Football Rules I'd Like to See Changed

Football (the American version, mind you) is one of my favorite sports to watch. It beautifully combines athleticism, violence, and strategy into a very entertaining (albeit long) game to watch.

Among its features are a myriad of rules that require countless years of watching the game to become familiar with (or perhaps just an afternoon with Sheldon Cooper).

Most of the rules of football are designed to make the game fair, exciting, and in some cases to prevent injuries. But there are a few that I think need to change because they don't make much logical sense.

Here they are:

1. Fumbles Out of Bounds into the Endzone Being Attacked

I'm sure Texas A&M fans will agree that this is perhaps the dumbest rule in football, so I'm going to tackle it first.

In normal gameplay, if a runner fumbles the footbal and it goes out of bounds, then the ball is placed at the point at which it went out of bounds (if it is fumbled backward) or at the point where the runner lost the ball (if it is fumbled forward). Possession is retained by the team of the runner who fumbled the ball.

Now, for some strange reason, if the ball is fumbled out of bounds into the endzone being attacked by the team who fumbles, then possession is handed over to the team on defense and they get a touchback! WHY??!!

This seems like a rule that was thrown out as a joke by the guys who invented football and it just stayed in there because they got high and forgot about it, and by the time it ever came around in a game they were too embarrassed to admit they were just messing around and kept it in there. Why on earth does the opposing team get possession even if they don't recover the fumble? If the runner fumbles it our of bounds on the 1 inch line, then they just play the next down on the 1 inch line. But if the ball goes another few inches forward and goes out of bounds, then the other team gets it for some reason...

The Solution

If a ball is fumbled out of bounds into the endzone being attacked, then it was necessarily fumbled forward (otherwise it would just be a touchdown). So the typical rule for fumbling forward out of bounds should apply: that the team on offense retains possession and the ball is spotted at the point of the fumble. Simple. Easy. Logical. Why would it be any other way?

2. Instant Replay for Penalties

When college football enacted the targeting rule, they opened something of a can of worms. No, I'm not talking about the rule itself. While targeting is indeed a controversial rule and difficult to follow for defensive players, it is nonetheless probably necessary for football to try to remain relevant with all the research coming out about head injuries.

The can of worms opened by targeting is that every targeting call is reviewed by video replay, which then begs the question, why can't other penalties (or lack thereof) be reviewed?

Now there are two main reasons I can think of for not reviewing penalties:

-Looks can be deceiving on video (especially in slow motion). Sometimes the camera tells a different story than what actually happened. Given the subjective nature of many penalties, it could lead to some erroneous calls.

-Some penalties (such as holding and pass interference) pretty much happen on every play and are called fairly inconsistently. Doing booth reviews of these might slow down gameplay dramatically. Considering that most people want gameplay sped up, this would be a step in the wrong direction.

The Solution

Allow coaches 2-3 penalty challenges per game, which work like regular challenges do in the NFL (i.e. if you lose the challenge you lose a timeout, and if you win then you keep the timeout but still lose the challenge).

The finite amount of penalty challenges would in theory not slow gameplay down too much since it would force coaches to be wise about their selection of penalty challenges, i.e. they'd save them for important calls that could change the course of the game. They would also have to be wise about challenging calls like holding and pass interference since these are incredibly subjective calls that referees probably wouldn't overturn.

3. Intentional Grounding

It baffles me that no commentator ever brings this up, but intentional grounding isn't actually a penalty (in most cases).

The rule is in place to discourage quarterbacks from tossing the ball into the ground when taking a sack, which, if intentional grounding didn't exist, would bring the ball back to the original line of scrimmage for the next play.

The rule of intentional grounding states that if the quarterback throws the ball and is either inside the "tackle box" or the pass does not go beyond the line of scrimmage and no player is near the pass, then the team will be penalized either 10 yards from the original line of scrimmage or at the spot of the foul (whichever is worse), with a loss of down. In college, the penalty is simply at the spot of the foul and loss of down.

For the college version of the rule, it's basically not a penalty. If I'm a college quarterback and I'm getting sacked (but can still feasibly throw the ball forward into the ground), then there's not really any reason for me not to do that. The end result is the same either way: my team gets the ball on the next down at the spot I was getting sacked. In fact, I have an incentive to try to throw the ball, since there is always a chance that the official doesn't catch it (and since you can't currently challenge penalties, if they don't catch it then it didn't happen), or perhaps one of my teammates is deemed "close enough" to not warrant the penalty.

In the NFL things are a bit more complicated, since if I'm getting sacked less than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage then it's better for me to just take the sack, but if I'm more than 10 yards behind then it's the same as college.

The Solution

Why not say that if a quarterback is called for intentional grounding then it's a 5 (or 10 or 15) yard penalty from the spot of the foul AND a loss of down. That would make it worse than if he just took the sack, thus discouraging quarterbacks from trying to throw while taking a sack.

4. Lost Penalty Yardage

There are some cases in football when a penalty is fairly inconsequential. These cases most often occur when the line of scrimmage is very close to the goal line (going either direction). If the team closest to the goal line gets a penalty, then it is often "half the distance to the goal" and not the full yardage of the penalty. This can sometimes turn a 5, 10, or 15 yard penalty into maybe a 1 or 2 yard penalty. Granted, some penalties come with automatic first downs, which can certainly be consequential, but in some cases even these might not make too much of a difference.

Here is a prime example of this: there was a bowl game last year in which one team completed a long pass that had the receiver sprinting down the sideline towards the endzone. When he was maybe at the 5 yard line, the defender finally caught up to him and brought him down using a "horse collar" tackle, which is usually a 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down since it's a move that can lead to some bad injuries.

But here's the thing: since the penalty happened on the 5 yard line, the full 15 yards of the penalty couldn't be enforced, so it was effectively only a 2.5 yard penalty. Also, the automatic first down that the penalty usually carries was worthless, since the play resulted in a first down anyway. It's a small price to pay for the defense, since if the defender doesn't make the dirty tackle, then it's a touchdown for the other team.

You may think "yeah, so what? The team still gets 1st down on the 2 yard line, which is pretty much a surefire touchdown, so why are we splitting hairs?" Well, on the very next play, the offense got a holding penalty, which set them back to the 12 yard line. 1st and goal from the 12 yard line is anything but a surefire touchdown, and I believe they did not actually end up scoring one and had to settle for a field goal. In summary, the dirty tackle by the defender saved his team 4 points (7 points if they miss the field goal), so it was strategically the correct move.

This is something of an extreme example, but there are many other cases when penalties just aren't really that consequential, and if we seek a fair game in which players are not incentivized to try to play dirty, then we should take this matter seriously.

The Solution

Definitely the biggest change I've mentioned yet, but I have an idea for how we could remedy this: accumulated penalty yardage. Here's how it would work: on any penalty in which the full yardage cannot be enforced, the non-penalized team has the option to either accept the penalty (thus taking the shorter yardage), OR they could add it to their bank of accumulated penalty yardage. They can then use the accumulated penalty yardage to offset future penalties.

Going back to our previous example, the team on offense could have banked the 15 yards and started from the 5 yard line. If they then got a holding penalty called against them, they could use 10 yards of their penalties (with 5 yards leftover for future use) and stay on the 5 yard line.

To make this rule even more interesting, we could also leave the option to bank the automatic first downs that come with certain penalties. If you think about it, automatic first downs are much more valuable if a penalty occurs on a 3rd down than if it occurs on a 1st down. If a team does not wish to accept the automatic 1st down right away, then they could bank it along with the 15 penalty yards (since usually automatic first downs only occur on 15 yard penalties). Think of how huge it would be to have an automatic first down in your back pocket, to use whenever you want; it could potentially change the course of a game.

Now, I understand this rule may be a bit radical for some people, and it would also make it harder for the officials (and fans) to keep track of, but I mean, we have the technology, we could do it!

Plus, this rule already exists in the scope of penalties that occur on a touchdown play, as there is an option to take the yardage on the ensuing kickoff (which also doesn't really make a difference if the defense is penalized since most kickers can and do kick it out of the back of the endzone regardless).

5. Forward Progress

Forward progress is the rule that if a ball carrier's forward motion is stopped by the defense, even if he is still not down, the play is over and the ball is spotted at the furthest point down the field that the ball reaches. The rule prevents defenders from picking up a runner and carrying him down the field.

I think this is a good rule, and my only gripe with it is that it is not called very consistently. Some referees seem to let the play go on for an incredibly long time, even though it is fairly clear that a runner is trying to go down. Most defenses will try to "stand up" runners such that they can't go down, and then their teammates will come in an batter them in hopes that they force a fumble.

If the NCAA and NFL are actually serious about trying to prevent injuries, then this seems like a great area in which to make an improvement. I wouldn't think it is good that players getting barraged while they are stood up after a stunted run is considered a solid defensive strategy.


The issue with this rule is that it relies on referee judgement, and everyone's judgement is different (or at least it seems to be). Most referees will keep the play going as long as the runner's legs are still churning, which can many times lead to the play lasting several seconds longer than it should.

My solution would be to make referees more aggressive in calling forward progress, i.e. stop the play as soon as the runner stops moving forward, or is moved backward, by a defensive player.

Yes, I know this isn't perfect. Yes, it would eliminate some awe-inspiring runs where a runner is stopped or being forced backward and then miraculously musters a herculean shift in momentum. Yes, it would make running up the middle a less effective strategy.

But what would you rather see, your team's runner stopped short of muscling through a few extra yards, or get stood up and forced to fumble? The benefits outweigh the costs in my opinion.

6. Fair Catches

The fair catch, until recently in college football, was used almost exclusively on punts. The rule allows a punt or kickoff returner to catch the ball and be down upon receipt, wherein if he gets tackled it would be a penalty for the other team. The rule is in place so that a high punt or kickoff can be safely caught without the returner getting massacred.

What I've always found weird about this rule is that all the returner has to do to signal a fair catch is briefly wave his hand  at any point while the ball is airborne. Most of the time this is good enough, but every now and then someone on the punt coverage won't realize that a fair catch was called for and absolutely wallop the returner, resulting in a penalty for him and a headache for the returner.

Of course, one time North Texas did the opposite of this and pulled off one of the greatest (and ballsiest) trick returns anyone has ever seen...

Of course, the play above only works once...I doubt anyone is going to try it anytime in the foreseeable future.

The Solution

While trick plays like the one above are fun, I'd like to see a more fool-proof way to call for a fair catch that makes no mistake about it. Unfortunately, I don't know of a great way to do this, other than maybe the referee giving two quick whistles after the catch is called for to alert the coverage. The problem with this is that the whistle is always supposed to signify that the play is over, which isn't exactly the case for a fair catch, since if the returner drops it then the play isn't over. Luckily, problems with fair catches are rare so if this rule never changes I won't be too upset about it.

7. Pass Interference

This article is getting long so I wanna wrap this up, but I couldn't leave things without giving a mention to pass interference, which is a good and necessary penalty, because otherwise passing would be impossible. But good lord is it called inconsistently.

I've seen plays in which a defender lightly caresses the back of a receiver, and it's called pass interference. I've seen plays in which a defender gropes a receiver so badly that it would be considered sexual assault in 48 states, and it's not called as pass interference.

The Solution

Officials, please make up your damn minds about what is and is not pass interference.

So there you have it, seven instances of rules that I, an electrical engineer who has played zero downs of real football, would change if given the chance.

Let me know in the comments if I'm dead wrong or if there are rules you'd like to change.

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