Looking at the 2018 NFL Rule Changes From a Bettor’s Perspective
© Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
The big fuss on sports talk radio and around water coolers across the country over the last few days has been about the new NFL rule changes for this upcoming season. Specifically, the following seven new rules were announced at the conclusion of the 2018 NFL Annual League Meeting:
- 25-yard line made permanent for ball placement after touchbacks.
- Clarifying a catch (we will still argue what a “football move” is, but it’s progress).
- Penalties are now the same for illegal batting and kicking.
- Designated off-field official can call for a player to be disqualified for a flagrant act.
- Teams no longer need to kick an extra point if they score on the final play.
- If a team turns it over after allowing a field goal on the first possession in overtime, that play will be allowed to continue until completion.
- Lowering the helmet is now a penalty.
Despite all of the chatter and hot takes, I have yet to see anybody cover the impact of these rule changes on bettors. When you think about it in population terms, no group is affected more by NFL rule changes than bettors. And that’s why you come here. Let’s focus in on the potential impact of each of the last three rule changes listed above, as three of the first four won’t materially change the game (I can hear the Cowboys and Steelers fans chirping). Hopefully, we can eventually figure out what a catch is. It’s only one of the most fundamental aspects of the game of football.
I will try to provide clarity into which ones could potentially ruin your hungover Sunday on the couch a few months from now. Let’s start with No. 5, the extra point rule change.
Extra Point Rule
This rule was essentially borne out of the circus ending of the Vikings’ miracle playoff win over the Saints last season. After the game was over, a few of the Saints had to come out of the locker room for the extra-point attempt, one of the most unnecessary plays in NFL history. You could argue the rule made some sense in the regular season, as points could eventually come into play for playoff tiebreaker procedures.
Having said all of that, the impact of this rule change from a football standpoint is minimal. It’s actually a logical rule, as nobody wants to see a repeat of what happened in Minneapolis.
From a betting perspective, however, there is a small potential impact. In the past, teams that won on a final-play touchdown would normally just take a knee instead of kicking the forced extra point, as Minnesota did. The Chiefs also did that last year against the Redskins, which could have impacted a few bets depending on your number.
Where this could come into play is if the team that is trailing scores on the final play of the game, which happens more than you might think. Just last season, Miami (vs. the Jets) and Baltimore (vs. the Vikings) scored a meaningless touchdown on the final play of the game. Since they have nothing to lose, why not kick the extra point or go for two? Both teams did indeed. The Dolphins actually missed the extra point, but it wouldn’t have impacted the side or total. However, in the Ravens’ case, they made their extra point, which actually pushed the game over the opening total of 39.5 by the hook. (I remember that all too well, as I unfortunately bet the under.) If that game played out the same way this year, Minnesota would have won 24-15, instead of 24-16. (And I would have more money in my account!)
You might be saying to yourself that not many games end up within a point of the side or total. Fair. But that doesn’t mean someone out there isn’t holding a ticket that will be impacted by a final extra point. Think about the teaser and live markets. Even fantasy implications. In this day and age, someone somewhere out there will have money swing on every point.
The NFL first added overtime to the rulebook in 1974. The rules pertaining to the potential extra period remained static until 2010, when the league modified the sudden-death format to give both teams the opportunity to possess the football unless the team that starts with the ball scores a touchdown. At first, that new rule only applied to postseason games starting in 2010, before rolling out to the regular season in 2012. Then in 2017, the NFL decreased the overtime period length from 15 minutes to 10.
The NFL has now slightly tweaked the overtime rules again this year. Since the start of the modified sudden death, the game would immediately end if a team turned it over if the other team kicked a field goal on its opening possession. For example, let’s say Team A kicks a field goal on its first possession of overtime. That means Team B would get a chance at possessing the ball. If Team B throws an interception (or loses a fumble), the game immediately ends as soon as possession changes. The defender would have no chance to return that interception for a touchdown, as the refs would blow the play dead.
However, starting this season, the officials will allow that play to finish. Any score after the turnover would count toward the final (and toward any wagers). It will still make sense most of the time for the defender to go down, as the game would end. That will happen in most cases, but not if someone can stroll in on a scoop-and-score or pick-six. Think about all of the meaningless scoop-and-scores after failed laterals (#banlaterals) at the end of regulation that decide wagers. This is potentially that painful loss on steroids.
It won’t be as painful as the NCAA overtime moose possibility before it changed its rules to end the game right after a turnover in OT. Before that change, a college team could have won an overtime game by as many as 14 points (score first and get the two-point conversion, then return a fumble for a touchdown). Something similar happened in the 1990s when Arizona State scooped and returned a USC fumble for a touchdown for a 13-point victory. That still ranks up there as one of the worst bad beats ever, as the Trojans were catching 7.5 points.
Now, the maximum loss in college football after regulation is eight points (in triple OT or later). In the past, the most an NFL team could lose by after regulation was six points. With this rule change, that maximum loss number jumps to nine points. Your +8.5 underdog is no longer safe if the fourth quarter ends tied. Let’s hope none of us ever have to suffer such a horrific moose. Start praying to the gambling gods.
Someone asked me if this scenario has played out before. It has indeed occurred twice since the modified sudden death rolled out to the regular season in 2012. It happened in a 2015 Broncos-Bengals game, when the Bengals lost a fumble after going down a field goal in overtime to the Broncos. Also, in a Patriots-Jets game, when New England forced and recovered a Mark Sanchez fumble with a three-point lead in overtime. (Just look how easily Rob Ninkovich could have scored if the rules permitted him to do so.) It will happen eventually. We have seen more than 560 overtime games since 1974. Don’t expect that pace to slow down. Stay safe out there.
Lowering Helmet Rule
This is the most controversial rule change, but there is still a lot of uncertainty in regard to how the league will enforce this new NFL-specific targeting penalty.
Look, I get it. The NFL has to put player safety first, which also helps with the long-term sustainability of the game. Rules like this speak directly to parents of the youth that the game needs in the future.
Without knowing all of the details yet, my only problem is how quickly the league is making these changes. Why not test it out in the preseason? Can we give these teams and players some legitimate time to adjust and learn the new rules? I’m sure this will also all be a learning experience for the NFL front office and officials as well.
From a betting standpoint, this just introduces more variance into the outcome of games. Those who have played and/or just watched football know the importance of momentum. One play can swing a game. We see it with the illegal contact and roughing the passer calls now. Instead of a punt, a team get a first down. Those swing games and wager outcomes even more frequently. We also may see key players getting tossed, which would have a significant impact on numerous aspects of sports betting and fantasy. Let’s just hope the NFL handles this right. If not, at least the twitter rants will be entertaining.