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Punt blocks, bats, hoppers: Untangling unusual enforcement on 49ers blocked kick

49ers seahawks genericWeek 14: Seahawks at 49ers (video)

If you rack your brain over this scenario, you can be bouncing across the rulebook for the correct ruling and still not get it right. We are about to get into the deep recesses of refdom here, so stay with us. And, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before we’re done.

Scenario: On 4th-and-24 from their 17 yard-line, the Seahawks punt is blocked. One of the Seahawks players bats the ball forward with his hand at the Seahawks 16-yard line. It goes out of bounds at the 34, short of the line to gain for the first down. A flag was thrown for the illegal batting foul.

Ruling on the field: Since the foul occurred before the change of possession, it was ruled that the illegal bat could be enforced from the previous spot and replay fourth down — or the 49ers could decline the penalty and take the ball at the dead-ball spot. The 49ers chose to decline the foul.

Turns out it was wrong to spot it there. Let’s step through the hard way.

The foul for an illegal bat is in Rule 12–4–1. It states:

Penalty: For illegal batting or punching the ball: Loss of 10 yards. For enforcement, treat as a foul during a backward pass or fumble (see 8–7–7).

Rule 8–7–7 then gives us this clear-cut guidance, with Team A being the team that snaps the ball:

(b) When the spot of a backward pass or fumble is behind the line of scrimmage, all fouls committed by either team, including a foul by Team B in Team A’s end zone, are enforced from the previous spot

This squares up with the options that the 49ers were given: 10 yards from the previous spot and replay the down, or decline the penalty. But it’s not correct. We need help from someone.

Enter Ed Hochuli. Yes, he actually has a role in determining the correct ruling on this play, despite the fact he was at the other end of continent, some 2,900 miles away.

Hochuli wrote the definitive manual of penalty enforcement, called the Hopperbook. It is based on a common officiating parlance of mentally placing a penalty in one of 15 different hoppers, and applying the enforcement that belongs to that hopper. Examples of hoppers include a foul before the snap, double fouls, double fouls before a change of possession, double fouls after a change, and double foul/double change.

Hochuli writes this to his colleagues:

The key to penalty enforcements is to first get the penalty into the correct hopper, and then apply the enforcement. Most of our confusion arises because we start in the wrong hopper. Therefore, always be careful to first decide on the hopper before you start thinking about the enforcement.

First, we need to think about what hopper this belongs in. The foul occurred after the blocked punt, behind the line of scrimmage, and before a change in possession. In the earlier example, we enforced this as a fumble, but there was no fumble on the play. Once the ball is kicked, it remains a kick until it is possessed — not touched, but possessed — by any player or it is declared dead. In this case, the correct hopper is number 6, fouls on scrimmage kick plays:

Fouls by A during the kick, but before possession by team B, (other than KCI or FCI [kick-catch interference or fair-catch interference], which are spot fouls), can be enforced from either the previous spot or tacked on from the DBS [dead-ball spot].

Even though the punt is bouncing around after the block, it is still a kicking play, and a foul by the kicking team before possession by the receiving team. Any fouls that go to the previous spot will replay the previous down (unless it is specifically a loss-of-down penalty); the term “tack on” means the down counts and the penalty is enforced after.

So, the 49ers had these options:

  • Accept the penalty from the previous spot (half-distance), Seahawks ball, 4th-and-32 from the 9.
  • Accept the penalty from the dead-ball spot, 49ers ball, 1st-and-10 from the 24.
  • Decline the penalty, 49ers ball, 1st-and-10 from the 34.

The 49ers were unable to move the ball on the ensuing drive, and kicked a field goal. However, they were entitled to the ball 10 yards closer.

It was a convoluted enforcement on a fluke of a play, but it still comes down to remembering the correct hopper.

So, I drag out the Hopperbook, today of all days — the 107th birthday of Grace Hopper, the pioneer computer programmer, who is memorialized today with a Google Doodle.

This ruling could have used several supercomputers to analyze.

Download the latest version of the Hopperbook (PDF).

Image: San Francisco 49ers photo

8 comments for “Punt blocks, bats, hoppers: Untangling unusual enforcement on 49ers blocked kick

  1. Derek Maple
    December 10, 2013 at 1:59 am

    Rule 9, Section 5, Exception 1:
    Unless the kick is a missed field-goal attempt, if there is a foul by the kicking team, the receiving team will have the option of taking the penalty at the previous spot and replaying the down, or adding the penalty yardage on to the dead-ball spot.

    Although I don’t doubt Hochuli’s infinite wisdom and experience, the proof is right there.

  2. Ben Austro
    December 10, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    That is correct, Derek. Everything in the Hopperbook references back to the rulebook. In this case, since the enforcement point (and not the penalty itself) is in question, the Hopperbook is a better resource to break down the correct spot, particularly since the rulebook leads the casual reader down the path of a fumble enforcement.

    It was also a good opportunity to introduce the Hopperbook to the masses.

  3. Observer 2
    December 10, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    But this ruling was obvious to even HS and NCAA officials that have the same rule…ANY foul by ‘A’ (kicking team) during a LEGAL scrimmage can be tacked on to the DBS (with the exceptions regarding interference). I am surprised this was even an issue for the “regular” (better?) offiicals.

  4. Dave
    December 10, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    Agree with Observer 2. When I saw this during the game, I said “In college, that would be enforced from the dead-ball spot.” I assumed the NFL rulebook didn’t have the provision that the NCAA book has about team B’s choice of enforcement spots for fouls by team A during a kick, but it seems that it does. Blatant misapplication of the rules.

  5. Sven
    December 11, 2013 at 11:53 am

    When I look at this situation, it seems like the answer “should” be: tack on 10 yard penalty from the spot of the foul. Otherwise in any of those scenarios, the penalized team is still benefitting from the penalized act. And isn’t the point of rules and enforcement to prevent teams from benefitting from an illegal act?

  6. darin sumpter
    December 11, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    If it had not been blocked and the kicking team touches the ball no matter were it is down by contact so that should have been the scenerio in this situation I think it should have been downed were he slapped the ball forward that’s my call on it I think it was a b.s. call in my opinion

  7. Ben Austro
    December 11, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Any scrimmage kick (FG or punt) that does not cross the line of scrimmage (either bad kick or blocked) can be advanced by the offense. Offense may also pass or re-kick the ball, so long as it doesn’t cross the line of scrimmage until after the kick/pass.

    A blocked kick would only be dead in the offense’s backfield without possession for standard dead-ball declared situations: if it goes out of bounds, if neither team attempts to recover, if there is an inadvertent whistle, etc.