Refs to spot ball at first touch of ground on head-first dives

LATROBE, Pa. -- An obscure NFL rule change could have an outsized impact on close plays during the 2018 season, based on the way officials are explaining it to teams and media members this summer.

A player who dives head first will now be judged to have given himself up, and the ball will be marked at the point where he first touched the ground. Previously, the ball was marked where his forward progress stopped. The likely consequence, officials say, is that players who appear to have dived for a first down or touchdown could have the ball marked short of where they think they ended up.

"It's a big change this year," said Rusty Baynes, the line judge on referee Jerome Boger's crew who was part of a group visiting the Pittsburgh Steelers this week. "Because if you were a runner or a quarterback and you dove head first you could, if you were untouched, get all of that slide. If you went head first. Now, you cannot.

"It'll be interesting to see what happens at the goal line."

In recent years, players have routinely gained between 1 and 4 extra yards on head-first dives, per an NFL review.

"If he dives and lands at the 1 and then slides untouched past the goal line, we're going to mark him at the 1," said Hugo Cruz, a down judge on Carl Cheffers' crew. Cruz visited the Cleveland Browns this week.

An NFL video shown this summer to teams and reporters displayed two examples of such dives, one from Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and another from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Many mobile quarterbacks, and even receivers and running backs, have used the head-first dive when possible because league rules granted the full yardage gained. Feet-first slides, on the other hand, have long been ruled down at the moment the first body part touches the ground to provide extra safety to quarterbacks.

Importantly, officials won't distinguish between a player obviously giving himself up and a player who is diving to avoid contact with would-be tacklers, according to Greg Meyer, a back judge on Cheffers' crew. In fact, Baynes said that the definition of "giving yourself up" will be a head-first dive or feet-first slide.

The change, executed in March by the NFL competition committee as a point of emphasis, was designed in part to make the rules consistent for all slides. Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, said at the time that defensive players were left in untenable positions on head-first dives.

On the one hand, they were afraid of roughness penalties against a quarterback sliding on the ground. On the other, they were often left standing idle as an offensive player advanced as many as 3 or 4 yards on the ground.