The kicking game has become more complex to officiate over the past few years, even before the ball is snapped or kicked. The NFL, citing player safety, has developed rules to outlaw unbalanced lines in free kick and scrimmage kick formation.
Gone are the days where the kicking team can line everyone up on one side of the ball and unleash 10 players in one concentrated area for an onside kick. Rule 6-1-3(c) mandates that:
At least four players of the kicking team must be on each side of the kicker. At least three players must be lined up outside each inbounds line, one of whom must be outside the yard-line number.
The NFL made this rule because the kicking team could flood one side of the field and blast members of the receiving team out-of-the-way to recover the onside kick. The receiving team members were sitting ducks for a dangerous hit. If the kicking team violates this rule, it is a five-yard penalty for illegal formation.
Last year, the NFL gave the kicking team a break during extra point and field goal kicks. Rule 9-1-3(b) states:
No more than six Team B players may be on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper at the snap.
This is a player-requested rule change. The reason for the change is similar to the reason for free kicks. When the line is so unbalanced, the members of the kicking team are sitting ducks as the members of the defense can just overwhelm the kicking team’s line and blast the players out-of-the-way. The goal behind this rule change is to end dangerous hits. The foul for an unbalanced line on the defense is five yards for illegal formation. In Week 5, side judge Michael Banks caught the Kansas City Chiefs in an illegal formation on a field goal try. Notably, this was not called in a Week 17 game on a game-tying field goal by the Chargers against the Chiefs. The Chargers won the game in overtime, eliminating the Steelers from the playoffs.
In addition, umpire Carl Paganelli flagged the Colts for an illegal formation foul on a Texans field goal in the Week 6 Thursday night game. It seemed to be a very marginal call against the Colts for lining up on the Texans center, however the rule cannot be any clearer that Paganelli had the right call:
When Team A presents a punt, field-goal, or Try Kick formation, a Team B player, who is within one yard of the line of scrimmage, must have his entire body outside the snapper’s shoulder pads at the snap.
While these types of illegal formations are fairly easy to catch, it is another layer of things officials have to check before the ball is snapped or kicked. But, as the NFL attempts to make its game safer, these are rules that officials have to enforce and can’t miss.