NFL owners approved a series of new rules Wednesday for the 2021 season, including one that will expand the influence of replay officials amid ongoing demands from coaches for more oversight of game-day officials.
Owners rejected more robust proposals for a full-time sky judge, including one from the Baltimore Ravens that would have created a booth umpire. Instead, owners took the more modest step of giving the existing replay officials -- who sit in the press box of each stadium -- the authority to consult with referees on certain "specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present," according to the language of the rule.
Replay officials will not be able to throw flags or reverse calls on their own. But they can now offer referees advice based on what they've seen on broadcast replays in the areas of possession, completed or intercepted passes, the location of the ball relative to the boundary or end line, and whether a player is down by contact. Previously, replay officials had been limited to participating in plays that were under review. Coaches will not have to throw challenge flags to prompt that advice, which some replay officials have been giving referees informally for years.
Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL competition committee, said neither the committee nor owners felt comfortable with adding an additional official with full authority.
"I think we should try this," McKay said. "We have the technology. We have really good technology. It sits in the booth with the replay official, and it sits in New York. I think what we thought, and what the coaches' subcommittee thought, was let's use that technology and let's try to improve the crew. I do get nervous when it goes beyond that."
In other news regarding Wednesday's votes, NFL owners:
Approved a relaxation of rules for the numbers that players of certain positions can wear because of expanded practice squads. Running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers can all wear numbers in the single digits now if they choose. Based on preexisting NFL rules, players who want to change their numbers this season will have to buy out the inventory of the NFL's manufacturing partners. This wouldn't apply to players who give notice in 2021 that they want to change numbers in 2022.
Approved a one-year experiment in an attempt to make it easier to recover onside kicks. In 2021, the receiving team on kickoffs will be limited to nine players within 25 yards of the ball. Last season, NFL teams recovered only three of 67 onside kicks, the lowest total and recovery rate since at least 2001. As a result, the Philadelphia Eagles proposed that teams be given an option to gain 15 yards on one offensive play from their own 25-yard line to retain possession after a score.
Tabled a rule that would have expanded the area where players are prohibited from blocking below the waist. McKay said that there is enough support to pass the rule now but that several teams had questions that will take some time to address. It could be revisited next month.
Eliminated overtime in preseason games.
Changed a rule that will now force a loss of down if two passes are completed behind the line of scrimmage.
Approved a rule change that ensures the enforcement of all accepted penalties during successive try attempts, defined as an opportunity for a team to score one or two additional points during one scrimmage down.
Did not act on a "spot or choose" proposal from the Ravens for the winner of the overtime coin toss. In that scenario, the team would have the option to choose either which team will have the first possession of overtime or where the ball would be spotted.
Decided to include taunting among its points of emphasis for 2021. McKay clarified that the emphasis would be directed not at celebrations but toward acrimonious interaction among players.
Tabled a proposal from the Buffalo Bills that would have pushed back interviews for general manager and head-coaching positions until after the championship round of the playoffs and would have prevented hires until after the Super Bowl. It will be further studied.
Completed a study of the sharp drop in offensive holding during the 2020 season. McKay said that Walt Anderson, the NFL's senior vice president of training and development, would clarify the standard and put together a video for teams to consume before the 2021 season.