11 NFL Rules Named After People

New rules in the National Football League, as in any sport, are often enacted in response to repeated on-the-field actions or bizarre incidents involving a specific player or coach. These rules commonly take the name of the individuals indirectly responsible for their creation. Here are 11 such rules you can bring up during today's conference championship games.

1. Bill Belichick Rule

Since 1994, NFL quarterbacks have been permitted to wear speakers in their helmets, enabling coaches on the sideline to communicate plays to them without the use of hand signals. Beginning in 2007, lime-green stickers were used to mark these radio-equipped helmets. During the 2008 offseason, the NFL passed a rule that allowed one defensive player on the field to have a speaker in his helmet. The season before, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were fined for videotaping a game against the New York Jets from an unauthorized location in order to learn their defensive hand signals. “If you didn’t have any signals, it wouldn’t have happened,” former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips said of the Spygate scandal. “I’m just happy to get something passed. That way you don’t have to worry about it. People were putting towels up in front of people. You shouldn’t have to play football that way.” The Patriots voted in favor of the proposal.

2. Bronco Nagurski Rule

The Bronco Nagurski Rule was enacted after a controversial finish in the 1932 NFL championship game between Nagurski’s Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth Spartans. At the time, a forward pass was only legal if it was thrown from at least five yards behind the line of scrimmage. After Nagurski was stuffed twice on runs up the middle in a tie game, he took a few steps back and threw a pass to Red Grange for a touchdown. Portsmouth’s coach argued that Nagurski wasn’t five yards behind the line of scrimmage when he threw the pass, but the call stood and the Bears went on to win 9-0. The following season, the league declared that forward passes could be made from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.

3. Ken Stabler Rule

In 1979, the NFL enacted a rule in response to a play during the 1978 season that became known as “The Holy Roller.” With five seconds remaining and the Oakland Raiders trailing the San Diego Chargers by six points, Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler dropped back to pass from the San Diego 23-yard line for an apparent last-ditch heave into the end zone. Stabler was pressured, however, and in an effort to avoid a sure sack, intentionally fumbled the ball forward. The ball rolled to Raiders fullback Pete Banaszak, who kicked the ball forward to tight end Dave Casper. Casper dribbled the ball into the end zone before falling on it for the winning touchdown.

The resulting rule, which is informally known as the Ken Stabler or Raider Rule, prohibits an offensive player other than the player who fumbled the ball from recovering or advancing a fumble on fourth down or on any down in the final two minutes of a half. If another offensive player recovers the ball, it is placed back at the spot of the fumble.

4. Emmitt Smith Rule

In 1997, the NFL enacted Player Conduct Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1, which prohibits a player from removing his helmet while on the field. The rule was informally named after Smith, the Hall of Fame running back who had a habit of removing his helmet to celebrate touchdowns—including after the TD he scored on his first carry of the 1995 season. “I had just come off a serious injury, and all I read about was how I supposedly had lost a step, that I was on the down side of my career,” Smith told the Dallas Morning News. “I went 60 yards on my first carry and my hamstring didn’t pull. I was excited.”

Smith was flagged for removing his helmet during the first season that the rule was enforced. “Is it a badge of honor?” Smith told the Austin American-Statesman. “No, it’s not.”

5. Greg Pruitt Rule

Cleveland Browns running back Greg Pruitt was one of several NFL players who wore tear-away jerseys during the 1970s as a sneaky means of shaking off would-be tacklers. Pruitt rushed for 1,000 yards for three consecutive seasons from 1975-77. “For it to be effective, you couldn’t wear anything under it,” Pruitt told Cleveland Magazine. “It got pretty cold playing on the lakefront.”

The league banned tear-away jerseys in 1979. Pruitt was named to five Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Raiders in 1983.

6. Hines Ward Rule

In 2009, the NFL enacted a rule that prohibits blindside blocks that come from the blocker’s helmet, forearm, or shoulder and land to the head or neck area of the defender. The rule is informally known as the Hines Ward Rule, after the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver who established a reputation for leveling unsuspecting defenders and broke Keith Rivers’ jaw with a vicious block in 2008. “It’s kind of funny because week in and week out, that’s all we see is highlights of somebody getting blown up by a defensive player,” Ward told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “In my case it’s shunned or doesn’t look good or makes me a dirty player. I don’t do anything different than what they do to offensive players.”

7. Lester Hayes Rule

In 1981, the NFL banned the use of Stickum, a sticky substance used to improve grip that was popularized by Oakland Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes. During the 1980 season, including the playoffs, the substance helped Hayes haul in 19 interceptions. "You practically had to pry the ball loose from him whenever he got his hands on it," Raiders linebacker Ted Hendricks said of Hayes in a 2007 interview with ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha.

8. Phil Dawson Rule

During a 2007 game in Baltimore, Dawson’s unusual 51-yard field goal led to the adoption of a new rule. Dawson’s kick, which tied the game, was initially ruled no good, as the ball deflected off the left upright and down off the stanchion support post behind the crossbar before bouncing back over the crossbar and into the end zone. While replay rules did not allow for the review of field goals at the time, officials reversed the call after a brief discussion on the field. The Phil Dawson Rule enacted the following season allowed for field goals and extra points that hit the crossbar or uprights to be reviewed.

9. Ricky Williams Rule

The Ricky Williams Rule, which was enacted in 2003, declared that a player’s hair was an extension of his uniform and therefore fair game for tacklers. The rule was informally named after Williams, the Miami Dolphins’ dreadlocked running back. It’s probably not a coincidence that most NFL players with long hair play defense, but defenders aren’t entirely safe from the dangers of hair-pulling. In 2006, Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson dragged Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu down by his hair after an interception. “The dude had hair,” Johnson said of his tackle. “What do you want me to do?” Polamalu has since insured his hair for $1 million.

10. Roy Williams Rule

The rule banning horse-collar tackles, in which a defender whips a player to the ground by grabbing the back of his shoulder pads, is informally named after Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams and was enacted before the 2005 season. Williams broke Terrell Owens’s ankle and also ended the seasons of Musa Smith and Tyrone Calico with horse-collar tackles in 2004. “I play by whatever rules the NFL lays down,” Williiams said after the rule was enacted. “If there’s a type of tackle that’s legal, I’ll use it. If it’s not legal, I won’t. It’s as simple as that.” Williams was suspended for one game in 2007 after being flagged for his third horse-collar tackle of the season.

11. Tom Dempsey

New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot and wore a modified shoe with a flattened and enlarged toe surface. Dempsey booted an NFL record 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions in 1970. In 1977, the NFL enacted a rule that requires “any shoe that is worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe." In 1956, the Lou Groza Rule banned the use of artificial aids for kickers. Groza, a Hall of Famer for the Cleveland Browns, used a strip of tape to line up his kicks and a special tee to help guide the ball off his foot.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.