During a Week 15 game that was more for draft position than anything, the Tennessee Titans rolled out an unusual tactic on the final play of the game. The Titans were trailing the Jets 16-11, and they were obviously going to attempt to score a touchdown on a series of laterals. To get more skill players available on the play, coach Ken Whisenhunt had two running backs, a fullback, and a tight end line up in place of his interior linemen. This was an astute play call by Whisenhunt, as the center was the only typical lineman on the field. Since these incoming substitutes are are all eligible receivers, they must report to the referee that they are lining up out of position, otherwise it is an illegal formation penalty.
This play may have been the seed that created some new playbook entries for Patriots coach Bill Belichick. During their two playoff games, the Patriots added some new formations with players lining up out of position in order to keep the Ravens and the Colts defenses on alert. The offense on every play is required to have a minimum of seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage — the two players on either end must be eligible receivers, and the interior lineman must all be ineligible. In offensive formations, eligibility is determined by uniform number, as illustrated below.
|Eligible Numbers||Ineligible Numbers|
|1–19||Quarterbacks,* punters, kickers||50–59||(Defensive linebackers)|
|10–19||Wide receivers||50–79||Centers, (defensive linemen)|
|20–49||Running backs, (defensive backs)||60–79||Offensive guards and tackles|
|40–49||Tight ends, H-backs,||90–99||(Defensive linemen, linebackers)|
|80– 89||Wide receivers, tight ends, H-backs|
Defensive players are listed in parentheses, as they are permitted to substitute on offense, but their eligibility is determined by their number.
*Note that a quarterback who lines up under center is not eligible, but becomes eligible if he legally shifts to a position more than 1 yard behind the line or on the end of the line. Quarterbacks in shotgun formation are eligible.
All coaches have a few plays that require extra blocking protection, which is typically accomplished by having one of the linemen outside of the interior line position where an eligible receiver is required. To make the formation compliant, the lineman playing out of position must report as “eligible” to the referee.
The referee will make an announcement of the ineligible player who is reporting, then signal by sweeping his hands vertically in front of his chest (as if “erasing” the number) and point to the newly eligible player.
Less common is the need for a player to report ineligible, but Belichick caught the Ravens off guard by putting running back Shane Vereen in as an interior lineman. Vereen reported properly, but it did have it its intended effect to confuse the Ravens defense. In the Titans play illustrated above, numbers 20, 86, 44, and 29 had to report ineligible. They could not catch a pass, but they were able to be on the receiving end of a lateral, or backward pass.
As a matter of efficiency, both teams let the officials know before the game which players line up out of position in their standard punt and field-goal attempt formations.
Patriots confused themselves and the officials
The Patriots scored in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts when offensive tackle Nate Solder reported in an eligible position and caught the pass for a touchdown (video). However, the Patriots switcheroo was illegal.
The right tackle, Cameron Fleming, reported eligible on the previous play (second down). Solder reported eligible on third down, but Fleming retains his eligibility as long as he continuously remains in the game. Players reset to their number (eligible or ineligible) when one of the following happens: if they sit out for a down, a timeout is called by either team, two-minute warning occurs, a replay review, or the end of the quarter. Fleming would have been legal to line-up at the end of the line on third down, but there were not enough interior lineman on the field to do that.
Fleming was required to re-report after each play. It is a fairly routine matter; usually the referee asks the player if he’s still eligible. This does not give a player a chance to “un-report.” What appears to have happened was Solder was reporting and Fleming was erroneously opting out of being eligible. On the fly, this was accepted by referee Walt Anderson and the crew. The eligibility prompts were not seen on TV, but the running play clock was shown being reset to 25 between downs, indicating there was some unforeseen circumstance that should not disadvantage the Patriots.
The Solder touchdown play would have been a five-yard illegal formation penalty because Fleming lined up ineligible. However, by Anderson allowing the un-reporting of Fleming, and not signaling to the Colts that Fleming was technically still eligible, it would be inappropriate to flag the Patriots at the snap. The Colts defense was matched up man-for-man, so they were not mislead. The Colts obviously misplayed the coverage of Solder after the snap, but it was not as a result of confusion over Fleming’s eligibility. If there was a blown assignment, the Colts would have certainly called a timeout — and may have been successful in getting the timeout restored if they explained the eligibility question. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Anderson should have disallowed Fleming to become ineligible in the first place.
Super Bowl preparations
The announcement by the referee of players reporting eligible or ineligible usually happens when the television audience is listening to the color analyst dissect the previous play. The inimitable producer for NBC Sports, Fred Gaudelli, told me they will be keeping the audience informed. “We will be all over the reporting of eligible and ineligible receivers,” he said.
Vice-president of officiating Dean Blandino stated that, in addition to the eligible-reporting signal mentioned above, referee Bill Vinovich will signal an eligible-to-ineligible player by sweeping his arms like an incomplete pass signal, but at knee-level. Anderson used this signal at least once in the AFC Conference Championship Game. When Vinovich officiated the Ravens-Patriots Divisional Playoff Game, he did not use that signal on the aforementioned Vereen substitution.