible. In one instance, Shane Vereen replaced right guard Josh Kline but lined up as a slot receiver, leaving a four-man offensive line. The Patriots used a similar pattern three times in a touchdown drive during the eventual 35-31 victory.

The NFL closed what it considered a loophole that made the formation legal by adding the following note to the 2015 rulebook: "An offensive player wearing the number of an eligible pass receiver who reports as ineligible must line up within the normal five-player core formed by ineligible players. The player cannot be more than two players removed from the middle player of a seven-player line."

In other words, a player reporting ineligible must line up at either guard or tackle to make the formation legal.

Generally speaking, the NFL attempts to legislate substitution deception out of the game. Sometimes, however, it needs a team to push the boundaries before an issue can be addressed.

Rule: Unnecessary roughness

Change: Penalty for pulling players off pile

Analysis: Ever seen a scuffle on the perimeter of a pile of players seeking a loose ball? The NFL hopes to avoid them in 2015 by warning players that anyone "pulling a player off a pile in an aggressive, forcible manner" will be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, according to the player presentation video.

Players who are not part of the initial pile are discouraged from getting involved and thus delaying the referee's determination of possession.

Rule: Defenseless player

Change: Receivers after an interception

Analysis: After an interception, you often see defenders hit the intended target, presumably to block for the return but sometimes just in the normal course of preparing to make a tackle. Those receivers have now been granted defenseless posture protection, meaning they can not be hit "during or immediately following an interception or potential interception," according to a new insertion in the rulebook.

The defenseless protection ceases when the player is deemed capable of warding off or avoiding the hit.