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NFL Owners Approve Changes to Automatic Replay, Defenseless Receivers, Timing

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The NFL owners approved three rules changes during the 2020 NFL owner’s meetings, the second phase of which was held virtually on Thursday.

Among the changes were measures to make permanent the 2019 expansion of replay review to include scoring plays and turnovers negated by a penalty, increase defenseless player protections to kickoff and punt returns and to prevent offenses from abusing the clock by committing successive penalties.

The first proposal, submitted by the Philadelphia Eagles, is the most impactful. Any scoring play or turnover will continue to be automatically reviewed, even if there is a penalty on the play that could negate the ruling. Extra point and two-point conversion plays will also be automatically reviewed.

Additionally, kick and punt returners will now receive defenseless player protections until they have become a runner.


“Players in a defenseless posture are … a kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air who has not had time to clearly become a runner,” the adjusted rule reads. “If the player is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player.”

It is a penalty to forcibly hit the head or neck area of a defenseless player, hit a defenseless player by lowering the head and making forcible contact with the helmet and launching into a defenseless player. The penalty for illegal contact to a defenseless player is a 15-yard loss and an automatic first down. Flagrant violations are subject to ejection based on the discretion of the referee.

Finally, a timing change will prevent offenses from milking the clock by committing successive dead-ball penalties. Such tactic was already prevented by rule from occurring inside the two-minute warning at each half, but was permissible otherwise. Both New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrable have used the tactic in the past, with Vrabel drawing Belichick’s ire for using it against New England in 2019. Belichick called it at that point “a loophole that will be closed and probably should be closed.”

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