Challenge flag rule, tuck rule changed by near-unanimous vote

Posted Mar 20, 2013

The now-infamous challenge flag rule that cost the Detroit Lions a touchdown on Thanksgiving Day against the Texans has been changed and a new crown-of-the-helmet rule raises controversy in Phoenix

Jeff Fisher
St. Louis Rams head coach and co-chairman of the competition committee Jeff Fisher explaining rule changes at owners meetings in Phoenix. (AP Images)
PHOENIX – Player safety and common sense were the key elements in three of the proposed rules changes that were passed Wednesday by the NFL's owners as they closed out their year's meetings.

The rule prohibiting offensive players from initiating forceful contact with the crown of their helmets was the most controversial among current and former players who were against it – most of them being running backs – but passed by a 31-1 vote. Cincinnati cast the only negative vote.

There was little fresh controversy on two other rule changes that passed, and both could be classified as common sense. The "Tuck Rule" was eliminated, and the challenge flag rule was modified.

The Lions surely thought a change in the challenge flag rule came four months too late to help them. The rule became famous -- or infamous --  by a challenge flag thrown by Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz in last season's overtime loss to the Houston Texans on Thanksgiving Day.

Schwartz threw the flag when it was clear that Texans running back Justin Forsett was down by contact on a running play midway through the third quarter. Officials did not rule him down, and Forsett got up and continued running in what became an 81-yard touchdown run.

All scoring plays are automatically reviewed. Had no flag been thrown, Forsett's run would have been called back and made a six-yard gain, giving the Texans third and four at their 25.

The rule in place at the time made it a penalty to challenge a play that is automatically reviewable. The touchdown stood up, cutting the Lions' lead to 24-21. The Lions also were docked 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff. The Texans went on to win.

A national television audience saw what was clearly a loophole in the rules.

Shortly after the game, league officials said the rule that essentially awarded a team an undeserved touchdown was "too punitive." There was little doubt that it was going to be eliminated at this year's meetings.

Under the new rule, the coach loses a timeout when challenging a play that is automatically reviewable but gets back the challenge if the play is overturned. The coach's team also is assessed a 15-yard penalty.

The "Tuck Rule" – which helped the Patriots beat the Raiders in the 2001 season playoffs – was eliminated by a 29-1 vote with two abstentions.

The "tuck rule" became famous when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was hit trying to pass deep in Raiders' territory. The ball came loose, and the Raiders recovered, apparently icing the game. But referee Walt Coleman invoked the tuck rule, which returned possession to the Patriots because Brady was bringing the ball back to his body when hit.

The Patriots won the game in overtime and went on to win the first of three Super Bowls in four years.

Coleman's decision was correct, even though common sense dictated that Brady lost the ball on a fumble. It took 11 seasons to eliminate the tuck rule, but only four months to change the challenge flag rule.

The crown of the helmet rule expands the league's program to promote player safety. Although it applies to all players, offensive players will be affected most, particularly running backs.

The rule makes it a 15-yard penalty for any player outside the tackle box to make contact with another player with the crown of his helmet.

St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher cited three elements that constitute hitting with the crown: squaring up, having the head down and delivering a "forceful blow" to the opposing player.

The penalty is 15 yards from the spot of the foul.

If a running back, for example, incurs the penalty at the five-yard line and continues into the end zone, the TD would be wiped out and 15 yards would be walked off from the five back to the 20.

In the same circumstance, if a defensive player committed the foul at the five and the back scored, the TD would stand, and the spot on the ensuing kickoff would be advanced 15 yards, to the 50.

Also passed Wednesday was a rule prohibiting the rush team from overloading on one side or the other on kicking plays. A maximum of six players can line up on either side of the ball, and the rush team is not allowed to have one player push another in an attempt to block the kick.