NFL outlaws tactic used by Patriots in AFC playoff win over Ravens

NFL offensive players wearing an eligible receiving number can no longer line up outside the tackle box.

Will it be known as the Ravens rule?

An NFL competition committee proposal to “make it illegal for an offensive player with an eligible number to report as ineligible and line up outside the core of the formation” got the necessary 75 percent approval from team owners during the final day of the league meetings at the Arizona Biltmore resort.

That means a tactic the New England Patriots used in their comeback, 35-31, victory over the Ravens in an AFC divisional playoff game in January will be penalized going forward.

“That player had an eligible number and he was lined up outside of the tackle box,” said Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the competition committee, when asked specifically about whether the new rule would outlaw the tactic that the Patriots used against the Ravens. “You will no longer be allowed to wear [an ineligible number] outside the tackle box.”

The proposal to change the rule was made by the competition committee, which includes Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, the committee's other co-chairman, said last week on a conference call that several teams had brought up the formation the Patriots used against the Ravens.  

Ravens officials steered clear of any public discussion on the rule this week. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who predicted following the team’s playoff loss to the Patriots that the league would take a look at how eligible and ineligible wide receivers were being presented, did acknowledge Tuesday that it can be a source of confusion for the referees. However, he was referring more to eligible players wearing ineligible uniform numbers, not any specific formation.

“Certain jersey numbers are eligible numbers and certain jersey numbers are ineligible numbers. If you’re eligible, you put on an eligible number. If you’re ineligible, you put on an ineligible number. They do it in college and they did it in the NFL up until, I don’t know, I’m going to guess the 60s,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why they created ineligible and eligible jersey numbers, so you can look at them and say, ‘he’s eligible and he’s not.’ Now, we go through kind of a circus act, where we have to identify who is ineligible and who is not with signals. That’s what got the referees in trouble in the playoffs.”

In the playoff loss to the Patriots, Harbaugh was assessed a penalty when he walked onto the field to get the attention of head referee Bill Vinovich. Harbaugh’s contention was that the Ravens were not being given enough time to adjust to who was eligible and who wasn’t.

Trailing by two touchdowns, the Patriots had running back Shane Vereen, who was lined up as a wide receiver, declare himself ineligible while tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, lined up in an offensive tackle spot, was eligible. A Ravens defensive player covered Vereen while leaving Hoomanawanui wide open. New England used the tactic on three plays during a touchdown drive in the third quarter that cut the Ravens lead to a touchdown.

When informed after the game that the Ravens questioned the officials' response to the formation, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady advised his opponent to “study the rule book and figure it out.”

Patriots owner Robert Kraft also defended his team this week when asked about the rule proposal.

"We didn’t take advantage of anything,” Kraft told reporters. “We played by the rules. If you read the rule book, you’d see that. We didn’t take advantage. We executed according to the rules, and we’ve always tried to do that. However you can get an edge within the rules, I compliment that.”

Now, such a tactic would result in a 5-yard, illegal substitution penalty. It is now illegal for an offensive player with an eligible number (between 1 and 49 and 80 to 89) to report as ineligible and line up outside the tackle box.

“Basically, if you think about the core of the formation, that’s where the player has to be if he’s going to report as ineligible with the eligible number,” said Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating.

The formation rule was one of eight proposals that were approved by owners this week. Most of the changes had to do with player safety, including a proposal backed by the Ravens that prohibits players on punts from pushing teammates into the offensive formation and line of scrimmage.

Another potential rule change that probably got the most attention – the Patriots’ proposal to move extra points back from the 2- to 15-yard line, was tabled for the time being, but McKay indicated a change could be made in the very near future. McKay said the committee spoke to every team and discussed various ways to alter extra points and make it more of a “football play.”

“The alternatives that were discussed today were all over the place, but some were very consistent,” McKay said. “It was a very good discussion. There is a clear sentiment that there is a movement to change this year. The charge given to us as a competition committee is to come back with a recommended proposal in the next 30 days.”

The Ravens’ Justin Tucker, who is considered one of the best kickers in the NFL, has been a vocal opponent of changing the way extra points are done. Harbaugh, however, indicated the Ravens would be fine if the kick was altered, primarily because the team has great confidence in its kicker.

“I don’t care about that one way or the other,” Harbaugh said. “I’m OK with it. We have a good kicker. If they want to move it back to the 15, it would be an advantage for us.”

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