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The 1990 NFL season was the 71st regular season of the National Football League. To increase revenue, the league changed the regular season so that all NFL teams would play their 16-game schedule over a 17-week period. Furthermore, the playoff format was expanded from 10 teams to 12 teams by adding another wild card from each conference, thus adding two more contests to the postseason schedule; this format remains in use today (although there are now four division spots and two wild card spots available with realignment in 2002). During four out of the five previous seasons, at least one team with a 10-6 record missed the playoffs, including the 11-5 Denver Broncos in 1985; meanwhile, the 10-6 San Francisco 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII, leading for calls to expand the playoff format to ensure that 10-6 teams could compete for a Super Bowl win. Ironically, the first ever sixth-seeded playoff team would not have a 10-6 record, but instead, the New Orleans Saints, with a paltry 8-8 record, took the new playoff spot.
The rule for unnecessary roughness penalties is clarified so that any player who butts, spears, or rams an opponent risks immediate disqualification.
The penalty for an illegal forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage is enforced from the spot where any part of the passer's body is beyond the line when the ball is released.
The following changes are made to try to speed up the game:
the time interval on the Play Clock (the time limit the offensive team has to snap the ball between plays) after time outs and other administrative stoppages has been reduced from 30 seconds to 25 seconds (the time interval between plays remains the same at 45 seconds);
whenever a player goes out of bounds, other than in the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half or overtime, the game clock immediately starts when the ball is spotted for the next play and the Referee signals it is ready for play; and
other than in the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half or overtime the game clock also starts following all declined penalties.
This was the first season in which NFL teams officially had a bye week.
Dick Jorgensen, who had been the referee in the previous season's Super Bowl XXIV, was diagnosed in May during the offseason with a rare blood disorder. He died five months later on October 10. For the remainder of the 1990 season, NFL officials wore a black armband on their left sleeve with the white number 60 to honor Jorgensen.
Ben Dreith and Fred Wyant were demoted to line judge. Dreith later filed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after the league fired him after the 1990 season, citing age discrimination as the reason for both his demotion to line judge and his dismissal. Dreith and the NFL would later agree in 1993 to a $165,000 settlement, plus court costs and attorney fees.
Only two, Gerald Austin and Tom White, were promoted to referee. After one season with having 16 officiating crews in 1989, it was reduced back to 15 crews in 1990 to handle the weekly workload of 14 games.
For the first time in NFL history, two teams (the 49ers and the Giants) would start the season 10-0. This would not be equalled until 2009 when the Colts and the Saints both reached 13-0, and was also equalled in 2015 by the Panthers and Patriots.