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Offenses subject to ‘reasonable time’ rule

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The conspiracy machine got some gas in preseason with the suggestion that officials are given the authority to limit offensive schemes through controlling the pace of the game. In a Wall Street Journal article, a connection was drawn between a new point of emphasis and the offense employed by incoming Eagles coach Chip Kelly at the collegiate level.

Kelly’s high octane offense thrived on not only keeping the defense from substituting, but also restricting the defense’s ability call a defensive set and get positioned. No-huddle offenses are not new, but the prevailing strategy has been to  prevent the defense a substitution opportunity (so long as the offense does not substitute), and not to disallow a defense to match up or to line up onside. When time is not of the essence, a quick snap to catch the defense also affects the seven on-field officials and their shadow crew of replay officials, chain operators, down box personnel, and ball handlers.

Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino addressed this point of emphasis in a Football Zebras podcast in June (at the 24:55 mark of the audio):

We’ve emphasized the officiating mechanics with the no-huddle offense outside of two minutes. What the mechanics are: how we will control the tempo outside of 2:00 and not rush because the offense wants to snap the ball. [We will be] making sure the teams understand that all seven officials have to be in their proper positions to officiate the play before we are going to let the ball get snapped.

Points of emphasis are issued on a thorough review by the Competition Committee, and not because of some predicted exploitation of the rules by some inbound coach. The fact remains that this was a problem already, with an offense catching the officials out of position. In the image above, taken from the Texans-Patriots divisional playoff game, umpire Garth DeFelice was sending the ball to the ball handler on a routine 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line. It was still the first quarter, so time was not of the essence to the Patriots. After turning around, quarterback Tom Brady was already under center, and DeFelice attempted to get to his umpire stance. In a goal-line situation, that is behind the defensive linebackers (as shown in the empty spot shadow). He, instead, remained in the offensive backfield. There was no way for all seven officials to have done their between-downs duties and been ready for the Patriots snap.

Under the existing rules, with the new point of emphasis indicating the degree of interpretation that is expected, that 1st-and-goal play would have been shut down for an illegal snap. (The first instance in a game is a warning.) Rule 7-6-3(c):

The snapper may not snap the ball after it is ready for play until all of the officials have had a reasonable time to assume their normal stances. If this occurs, the ball remains dead, and no penalty is assessed unless it is a repeated act after a warning (delay of game).

But shouldn’t the officials spot the ball with the same amount of urgency as they do under two minutes? If such a mechanic were in place, it would go against the tenets of athleticism that are thousands of years old. The game is a marathon, not a sprint. All long-distance athletes — be it runners, cyclists, and swimmers — are in unanimous agreement that pacing is key for competition. Football officials cannot be expected to treat every single play as a potential hurry-up opportunity, because most plays do not require that. The players are not expected as much, either, as we have not even seen any two-way player in the color television era of the NFL.

So the Competition Committee looked at what is “reasonable,” and found that the officials would set the pace of the game, not the offense. If the offense presents a hurry-up situation outside of two minutes, officials will do their due diligence to get the ball ready for play, but it would not be at the sacrifice of proper officiating mechanics at any time of the game.

Image: NFL/CBS Sports

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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