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NFL’s instant replay officials have new powers, but owners weren’t interested in other major rules changes

On-field officials can expect more help from the replay official in 2021.
On-field officials can expect more help from the replay official in 2021.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

The NFL owners don’t have much appetite for major changes to the playing rules for the 2021 season. At a virtual league meeting Wednesday, they voted down or tabled a few intriguing but fairly radical changes, including a fourth-and-15 alternative to the onside kick and a new format to overtime called “spot and choose.”

But they did allow for one significant change to the officiating process that will make head coaches happy. One of the six rules approved Wednesday expands the influence the replay official can have on the ruling of a play, allowing him to use technology to nudge the on-field officials in the right direction.

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In addition to helping with proper down, penalty enforcement, and the game clock, the replay official also can help determine possession of the football; whether a catch was completed or not; the touching of a loose ball, boundary line, goal line, or end line; the relation of the football to the boundary line or first-down marker; and whether a player is down by contact.

It’s not quite to the level of instituting a “sky judge” as the eighth member of the officiating crew, which the Ravens proposed and was voted down. The replay official won’t be able to throw a penalty flag. But the new rule should lead to fewer challenge opportunities for coaches and less controversy for the officials.

Falcons president Rich McKay, head of the Competition Committee, said it was important to limit the replay official’s duties to objective calls, such as whether or not a runner touched the sideline.

“Once you open that box of subjective, I think you’re really changing the game,” McKay said. But “we have the technology. Let’s use that technology and let’s try to improve the crew.”

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Other rules approved Wednesday:

▪ A liberalization of uniform numbers that allows all offensive skill players and defensive backs to wear single digits and creates more options for other positions. Teams were running out of numbers for certain positions because of expanded practice squads and retired numbers.

▪ A rule in response to a Tom Brady play that now calls for loss of yardage and loss of down when penalized for throwing two passes behind the line of scrimmage. Last year, Brady caught a pass that was batted back to him and threw it again for a short completion. The Rams had to choose between loss of down and loss of yardage.

▪ For one year, the NFL will experiment with a rule that limits the number of players the receiving team can have in the setup box for an onside kick. Because of several rules that were implemented in recent years for health and safety, the onside kick was rendered almost impossible to execute in 2020, with only four successful attempts out of 67. The NFL now will allow only nine players in the setup zone, and will see whether that makes it easier for the kicking team to recover.

Onside kicks will look a little different in 2021.
Onside kicks will look a little different in 2021.Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

This rule was implemented instead of the more radical proposal from the Eagles, which would have given teams a fourth-and-15 alternative to the onside kick. That proposal was tabled because it didn’t have the support, McKay said.

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▪ The NFL also eliminated overtime in preseason and will now enforce all penalties that occur on extra points.

The owners also voted down two overtime proposals by the Ravens that would have used a “spot and choose” concept, in which one team decides the spot of the ball and the other team chooses whether to play offense or defense from there, instead of determining possession with a coin toss.

Two proposals from John Harbaugh and the Ravens regarding OT were voted down.
Two proposals from John Harbaugh and the Ravens regarding OT were voted down.Chris Szagola/Associated Press

The team that won the overtime coin toss went 4-5-1 in 2020, and McKay said the Ravens’ proposals “didn’t have a lot of support.”

The owners also tabled a resolution by the Bills that would push back the start of the coach/GM hiring cycle until after the Super Bowl. The process will remain the same; coaches can be hired as soon as their season is complete.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.