Proposals by Chiefs, Patriots not likely to pass

Rules changes proposed by the Patriots and Chiefs would move the NFL backward, not forward.

Updated: March 17, 2005, 1:48 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Each spring, Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt proposes NFL rules changes with hopes of advancing the game.

He knows that the odds of any of them passing are usually slim or none, but he doesn't care. After all, Hunt has been a creative innovator all of his life. He was among the founding owners of the American Football League. And he has had some successes. He pushed for the two-point conversion and succeeded. That change worked.

Off and on for the past couple of years, the Chiefs and Patriots have either teamed up or alternated to push for an expansion of the playoffs. The AFC is a beast of a conference, and 10 wins doesn't guarantee a playoff spot. But that's not going to happen when the NFC produces only four winning teams. This year, there was no playoff expansion proposal.

This year, the rules changes submitted by the Chiefs and Patriots for next week's owners' meeting were quite puzzling. They have no chance of passing, but unless the Chiefs and Patriots pull them back, the NFL owners will vote on them. What's puzzling is that the three changes – two submitted by the Chiefs – don't appear to advance the game. Here goes:

• Chiefs' Proposal No. 1: Alter the penalty for illegal contact by changing the severity of the penalty. The Chiefs' plan is to keep illegal contact a five-yard penalty, but have it not be an automatic first down. Their rationale is that illegal contact shouldn't give an offense a new set of downs.

• Chiefs' Proposal No. 2: This one is more radical. The Chiefs want to reduce the defensive pass-interference penalty to 15 yards instead of placing the ball at the spot of the infraction. Their thought is that the penalty for defensive interference is too excessive. Fifteen yards is the college rule. The Chiefs want it to be the rule in the NFL, too.

•  Patriots' Proposal: This one is as concise and direct as a Bill Belichick answer to a question about a Patriots' injury: "If a clarification of a rule(s) would result in an amendment of or change to an existing rule, such clarification shall be stayed until a membership vote at the annual meeting. Nothing in this proposal shall serve to limit the power of the commissioner to act in the best interest of the League."

The Patriots' proposal says a lot. The Patriots believe too much power is invested in the competition committee and the league's supervisors of officials. The game is good, and most changes to the rules are minor. That's been the trend in the past few years. But what the Patriots are apparently upset about is the competition committee's decision last year to make illegal contact a "point of emphasis."

Last year, without a vote of league owners, the competition committee and the league changed the emphasis on how downfield contact and interference penalties were called. The rules called for strict enforcement of contact after five yards. Without a vote, the decision to put tighter scrutiny on illegal contact was implemented after months of meetings between the committee and the league.

My suggestion to the Patriots is to be part of the committee instead of trying to overthrow it. While the NFL is a democracy, getting new ideas passed – even for the good of the game – is hard. Look how long it took and how hard it was to keep instant replay.

Face it, the NFL doesn't like change. At first, it was unclear how the point of emphasis on illegal contact would impact play. After reflection, it was one of the best moves in years to help the game. Scoring increased from 41.7 to 43 points a game. Yards per completion jumped from 11.3 to 11.8. Yards per attempt rose from 5.8 to 6.1. The regular-season games were more exciting.

"The points of emphasis, in our opinion, worked well, and they will be re-emphasized again for a second year," Falcons president Rich McKay said. "Our feeling has always been that you need to re-emphasize points for at least two years to make sure people understand what conduct is allowed and what isn't allowed, and to try to create more consistency with respect to the officiating of the rules themselves."

Had last year's point of emphasis come to a vote, the Patriots would have been able to round up eight votes to kill it. Patriots cornerbacks loved to clutch and grab. To their credit, Belichick and his coaches adjusted their defense with lesser cornerbacks and succeeded, even though the emphasis on illegal contact made things harder for them.

But to put every interpretation to vote would make the NFL like Congress. Rule changes would be in gridlock.

The competition committee is a great balancing act. The members are football people, and they study everything. They survey teams and figure out the consensus, meet with coaches at the scouting combine and then figure out a game plan before the owners' meeting.

One suggestion to Belichick – join the committee. He's smart enough to be the chairman. His input would be important. But he's too busy winning Super Bowls to sacrifice the time, and that's understandable. The Patriots' proposal will get some votes but should go down in a ball of flames.

The Chiefs' proposals are equally doomed because the NFL doesn't want to roll back to the clock and return to the days of mugger cornerbacks. If you de-emphasize the impact of illegal contact and pass-interference penalties, you would allow cornerbacks to take more chances of sacrificing a penalty to stop a completion.

The numbers are in from last year's rule change. Illegal-contact penalties rose from 79 in 2003 to 191 last year. Defensive holding went from 188 to 201. Pass-interference penalties dropped from 238 to 202.

"The feeling was, when you watch the tape, as the year went on, people got more comfortable as to how it was going to be called [and] they adjusted their play," McKay said. "Our hope is that this year that adjustment continues when we re-emphasize it and show it on tape to all the players and all the coaches. I thought the coaches did an outstanding job of understanding, as the year went on, what the foul was."

Go back in history. The last year the NFL changed the illegal-contact rule and enforced it hard was in 1994. Illegal-contact penalties went from 40 in 1993 to 117 in 2004. The next year, the coaches adjusted – and illegal-contact penalties went back to the old pattern, with 53 in 1995 and 50 in 1996.

There is no need to go to the college rule of pass interference. This is the NFL. These adjustments worked. And so does the work of the competition committee. There is no reason to try to limit its power. A better suggestion is to join it and help the league move forward, not backward.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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