Just returned from our annual seminar with NFL officials during which they go over the rule changes and points of emphasis for the upcoming season. San Jose's Bill Leavy was our gracious host, taking the time to answer a number of questions we had.
As Leavy noted, most rule changes over the years have benefited the offense. (Americans love scoring). This year, the defense is getting a little love. The two big rule changes are 1.) allowing one defensive players to wear a radio receiver 2.) eliminating the force-out rule on pass receptions. That is, if a receiver catches the ball and gets knocked out of bounds before he can get two feet down, it's not a catch.
It should be noted that Mike Nolan supports both of these changes. The radio receiver negates an advantage the offense has had for years, he said. The force-out rule, he said, eliminates the gray area as far as whether a receiver would have come down in bounds or not.
As far as the radio receiver, officials will be making sure that there is only one defensive player wearing one in his helmet. (By the way, the "dot" that signifies who has the receiver will be red. The green "dot" belongs to the offense). The NFL will assign an official, probably a local college official, to each side of the field to make sure there isn't any shenanigans going on.
As for the force out ... The only time that rule will ever come into effect is if a defensive player literally carries a player out of bounds. That has been so rare in the NFL that they couldn't find any NFL film showing such a scenario and, for the purpose of the seminar, had to use a play from NFL Europe instead.
Another advantage for the defense is the face-mask rule. No longer will mere contact with a player's facemask result in a penalty. The "five-yard" facemask penalty has been eliminated. Only grabbing and twisting will result in a penalty, which remains 15 yards. Officials also will keep an eye on offensive players, who, in my opinion, have gotten off Scot free when they grab a defensive player's facemask. Stiff arming a defender is still legal as long as the offensive player doesn't grab and twist the face mask. One additional element: Face-mask penalties this year could result in a fine, and Leavy said the league was going to emphasize that this season.
Leavy and his crew will be on the look-out for throat-slashing, six-gun and other violent or lewd gestures this season. The league is also wary of gang signs, although the on-field officials themselves won't be asked to interpret what is or isn't a gang sign.
The coin toss will be handled more like a college football game in that the winner of the coin toss can elect to defer to the second-half kickoff. Leavy said he's spoken with three head coaches about this rule change but not one has revealed whether he will tend to defer.
Leavy also shared some inside information I had never heard about.
* He said that coaches and assistant coaches can dispute calls. But once they make it personal, they can be subject to a penalty. The example he used was this: A coach can say, "Hey, that's a horse---- call!' But he can't tell an official, "Hey, you're horse----!"
* Leavy also said there is a "safe word" coaches and officials use. If a coach is chewing out an official, the official need only say, "Coach, I've heard enough" and the conversation should be over. If it persists, the coach is risking a penalty. (Maiocco says his safe word at home is "pumpernickel.")
* One part of the game that is still permissible (and one that I don't care for) is that sly, last-second timeout that became en vogue last season right before field goals. Leavy said there was some discussion in the offseason that it was unsportsmanlike, but it will live another day.
* As in previous seasons, officials will crack down on illegal celebrations. No hard objects - like, say, a Sharpie - are allowed on the field. Leavy said Terrell Owens' ball-signing celebration was what started the rule. Leavy happened to be working that game in Seattle, and at the time he didn't consider it a big deal. After the touchdown, Leavy said a member of his crew came up to him and said that Owens had had a pen in his sock and autographed the football. Leavy's response: "You're kidding me! That was pretty ingenious."
-- Matt Barrows