Change The Game: NFL Rule Changes And Their Effect on Fantasy

A look at the new defensive holding and illegal contact rules and their impact on your fantasy season.

Before the start of last season the NFL passed new defensive holding and illegal contact rules that many speculated were going to have a significant impact on the ability of defenders to cover wide receivers.

The rule prohibiting defensive holding was modified to include a defender grabbing the jersey of any offensive player. If an official saw a jersey being tugged, it was a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the offense.

Under the new addition to the illegal contact rule, defenders couldn’t initiate contact with an eligible receiver more than five yards from the line of scrimmage when the quarterback was in the pocket with the ball or in the process of releasing the ball. To determine this, the official had to recognize the contact, and then look back to the quarterback. If the quarterback was in the pocket with the ball or in the process of releasing the ball, it was a penalty.  If the defender initiated the contact, it was a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down. However, the rule went both ways. If an eligible receiver pushed off or initiated contact further than 5-yards down field, it was a 10-yard offensive penalty with no change of down, even if the ball was not in the air.

Throughout the 2013 regular season, there were 37 illegal contact penalties and 171 defensive holding calls. Last year there were 27 illegal contact penalties and 53 defensive holding calls just in the pre-season alone. Many people thought scoring would jump dramatically with these rule changes, with wide receivers running free and eunencumbered. Jeffri Chadiha of ESPN noted, the league is filled with so many talented quarterbacks and athletic receivers that holding, tugging and yanking had become an acceptable method of defending the pass. When asked how cornerbacks will contend with Detroit’s 6-foot-5, 236-pound Calvin Johnson, Cincinnati’s 6-4, 207-pound A.J. Green or Chicago’s 6-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall without the benefit of holding or pushing, then Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio jokingly stated, “You mean, how do you defend players who already are impossible to defend? That’s a great question.”

But what effect did these rule changes actually have?  Here is a list of the penalties charged last year compared to the previous two years:

Foul Type

2012

2013

2014

Illegal Contact

61

37

103

Illegal Use of Hands

79

73

163

Defensive Holding

146

171

219

Offensive Pass Interference

76

61

102

Defensive Pass Interference

243

240

206

And here is a look at the number of touchdowns scored and field goals attempted: 

Item         

2012

2013

2014

Rushing TDs

401

410

380

Receiving TDs

757

804

807

Total Offensive TDs

1,208

1,214

1,187

Field Goals Attempted

1,016

998

987 

While the increase in the number of penalties was quite staggering, oddly enough, the total number of touchdowns scored and field goals attempted actually went down, having the opposite of the intended effect of making the game more exciting by increasing scoring. Last year there we only three more receiving touchdowns compared to the previous year, although we should note that that number could have been even greater if we account for Peyton Manning’s epic 2013 season, where he threw for a record setting 55 touchdowns (he threw 13 fewer last year).

In 2013 there was also 30 more rushing touchdowns than there was in 2014, which is a pretty big slide.  As for kicking, interestingly enough there were around 11 more field goals attempted  in 2013 than in 2014, so the penalties didn’t have any sort of effect there either.

Looking at the numbers in the chart above, it is quite conceivable that the jump in wide receivers being called for offensive passing interference offset all the defensive penalties. Without being allowed to bump and tug, defensive interference went down, but wide receivers didn’t seem to get the memo.

The change in the rules also didn’t have much of an effect in extending drives as you can see in the chart below. While the number of 3 & Outs did drop a bit compared to previous seasons, even that didn’t lead to more scoring.

Item         

2012

2013

2014

Average Length of Drive

2:39

2:35

2:40

3 & Out Rate

.234

.236

.218

One other item we wanted to check was what sort of effect the rule changes had on running backs. The number of receiving touchdowns by running backs jumped up by 11 touchdowns in 2014, which could possibly be attributed to the inability of linebackers to properly cover running backs under the new rules. While we can’t specifically attribute this increase to the rule changes just yet, it is worth noting for fantasy owners playing this year. In 2013, there were 23 more running back receiving touchdowns compared to 2012. 2011’s numbers were actually pretty high, although they are skewed a bit due to the number of touchdowns passes caught by Darren Sproles, who was essentially playing like a wide receiver for the Saints that season.

Item

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

Receiving TDs by Running Backs

68

71*

55

78

89

Receiving Yds by Running Backs

18,660

18,208

16,467

18,021

18,967

Catches by Running Backs

3,155

3,063

2,850

3,155

3,199

Passing Yds by Quarterbacks

112,573

116,729

117,442

119,822

120,230 

So after a lot of hoopla, the rule changes, at least thus far, are much-ado-about-nothing, although we will be watching closely this year to see if that changes with players better attuned to the nuances of the new rules. What we can surmise from these stats is that the NFL is clearly becoming more of a passing league, which has been boosting receiving numbers and leading to a record number of receiving touchdowns by running backs.  For Fantasy players, it is important to keep this in mind while drafting, leading to a bigger pool of viable receivers and making running backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield even more valuable than they once were. 


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