PHOENIX – The NFL Annual Meeting kicked off Sunday as owners, coaches and league officials came together to discuss a variety of issues facing the upcoming NFL season and beyond. For a small sample of front office executives and head coaches, the three days at the Arizona Biltmore will decide 17 rules and five bylaw proposals.
These proposals come from either clubs or NFL committee members seeking changes in either the operation of the game itself – rules – or the league season and structure – bylaws. Of these propositions, a large majority focus on “competitive equity” or “player safety,” with those two themes backing 13 of the 22 total proposals and 12 of the 17 rule proposals.
The committee includes Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who during the 2022 season made calls for more consistency in the officiating, another common topic for the committee to discuss and perhaps make proposals to owners about during the meeting.
Three proposals made by teams focus on replay review and the ability to reverse calls, if necessary, led by either a coach’s challenge or the replay official’s request.
During his availability Monday morning, Vrabel was clear that he did not view these proposals as the vehicle to achieve consistency.
“I don’t. I don’t personally support those proposals,” Vrabel said. “I don’t support using replay to address flags on the field. We tried that, disastrously, but consistency is something that we’re striving for.”
Vrabel, referring to the attempt made at reviewing pass interference calls, made it clear he felt reviewing penalties was a failure and not something he wishes to see attempted again. For the 2019 season, the NFL attempted a year of reviewable pass interference penalties following the controversial ending to the NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. By the end of the 2019 season, 24 of the 101 challenges successfully resulted in an overturned result.
Vrabel and the competition committee, however, will still review and seek alternatives to improve the consistency of officiating.
Vrabel’s words reflect the goal of league officials called for just a couple days before the meetings started: minimize the differences between each officiating crew. In other words, if holding is called on a play Sunday morning, that same play should result in a call on Monday night. Four of the potential rule changes list “officiating consistency” as a reason behind the proposals.
Going into the meeting, the league made it clear that player safety would be addressed, with several elements of the game being reviewed with urgency. A special area of emphasis are kickoffs and punt returns, where the league sees a higher rate of injuries per play.
“You can’t not touch kickoffs,” said Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations before the meetings.
Perhaps the most significant proposals in this area come from the competition committee, which recommends any fair catch made on a kickoff within the returner’s own 25-yard line results in the ball being advanced to the 25, just as a touchback does.
The committee also proposed that touchbacks on punts result in the ball being placed on the 25-yard line instead of the 20. This would encourage returners to allow for punts to possibly go into the end zone more often instead of returning the ball.
Vrabel, asked if the touchback rule would spell the end of the punt return, clarified his position on the issue.
“No, I don’t think that’s (the end),” he said. “The injuries in the kick plays are significant. The rate in which those occur on those plays is significant – it’s space, it’s speed. I understand it,.
“We put it at the 25 for kickoffs, (and) if the ball goes in the end zone on a free kick, we put it at the 25-yard line, so we just want to make it consistent. Punting has gotten so good, they’ve really far exceeded the last few years.”
Some other notable propositions include one from the Philadelphia Eagles to allow for an alternative to the onside kick, where teams with fewer points than their opponent could opt for a fourth-and-20 from their own 20-yard line twice per game.
The NFL tried a similar rule for the 2019 season’s Pro Bowl, although with fewer requirements and taking on the form of a fourth-and-15 from the 25. The NFC team attempted this once during the game and failed. Ownership ultimately voted against a similar proposal in 2020, but with recent use in the XFL, it has once again become a topic for the owners to consider.
Vrabel said that the committee monitors the XFL to see potential rules in action, but said that they aren’t able to pull much injury data from the games, a major consideration for all kinds of rules being experimented with in the fledgling spring football league.
By the end of the annual meeting, the owners will vote on all 22 proposals, with each requiring 24 ‘yes’ votes from the 32 owners in order to pass.