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Quick action saves penalty: Why 49ers’ 12-men 86’d when 89 exits huddle

cheffers 12huddle

In a bizarre sequence leading to halftime, a 49ers incomplete pass from the 1-yard line to the corner of the end zone becomes a touchdown in replay, the coach is assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and the play actually should have started from the 6 because the 49ers had 12 men in the huddle.

Or, should there have been a penalty for 12 in the huddle, even though there were 12 in the huddle?

The 12-in-huddle penalty is enforced as a between-downs foul, which stops the play clock and, if running, the game clock. This was put in place to remove an offensive advantage by not allowing the defense to have the properly matched personnel in its huddle. If there are 12 in the offensive huddle, there is no relief by a player merely stepping out of the huddle or calling timeout.

This was a special case, because there was a defensive pass interference on the preceding play. After the penalty is announced, a player who has an “ineligible” number reports to referee Carl Cheffers that he will line up as an end (an eligible receiver). It would be an illegal formation if a player not wearing a number of an eligible receiver is lined up at the end of the line. Cheffers announces the number and gives a signal to the crew, which they mirror it to show they are aware of now-eligible player.

After the ineligible number is taken care of, Cheffers gives a ready-for-play signal which winds the play clock. At this precise moment, there are 12 men in the 49ers huddle. Tight end Vance McDonald realizes this (as he is being replaced on the end of the line), and sprints out of the huddle to get to the sideline.

This should not be a foul, because the 49ers took action to make their huddle compliant on the ready-for-play signal. There is no proscribed amount of time that the offense has — for instance, when there is an obvious late personnel switch, two players can swap positions into and out of the huddle. This is up to the referee’s discretion if there is a legitimate one-for-one substitution, or an attempt to deceive the defense.

Cheffers indicated that he considered McDonald having left in a timely manner. “I saw the player come off but I had not yet marked the ball ready for play,” Cheffers told a pool reporter. “So that is why I did not call it as a foul. The ball was not in play yet.” When there is an administrative stoppage, such as a penalty, ineligible-numbered players who report are handled by the referee before the ready-for-play signal, unless the player reports after the signal.

Since, the 49ers remained in the huddle and did not break for the line in an attempt to catch the Panthers substituting, discretion indicates there was no foul.

Bench penalty. 49ers coach Jim Harbuagh was arguing with Cheffers after the incomplete pass (later reversed) because three seconds ticked off the game clock. This could have been corrected in replay, since there was a reversal. It was likely not part of the review, because the incomplete pass and the touchdown share the same dead-ball moment, thus the clock would ordinarily reflect the same time. Even though the replay review changed the play, 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct or personal fouls are never wiped out by replay. In this case, the foul was assessed following the kickoff since the score was awarded. If the replay did not overturn the call, the 49ers would have had 3rd-and-goal from the 16.

The pool report is provided below, complete with new turf terminology — a “rooster tail.”

Pool report interview with Carl Cheffers

Q: Carl, the replay was on the play with Vernon Davis that you guys overturned on replay. There was also a replay shown on the FOX broadcast that showed 89 for San Francisco [Vance McDonald] as the 12th man in the huddle leaving the field after having been in the huddle. He happened to cross in front of you. I guess the question would be did you see it? Not see it? And I guess that would have been a 5-yard penalty, correct?

Cheffers: Right, so let me explain what we had on the play. We had two players reporting as eligible. I believe it was 67 [Daniel Kilgore] and 68 [Adam Snyder] reported as eligible. So, I was going through our process for that, [which] is to make an announcement to that effect. Those two players reporting as eligible, notify the defense, then I marked the ball ready for play. I saw that happen, I saw the player come off but I had not yet marked the ball ready for play so that is why I did not call it as a foul. The ball was not in play yet. That’s why I didn’t call the foul on the play.

Q: They were still able to make that substitution. They could have had any number of men in the huddle because it had not been marked?

Cheffers: Yeah, that’s the ruling that I made on the field was that the ball had not yet been marked ready for play.

Q: I appreciate that. While we have you, was there anything much to see or say about the replay itself that you reversed?

Cheffers: I thought it was pretty cut and dry. I felt that the receiver stuck the ball initially on his catch. The right foot was clearly inbounds. The real question was the left foot and as you guys have all seen when you drag the left foot on these types of fields you get the “rooster tail” if you will and I think it was pretty apparent that there was a rooster tail with the left foot drag. So to me it was pretty cut and dry. We went through two or three different angles just to make sure we had a great confirmation on the catch and with the video evidence that we had we were able to reverse the call on the field and make it a touchdown.

Image: Fox Sports/NFL via Bleacher Report enhanced by Football Zebras

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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One thought on “Quick action saves penalty: Why 49ers’ 12-men 86’d when 89 exits huddle

  1. Shouldn’t there have been a penalty on McDonald for being in the huddle but not participating in a play? He was not on the field on the previous play. http://imgur.com/ADkewiW .

    For an offensive substitute who moves onto the field inside the field numerals and leaves without participating in one play: Unsportsmanlike Conduct

    The note attached to the rule doesn’t make it clear where the line is for simulating substitutions or if intent matters. But the fact is SF brought in 2 eligible linemen and TE McDonald to the huddle and then sent McDonald off. That seems more like simulating a substitution than the ‘change of mind on 4th down’ example that the rule book uses to be okay. Carolina seemed confused why he came on and left without participating. http://imgur.com/CH8Oddp

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