Facebook Pixel
PFN Iconic

Ranking the Most Important Rule Changes in NFL History

The NFL is always experimenting. Pro Football Network is counting down the top 10 most important rule changes in NFL history.

The NFL of 2024 hardly looks like the NFL of 1920. While many elements — including size, speed, and schematic shifts — have altered the game’s appearance, rule changes have had an outsized impact on how NFL football is played today.

What are the most important rule changes in NFL history? Pro Football Network is counting down the top 10.

Top 10 Most Important Rule Changes in NFL History

10) Third Quarterback Rule

The NFL’s third quarterback rule — allowing teams to dress a No. 3 quarterback who is not on their active gameday roster — has undergone several revisions since its 1991 introduction.

The league instituted the rule after 1990’s “Body Bag Game,” an injury-marred tilt in which Washington running back Brian Mitchell was forced to step in as the club’s quarterback after starter Jeff Rutledge and backup Stan Humphries went down.

In 2011, the NFL abolished the rule after increasing gameday rosters from 45 to 46 players. However, the league brought back the third QB rule in 2023 after both of the San Francisco 49ers’ active quarterbacks suffered injuries in the NFC Championship Game. In 2024, NFL owners approved a measure allowing clubs to elevate their emergency QBs from the practice squad.

9) The Holy Roller Rule

Did Ken Stabler fumble, or didn’t he?

Almost 40 years later, it’s still unclear whether the Oakland Raiders quarterback fumbled or threw a forward pass in 1978’s infamous Holy Roller game. Oakland TE Dave Casper kicked and recovered what was ruled a Stabler fumble for a game-winning touchdown against the San Diego Chargers, leading the NFL to alter its rule book.

Thanks to the Holy Roller game, fumbles after the two-minute warning in either half may only be advanced by the player who fumbled.

8) Playoff Expansion

For most of the NFL’s early history, the playoffs simply consisted of the NFL Championship Game. That began to change in 1967 when the league expanded its postseason to four teams — and the playoffs have been growing ever since.

When the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, the playoffs shifted to eight teams (division winners). In 1978, the league added its first Wild Card slots, rewarding the best non-division-winning team in each conference. The NFL continued to increase Wild Card entries, growing the postseason field to 12 teams in 1990 and 14 in 2020.

While expanded playoffs may have watered down the field, the league’s top seeds have still appeared in and won as many Super Bowls as you might expect. Since the NFL moved to 12 teams in 1990, only two No. 5 seeds and two No. 6 seeds (and no No. 7 seeds) have won Lombardi trophies.

7) New Kickoff Rules

The NFL’s new kickoff rules, introduced during the 2024 offseason, represented the league’s latest bylaw adjustment.

Beginning in 2024, the NFL will adopt a version of the XFL’s kickoffs. No players except the kicker and returner(s) can move until the ball hits the ground or touches a player inside the “landing zone” where returners will be stationed.

Hopefully, these new rules will allow for more returns and additional innovation. Instead of nearly every scoring play being followed by a touchback, clubs might design creative, offensive-like plays aimed at getting returners behind a wave of blockers.

In addition to this change, the NFL banned traditional onside kicks outside the fourth quarter and overtime. In those scenarios, the kicking team must inform the referees that they plan to onside kick.

6) 2-Point Conversions

College football introduced two-point conversions in 1958. The AFL used them before their 1969 merger with the NFL, while the Canadian Football League implemented the two-point conversion in 1975.

However, the NFL didn’t have two-point conversions until the 1994 season, when it finally instituted a new form of extra-point scoring. Cleveland Browns punter Tom Tupa became the NFL’s first player to score on a two-point play, running in a faked extra-point kick in Week 1 of the ’94 campaign.

In 2014, the NFL considered a proposal to eliminate extra-point kicks altogether. Instead, the league moved extra-point kick attempts from the 15- to the 20-yard line. The following year, the NFL adopted a change that allowed defensive players to return extra-point conversion blocks or turnovers for two points of their own.

5) Overtime Rule Changes

The NFL installed sudden-death overtime for divisional games in 1941, giving its viewers their first dose of extra football. Five years later, OT was expanded to the NFL Championship Game before being added to regular-season games in 1974.

In 2010, the NFL modified overtime, giving each team a chance to possess the ball if the team that received first only kicked a field goal on its opening drive.

After the Buffalo Bills fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round loss that came to be known as “13 seconds,” the NFL amended its OT rules again — but only for the playoffs. Now, both clubs have the opportunity to possess the ball in overtime, regardless of what the receiving team accomplishes on its first series.

4) Pass-Blocking Made Easier

Until 1978, offensive linemen were expected to block defensive linemen with their momentum and little else.

“It was a totally different deal as opposed to today,” Hall of Fame guard Jerry Kramer said in 2016. “Not only were you not allowed to use your hands, you had to have them up on your chest. If you let your hands get away from your body, even if your fists were clenched and you didn’t reach for anything, they could call illegal use of hands.”

This change allowed for far greater control in pass protection for linemen, leading to more passing and scoring. The NFL wouldn’t be the passing-based league it is today without altering its pass-blocking rules.

3) The Mel Blount Rule

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Mel Blount was so physical with opposing receivers that the NFL had to change its rule. In 1978, the league limited contact between corners and receivers to five yards. Unsurprisingly, the new policy became known as the “Mel Blount rule.”

“When they changed the bump-and-run rule, we all had to adjust,” Blount said. “If you’re an athlete, a player, you make the adjustment. You know what the rules are. You play within the rules, and you let your ability take you to whatever it can take you to.”

With defenders restricted, the NFL game immediately opened up. Passing attacks started dominating the league, while quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Dan Fouts posted gargantuan yardage totals.

The NFL stepped up its enforcement of illegal contact after the New England Patriots beat up the Indianapolis Colts’ receivers in the 2004 AFC title. Since then, referees have been on the lookout for contact, holding, or interference, generally making the game easier for receivers.

2) Instant Replay

While instant replay may cause a slight delay here and there, the ability to get calls (mostly) correct has undoubtedly changed the NFL game over the past 40 years.

The league first adopted a replay system for the 1986 season. Coaches’ challenges weren’t instituted for over a decade until the NFL approved a measure permitting coach-requested reviews for the 1997 campaign.

In 2014, the NFL began centrally coordinating its instant replay reviews from its New York headquarters. In 2021, the league introduced “expedited” reviews, allowing an on-site replay official or staff at NFL headquarters to assist with on-field rulings.

According to the NFL, replay delays have decreased by roughly 30 seconds per game over the past two decades. Enhanced technology has allowed officials to overturn on-field rulings and get calls right. From 1999 to 2022, the rate of reversed calls doubled from 29% to 58%.

1) Free Agency and the Salary Cap

The NFL salary cap came into effect with the beginning of free agency. In 1992, the NFL was determined to have violated antitrust rules by refusing to grant players the opportunity to become free agents.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) eventually agreed to implement free agency in 1993. The salary cap took effect in the 1994 season.

That year, the salary cap was supposed to be $32 million per team. However, after the league sold expensive television rights to networks, the inaugural cap was set at $34.608 million. In 2024, the NFL salary cap is $255.4 million.

Free agency allows teams to bolster their rosters with new talent and find bargains on the open market, but mistakes are made every offseason. Trades, signings, and other transactions have become just as eye-catching as NFL games, especially after fantasy football’s advent.