The NFL's competition committee announced its recommended changes for next year's rulebook, and among the obvious proposals—no one will get Jim Schwartzed next year; instead, coaches will lose a timeout or 15 yards if they have no timeout—there's one that has seemed obvious for eons, with no action until now. Provided the owners consent, there will be no more tuck rule.
Most football fans were introduced to the tuck rule in a January 2002 AFC divisional playoff game, when referee Walt Coleman overturned a Tom Brady fumble (in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots down three and driving) that would have led to an Oakland victory. After the review, Coleman explained that Brady's arm was going forward—it wasn't. (Watch here, with a trigger warning for Raiders fans.) But in postgame interviews, referees correctly cited the "tuck rule," which was added to the NFL rulebook in 1999:
When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.
Brady had brought the ball back toward his body when Charles Woodson knocked it free, but he hadn't tucked it away and prepared to run yet, nor had he re-cocked his arm for another pass attempt. He was in happy tuck-rule limbo. The Patriots went on to kick a game-tying field goal, and then a game-winning field goal in overtime, and then they beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh the next week, and the Rams two weeks afterward, well, you know the rest.
The NFL wrote the tuck rule so that officials wouldn't need to judge quarterbacks' intent—a player who ostensibly fumbled could have argued he was just attempting an improvised pass with a wacky release point. But most every tuck-rule call seemed to apologize for an obvious fumble, a situation where the quarterback was not in the process of passing but simply strip-sacked. So support for the tuck rule gradually eroded. Next year it'll almost certainly be gone, and post-pass-attempt movement toward the body will generate fumbles again.
What else is changing?
- Referees will be able to review incomplete passes through the recovery and the fumble. (Presently, if an apparent-catch-and-fumble-and-turned-over pass is ruled incomplete on the field, possession can't change through a review. That'll change.)
- The long snapper will be considered a defenseless player on field-goal formations. He can't be walloped legally.
- Runners who hit with the crowns of their helmets outside of the tackle box will be assessed personal fouls.
- Offensive blockers won't be able to block low inside the tackle box if they're moving toward their own goal lines. And they won't be able to go low on peel-back blocks (think Matt Slauson on Brian Cushing) anywhere on the field.
- Tight ends will get to wear numbers 40-49. Someone's probably excited. Delanie Walker?