Last year during one of the Seattle-Arizona games, Seattle had a first down at, let's say, the 20-yard line. They completed a pass to the their 33 and the receiver fumbled the ball backwards to the 22. The ruling on the field was a gain of two yards making it 2nd and 8. To me this was the correct call. Some say that it should have been a first down at the point of recovery because the ball was originally caught in first-down territory and claim that the ruling was part of a new rule for that year. Feel free to weigh in here and could you tell me how long the rule has been the way it has concerning this play? --Scott, Longview, Wash.
In the play that you describe, the completed pass to the 33-yard line is fumbled, and no forward progress under NFL rules has been established. The ball continues in play and when the offensive team recovers the ball at a specific spot, such as the 22-yard line, it is in fact second down, eight yards to go. This play happens quite often. This rule of forward progress has been in the book for as long as I can remember, and that is over 50 years.
Under NFL rules, a team either accepts the penalty or declines it. No shortened penalty can be given for any reason. As you stated in your question, "it's either all or nothing."
Was there a particular referee or mentor whom you tried to emulate in your career? --David Englund, Belvidere, Ill.
David, you have been this column's most consistent contributor, and it is much appreciated. I look forward when the questions arrive to seeing your name on one of them. My style was created from many mentors. I watched all of the referees in high school, college and the NFL. I picked up a little something from each and every one of them. There's nothing original in officiating, so it's the presentation by the referee that makes a difference. Some of the men whom I watched and learned from were: Eliott Hasan, my football coach from Hyde Park High School in Chicago, who was also a high school and collegiate official; Howard Wirtz, who was the premiere referee in the Big Ten for many, many years; Art McNally, who was a National Football League referee; Jim Tunney, also from the National Football league; Pat Haggerty, also from the National Football League; and many more names that would fill this page. I thank them all for their contributions and, in my present job as Referee Trainer, I try to impart all of the knowledge given to me to the referees currently working in the National Football League.
In the Giants-Packers game, Plaxico Burress caught the ball, hit the ground without being touched by a defender and the ball rolled into the end zone. They ruled it an incomplete pass. If they would have ruled he had possession of the pass and it came loose when he hit the ground and rolled out of the end zone, what would have happened? --Ben Bailey, Reading, Penn.
To complete a forward pass in the field of play, the receiver must come down to the ground in possession of the ball and maintain possession when he hits the ground. Had this been ruled in the play that you describe, it would have been a touchback if the defending team would have recovered the ball in the end zone; or if the ball had gone out of the end zone, it would also have been a touchback. If the ball had been recovered by the offensive team, it would have been a touchdown unless this occurred during the last two minutes of either half or on a fourth down play. In this case, the ball would be returned to the spot of the fumble with the offensive team retaining possession, providing it was not fourth down.
What's the strangest or most confusing play you've been involved in while officiating in the NFL? --Paul, Mobile, Ala.
There were many strange plays during my 23 years as a National Football League official. If I have to narrow it down to one, it has to be "the Holy Roller Play." It was 1978, the Oakland Raiders playing at San Diego. With 30 seconds left in the game, the Raiders were down by six points and needed a touchdown to win the game. They were on about the San Diego 30-yard line as the clock ticked down. Ken Stabler dropped back to pass and was hit by two defenders and the ball flew forward toward the line of scrimmage. In an attempt to pick it up, a Raiders player accidentally batted the ball forward and another Raider accidentally kicked the ball into the end zone, where the Raiders fell on it for the winning touchdown. As referee, I looked around, saw the touchdown signal from the officials covering the goal line, and not seeing any flags on the ground, I signaled touchdown, and the Raiders won the game. The play has lived all of these years, and every once in a while, ESPN shows that scenario on the Classic Channel. My fellow veteran officials merely said, "Welcome to the NFL, kid!"
At what point between plays does the referee count to be sure there are 11 men on the offense? Before the huddle? After the huddle? Do you make your count by keeping track of how many run on and off the field? In one NFL game this year, there was a penalty for 12 men in the huddle, so I assume the referee's count would have had to be before the offensive players got into the huddle. How can you count them when they are moving around and not stationary? --Jenna, Columbus, Ohio
The referee, head linesman, line judge and umpire count the offensive team on every play in the game. The other three downfield officials count the defense. The referee is responsible for making sure that the offensive team never has more than 11 men in the huddle prior to the team breaking the huddle. He counts the men in the huddle as he retreats from his duties of spotting the ball or of merely overseeing what's going on prior to the next play. Once the huddle is established, the referee will count from his spot behind the huddle and then give his arm signal, indicating 11 men in the huddle. If 12 men are observed by the referee in the huddle, a penalty is immediately assessed against the offensive team for illegal substitution.
My friend believes that if a player is running with the ball, all alone, trips and falls and as he falls the ball in his arm strikes the ground and comes loose - bear in mind he has not been touched by anyone else yet - the play is dead. We say it's just a fumble, ground or no ground. What do you say? --Mike Dolan, Philadelphia
If a player in possession of the ball is contacted by a defender and then goes to the ground and then the ball comes out, it is not a fumble because the ground cannot cause a fumble under these conditions. The play is ruled dead with the fumbling team retaining possession. However, without the contact by the defense, this rule changes and a player going to the ground on his own who loses the ball is not ruled down and the ball continues in play. I hope you can show this to your friend so he can fully understand the difference between down by contact and not down by contact.
Cris Collinsworth said that a defensive player can legally "chuck" the receiver in the five-yard zone beyond the line of scrimmage so hard that the receiver falls to the ground. Is that true? In contrast, can the receiver after he is chucked, legally exert the same amount of force in the five-yard area so that the defensive player falls to the ground? --Jim, Toledo, Ohio
A defensive player can legally chuck a receiver in the five-yard zone beyond the line of scrimmage and can legally knock the receiver to the ground under the chuck rule. The offensive player, who is one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, cannot contact the defender on a pass play because this would be offensive pass interference.
Some of us at work were discussing your response last week to the question about a field-goal attempt striking a bird. We identified several plays that raised questions about whether the gondola rule is appropriate or how it should be applied when a ball strikes a bird or the floating camera:
1. A 55-yard field goal attempt is heading right down the middle and barely glances off a bird, but it still clears the crossbar by five yards, right down the middle. Can the referee disregard the gondola rule since the bird didn't really affect the outcome? A replay would seem unfair to the offense.
2. A quarterback is chased from the pocket and is about to throw the ball away out of bounds but he sees the overhead camera just behind him (or a slow-moving bird!) and intentionally throws a backward pass and strikes it. Could the referee disregard the gondola rule, and if so, where is the ball spotted?
3. A quarterback throws an illegal forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage that unintentionally strikes a bird or the camera wire and falls incomplete. I think that the gondola rule is appropriate here, but am confused about how to apply it. On the one hand, the down is replayed. On the other hand, all penalties are enforced, which in this case should include a loss of down. Which takes precedence?
4. The offense commits holding in its own end zone, and then the quarterback throws a pass that unintentionally strikes the camera wire or a bird and falls incomplete. Again, it seems impossible to both replay the down and enforce all penalties, since enforcement of the penalty would result in a safety. Which rule takes precedence? --Dan, Denver
The answers that I give you for your four-part question are my opinions, only, because these scenarios have really not been covered under NFL rules. Strange plays usually create rules interpretations and descriptions. With that said...
If the field goal attempt hits the bird in your play, the play will be replayed, even if the kick is good. It's possible that the deflection off the bird made the kick good.
If I were the referee in this play and was able to determine that the quarterback was good enough to hit the overhead camera or a slow-moving bird, I would throw my flag for a palpably unfair act. This is a 15-yard penalty from the previous line of scrimmage.
The illegal forward pass takes precedent over the gondola rule and a five-yard penalty from the spot of the illegal pass and a loss of down would be assessed.
The same rule applies here that applied in question No. 3. The offensive holding in the end zone results in a safety, as this takes precedent over the gondola rule.
Ask Jerry Markbreit
The former NFL referee answers reader questions each week during the season
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