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The Patriots are used to the NFL creating new rules because of them.
Defensive holding became a “point of emphasis” after the Patriots’ win over the Colts in the 2004 AFC Championship game. The eligible/ineligible receiver tactic was outlawed after the Patriots tricked the Ravens with it in the 2014 playoffs.
And now the league will discuss the fairness of the overtime rules, after the Patriots benefitted from them last Sunday.
The NFL’s overtime rules, which came into effect for the 2012 season, allow both teams the opportunity to possess the football, unless the team that receives the ball first scores a touchdown.
And that’s exactly what happened in Sunday’s AFC Championship game. The Patriots scored a touchdown after receiving the opening kickoff of OT, won the game, 37-31, and Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ No. 1-ranked offense never got off the bench.
“For the people in Kansas City wanting there to be a discussion about overtime, sure, there should be,” said Falcons president Rich McKay, who is the chairman of the league’s competition committee. “What will come out of that, I don’t know. But I can tell you that we’ve talked about this in the past.”
Both of last weekend’s championship games had plays that will create discussion of potential rule changes at this March’s owners’ meetings in Phoenix.
The NFL also will discuss the league’s instant replay rules and whether coaches should be allowed to challenge missed calls such as the blatant pass interference penalty that was missed in Sunday’s Saints-Rams game.
There is no guarantee that the discussions will lead to actual changes. But the competition committee, and the 32 owners, will definitely address these issues.
“I think that any time you have a play of the significance of the play [the Saints] had, and the attention that it’s been given, it merits discussion,” McKay said. “You have to have discussion, it’s the right thing to do. You just have to make sure that you understand how complicated some of those rules are, and the way they work together, our timing rules, the way we officiate the game. There’s a lot of things that go into it. But do I envision the topic being discussed? Absolutely, and it merits it, because of the significance of the play.”
The overtime rules had scores of fans crying foul this past week that the Patriots won only because they happened to win the coin toss — and that if the Chiefs had won the coin toss, they’d be the ones playing in the Super Bowl.
The current rules are a compromise between two extremes. The old rules were a pure sudden death, in which the first team to score (field goal or touchdown) wins. The rules in college, and being clamored for in the NFL, give both teams at least one possession of the ball, regardless of what happens on the opening drive. The NFL’s rules end the game on an opening touchdown, but let the other team have a chance to match if there is an opening field goal.
McKay said under the old rules, the team that won the overtime coin toss won 58 percent of the games, because they only had to travel 25-30 yards to kick a long field goal to win. He said under the new rules, the team that wins the coin toss only wins 51 or 52 percent of the time. Last weekend, the Rams won in overtime even though the Saints had the ball first (and threw an interception).
McKay said he is in favor of the current rules, even though they cost his team a championship. In Super Bowl LI in February 2017, the Patriots scored a touchdown on their first possession, preventing Matt Ryan and the Falcons from touching the football in OT.
But just because McKay doesn’t believe in changing overtime, it doesn’t mean there isn’t support for it among owners. A rule needs 24 of 32 owner votes to pass.
“We had every opportunity to stop them. We didn’t stop them, they scored, they won,” McKay said. “I came back, we had a discussion, even internally with our coaches and everybody else, and that didn’t change our position. But I don’t mean that’s the answer, because I think any time you have these situations you discuss it.”
As for expanding instant replay, Bill Belichick has been publicly expressing since late 2013 that coaches should be allowed to challenge any play they want, and that it shouldn’t slow down the game as long as coaches still only have two challenges to use.
“When you have two challenges, I don’t see anything wrong with the concept of you can challenge any two plays that you want,” Belichick said in 2013. “I understand that judgment calls are judgment calls, but to say that an important play can’t be reviewed, I don’t think that’s really in the spirit of trying to get everything right and making sure the most important plays are officiated properly.”
Belichick and the Patriots proposed new rules to this effect at the 2014 and 2015 owners’ meetings, and were voted down each time.
The Bills and Redskins also have proposed similar rules, but none were passed.
Belichick’s quote at the 2014 meetings seems prescient in light of the Saints-Rams game.
“So, if I throw a challenge on an offensive holding play and they look at it, and they don’t think it’s holding, I lose the challenge,” Belichick said. “But if it’s an egregious play, I don’t see why it should not be allowed to be challenged when it affects the outcome of the game. If we fundamentally want to try to get the games right and the plays right, then I don’t see why they should be excluded.”
McKay said the majority of the NFL hasn’t liked the idea of creating a penalty via challenge when one wasn’t called during the live action.
But the league’s owners and competition committee will definitely discuss it again this spring.
“It is a tough issue when you begin to put fouls on, and there’s no flag on the field,” McKay said. “But we’ll discuss it in the committee, we’ll give our thoughts I’m sure as individuals and as a group in front of the membership, and then we’ll hear from the membership. And every club has the right to submit rules proposals, so we’ll get plenty of proposals between now and March.”
Fans will have say on safety issues
An interesting contest will unfold next weekend in Atlanta, and I’m not just talking about the Super Bowl.
The NFL will announce the winner of its Punt Analytics Competition, the first time the league has turned to crowdsourcing and outside submissions for suggestions on how to make a play safer and healthier.
After changing several rules with the kickoff to make that play safer this past year, the NFL is now turning its attention to the punt play. The NFL says the incidence of concussions is significantly higher on kickoffs and punts than on normal plays from scrimmage.
“About 45 percent of punts are returned, and it is a play that has a higher rate of injury than any other play that we have, and it is a play that has a high penalty rate,” McKay said. “So it’s time to look at this play.”
The NFL provided the data from the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and received about 150 submissions from outside sources with recommendations on how to make punts safer and reduce the incidence of concussions. The NFL gave a $20,000 prize to four finalists — data specialists from places such as The Citadel, Fordham University, and Facebook — and one winner will be selected next Saturday, getting two tickets to the Super Bowl.
Falcons president Rich McKay said it may take a couple of years for any new rules to be instituted, and that none of the proposals from the contest are guaranteed to become new rules. But he said that getting outside submissions opened the NFL to several new possibilities.
Among the proposals:
■ Move the ball forward 5 or 10 yards after a fair catch.
■ Require single coverage of gunners by the receiving team.
■ Eliminate the rule that kicking team players cannot go more than a yard past the line of scrimmage before a punt.
■ Install helmet sensors to monitor deceleration.
McKay said he envisions changes to the punt play happening like they did with the kickoff. The competition committee won’t make any formal recommendations at the March owners’ meetings, but will take some of the best suggestions, give them to the league’s special teams coaches, and see what they can come up with for the May owners’ meetings.
“That path worked pretty well for us,” McKay said. “Hopefully we can do this into the future with some other ideas, all with the same idea in mind. It’s a good way to engage our fans, and it’s a good way to remember there are people outside of our circle that may have better ideas for us, and there’s no reason not to hear from them.”
Run defense key to stopping Rams
A few Patriots-related notes as we get ready to head to Atlanta:
■ In our film study piece on the Rams’ offense this past week, we noted that the Rams use “11” personnel — three receivers, one tight end, one running back — on more than 90 percent of their plays. The Patriots’ ability to stop the run against this personnel package could decide the game. Per Warren Sharp’s SharpFootballStats.com, 77 percent of the Rams’ run plays this season came in “11” personnel, the highest rate in the league, and they averaged 5.2 yards per carry. The Patriots, meanwhile, allowed 4.9 yards per carry against three-receiver sets. This will be a crucial day for the guys up front in the Patriots’ “big nickel” package to get off their blocks and make plays.
■ One of the most enjoyable clips from the Patriots’ postgame locker room celebration last Sunday in Kansas City was backup quarterback Brian Hoyer finding Matthew Slater and telling him, “You may not have won a bunch of coin tosses this year, but you won the one that matters!”
Slater, who described this past week that he always calls head for religious purposes, had won just three out of nine coin tosses this season before winning the one that mattered, the overtime flip in the AFC Championship game.
■ The Patriots finished 11th in the 2018 special teams rankings compiled by longtime football writer Rick Gosselin, considered the industry standard. Eleventh isn’t bad, but not one of the better years for the Patriots, who finished third last season, sixth in 2016, 11th in 2015, third in 2014 and first in 2013. The Patriots led the league in blocked kicks (five), were second in kickoff returns and didn’t allow a touchdown all season, but were the worst in the league at opponents’ starting field position after a kickoff.
■ A report from NFL Network this past week stated that Greg Schiano is set to take a top defensive coaching position with the Patriots, but I’m not 100 percent certain that he would be the defensive coordinator. Per a league source, Bret Bielema, who joined the Patriots’ staff this season as a “consultant to the head coach,” has been telling people that he is going to become the Patriots’ defensive coordinator. It would be rare for Belichick to make an outside hire and elevate him immediately to one of the coordinator positions. When outsiders Bill O’Brien and Dean Pees joined the Patriots’ staff last decade, they had to work other jobs first before being elevated to coordinator.
Concussion report promising
The NFL released its injury data for the 2018 season on Thursday, and the biggest takeaway was that the league saw a 29 percent reduction in concussions between 2017 (281) and 2018 (214). The number of concussions occurring in practices remained flat, but dropped from 46 to 34 in preseason games, and from 224 to 161 in regular-season games. Each NFL team averaged about 0.25 concussions per game, or about four per team all season.
It is unclear if the data is the start of a trend or a one-year blip, but the NFL set out on a three-pronged plan last year to reduce concussions, which focused on improving helmets and equipment, changing kickoff rules and other rules, and adding a concussion spotter in the press box.
“I think at the same time as being excited and grateful, we remain very committed and challenged by the goal of driving this number down further,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.
The NFL also reported that 75 percent of the 538 concussion tests administered this season were negative for concussions. And that one big issue moving forward will be trying to reduce MCL (131) and ACL (57) tears, which remained relatively flat this season.
Teddy Bridgewater should be thankful that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam apparently didn’t like his handshake. Back before the 2014 draft, the Browns spent $100,000 on an analytical study of all of the quarterbacks available in the draft, and we reported in the past that the numbers pointed to Bridgewater and Jimmy Garoppolo. But when it came time to make a pick, the Browns went with Johnny Manziel, who was not an analytics favorite. Per an ESPN Magazine report this past week, Haslam was not impressed with Bridgewater’s handshake during their predraft meeting. And in 2014, Haslam shared that one reason he chose Manziel was that a homeless guy approached Haslam and implored him to draft Manziel, and if a homeless guy could care that much, then Manziel had to be the pick . . . West Virginia quarterback Will Grier blew off his first session with the media this past week at the Senior Bowl. Will Grier to the Patriots in 3, 2, 1 . . . Speaking of the Senior Bowl, with some of this past week’s practices getting moved indoors because of torrential rains, forcing scouts and coaches to watch practices from TVs, I’ll implore once again for the Senior Bowl to move from Mobile, Ala., which according to a 2013 study is the rainiest city in America, ahead of even Seattle. It’s time to move the league’s top predraft event (other than the Combine) to Phoenix or Orlando . . . Raiders coach Jon Gruden at the Senior Bowl: “I’m watching this kid [Kyler] Murray from Oklahoma, and I’m putting away all of the prototypes I once had.” Translation: “The bidding war for our No. 4 pick is now open for business.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.