Not all NFL rule changes have a major impact on the game. Some are just making penalty enforcements fairer or closing loopholes. Some do impact it and you just want to forget about them, like making pass interference a call you can challenge. What the NFL’s competition committee can do that always has a major impact on games is make something a point of emphasis for a season.
Remember Taunting Calls Last Year?
The taunting rule didn’t change in 2021, but the NFL made it a point of emphasis. The competition committee reviews different areas of game and looks at the film. If it sees there’s not enough calls in a certain area, they’ll make it a point of emphasis. They’ll tell officials to be stricter in enforcing that rule.
We saw this last season with taunting calls. There were only 12 taunting penalties in the 2020 season, and over five times as many in 2021: 61. We even saw taunting help affect the outcome of a Monday night game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears in Week 9.
Get Familiar With Illegal Contact Penalties
If there’s a point of emphasis the league could make the biggest impact with this season, I think it’s on illegal contact calls. Not counting player safety changes, illegal contact is the most important rule change the league has made in 50 years.
When the competition committee passed the rule in the 70s, it changed the style of play on the field. The league didn’t just pass college football and Major League Baseball to become the country’s most popular sport. You saw the results immediately looking at the numbers. Passing yards per game jumped from 300 to 317 the year the current rule was passed, and three years after that, there were over 400 per game for the first time ever. Since then, the league has found unparalleled success.
Why Emphasize Illegal Contact?
Last year there were only 36 illegal contact calls, the second-fewest ever in a season. Combine that with the number of defensive holding calls, and it’s the lowest combined total in a season since 2002. We saw average passing yards per game drop from 480 in 2020 to 456 last season, the second-lowest average for the league since 2010. The league noticed all of that, and they’ll be instructing officials to more strictly enforce illegal contact penalties.
The last time the competition committee made illegal contact a point of emphasis, the number of calls nearly tripled, from 52 to 148. As a result, the league had three of the five best passing seasons ever over the next three years. So expect to hear a lot of, “Wait a minute, there’s a flag down. Illegal contact, five yards, and an automatic first down.”