The ("Edited for Brevity") History of NFL Rules & Guidlines



I tried to only include the list of changes that had a significant affect on the game, whether it pertained to safety, or specifically to changes that affected the increased offensive production that we are seeing today.

The closer you draw toward the report on last season, the more you will notice the focus on rules to create a safer working environment for the players.

108 years ago the most significant rule change in the NFL went into effect.

In 1906, Dan (Bullet) Riley received "The first authenticated pass completion in a pro game" from George (Peggy) Parratt and the forward pass was officially legalized. Have nick names changed over the years?

Now we have (Phyllis) Rivers playing QB, and just try to imagine Peyton Manning or John Elway playing QB without the forward pass. Rugby anyone. Yep, that's where American Football got it's roots, sort of.

Then in 1933, the NFL began to make rule changes better suited to its needs and the style of play. The forward pass was legalized "from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage".

In 1950, the next major renovation was "Unlimited free substitution". It opened the door to the modern day era of "two platoons and specialization" in pro football.

Also, the ball was declared "dead immediately if the ball carrier touched the ground with any part of his body except his hands or feet while in the grasp of an opponent".

In 1956, grabbing an opponent's face-mask (other than the ball carrier) was made illegal. That lasted for 6 years, and in 1962 both the NFL & AFL prohibited grabbing any player's face-mask.

Eight years later the 1970 AFL/NFL merger took place, and today's NFL was born. Names were added to the backs of player's jerseys, and the point after touchdown attempt was changed to one point.

Three years later (1973) the first jersey numbering system was adopted.

  • 1-19 for quarterbacks and specialists,

  • 20-49 for running backs and defensive backs,

  • 50-59 for centers and linebackers,

  • 60-79 for defensive linemen and interior offensive linemen other than centers, and

  • 80-89 for wide receivers and tight ends.

The new league got busy in 1974, and many rule changes were installed to increase the tempo and action of the games. Some of the most notable are:

  • One sudden-death overtime period was added for preseason and regular-season games;

  • Goal posts were moved from the goal line to the end lines;

  • Kickoffs were moved from the 40- to the 35-yard line;

  • The ball was to be returned to the line of scrimmage after missed field goals from beyond the 20;

  • roll-blocking and cutting of wide receivers was eliminated;

  • the extent of down-field contact a defender could have with an eligible receiver was restricted;

  • the penalties for offensive holding, illegal use of the hands, and tripping were reduced from 15 to 10 yards;

In 1977 the 16 game regular season, a 4-game preseason and a second wild-card team was added for the playoffs and scheduled to begin in 1978. (The wild-card teams played each other with the winners advancing to the "round of eight" postseason series.

Rule changes were adopted to open up the passing game and to cut down on injuries. The most notable are:

  • Defenders were permitted to make contact with eligible receivers only once;

  • The head slap was outlawed;

  • Offensive linemen were prohibited from thrusting their hands to an opponent's neck, face, or head;

  • Wide receivers were prohibited from clipping, even in the legal clipping zone.

In 1978, the game of football was changed forever, as the NFL continued to open up the game. Rules changes:

  • A defender was restricted contact with a receiver beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage.

Remember wide receiver Darryl Stingley (now a quadriplegic) and Pro Bowl safety Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders? While running a short crossing pattern Stingley lowered his head into Tatum's shoulder in a perfectly legal hit and paralysis was the result.

That accident promoted the 1979 rule that wide receivers could no longer be touched after five yards, as opposed to the previous rule of 10 yards.

The pass-blocking rule was interpreted to "permit the extending of arms and open hands", increasing the frequency of offensive holding penalties while creating more advatage for the O-line.

In 1979, NFL rules changes emphasized additional player safety. The changes:

  • prohibited players on the receiving team from blocking below the waist during kickoffs, punts, and field-goal attempts;

  • extended the zone in which there could be no crackback blocks;

  • and instructed officials to quickly whistle a play dead when a quarterback was clearly in the grasp of a tackler.

The 1980 rule changes placed "greater restrictions on contact in the area of the head, neck, and face".

"Under the heading of "personal foul," players were prohibited from directly striking, swinging, or clubbing on the head, neck, or face, and a penalty could be called for such contact whether or not the initial contact was made below the neck area."

In 1994 the 2 point conversion option was adopted; Also;

  • the starting point of all kickoffs moved back to the 30 yard line;

  • The neutral zone infraction was been clarified. (The neutral zone is defined as the space the length of the ball between the offense and defense line of scrimmage);

  • All field goals attempted and missed when the spot of the kick is beyond the 20 yard line, the defensive team taking possession will get the ball at the spot of the kick;

The 1995 changes;

  • A receiver knocked out of bounds by a defensive player can now return to the field to make a play.

  • Quarterbacks may now receive communication from the bench via a small radio transmitter in their helmets. This proposal was originally run on a test basis last year during the pre-season, but was scrapped.

The 1996 changes;

  • The five-yard contact rule will be enforced more stringently.

  • Hits with the helmet or to the head by the defender will be flagged as personal fouls and subject to fines. This is being done to protect the offense, particularly the quarterback.

The 1998 changes;

  • A defensive player can no longer flinch before the snap to draw movement from an offensive linemen.

The 1999 changes;

  • Instant replay returns with a challenge system.

  • Clipping is now illegal around the line of scrimmage just as it is on the rest of the field.

The 2002 changes;

There were several rule changes in 2002, but the most significant were:

  • the act of batting and stripping the ball from player possession is legalized;

  • the chop-block technique is illegal on kicking plays;

  • it is illegal to hit a quarterback helmet-to-helmet anytime after a change of possession;

The 2005 changes; The illegal "horse-collar tackle" goes into affect.

  • It is illegal to grab the inside collar of the shoulder pads to tackle a runner.

  • Unnecessary roughness is clarified.

  • More protection for the kicker/punter.

  • "Peel Back Block" clarified.

The 2006 changes;

  • Low hits on the quarterback are prohibited when a rushing defender has an opportunity to avoid such contact.

  • Blocks in the back above the waist by the kicking team while the ball is in flight during a scrimmage kick are illegal.

  • The definition of a "horse collar tackle" is expanded to include grabbing the inside collar of the jersey.

The 2007 changes; Cut Blocks;

  • A block below the waist against an eligible receiver while the quarterback is in the pocket is a 15-yard penalty instead of a 5-yard penalty (an illegal cut block).

The 2009 changes; Further clarifications.

  • An illegal "blindside" block is defined. (Penalty: 15-yards.)

  • An illegal hit on a defenseless receiver is defined. (Penalty: 15 yards.)

  • Clarified rule regarding low hits on passers: Peyton Manning was clearly targeted below the knee twice last year.

"A defender cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player. It is not a foul if the defender swipes, wraps, or grabs a passer in the knee area or below in an attempt to tackle him."

The 2010 changes; Blows to the head.

  • A player who has just completed a catch is protected from blows to the head or neck by an opponent who launches.

  • All "defenseless players" are protected from blows to the head delivered by an opponent's helmet, forearm, or shoulder.

  • Kickers and punters during the kick and return, and quarterbacks after a change of possession, are protected from blows to the head delivered by an opponent's helmet, forearm, or shoulder, instead of just helmet-to-helmet contact.

The 2011 changes; The list of "defenseless players" is expanded to include:

  • A kicker/punter during the kick or during the return,

  • A quarterback at any time after a change of possession,

  • A player who receives a "blindside" block

  • A receiver who has completed a catch is a "defenseless player" until he has had time to protect himself or has clearly become a runner.

  • A receiver/runner is no longer defenseless if he is able to avoid or ward off the impending contact of an opponent.

The 2012 changes;

  • The list of "defenseless players" is expanded to include defensive players on crack-back blocks, making it illegal to hit them in the head or neck area.

The 2013 changes;

  • Peel back blocks are now illegal anywhere on the field, and will be subject to a 15 yard penalty and potential discipline from the league.

Much thanks to these sources for making this information available;

You can see the full unaltered list at the links below.

This article gives a chronological history (with brief descriptions) of all the changes (including rules changes) that have happened since 1920. This chronological listing begins in the beginning (1869) when colleges began playing soccer & rugby & began to transition into the American version of football. Most of it is a duplication of the list, except for the earlier years.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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