2016 rule changes
A loophole in the catch rules for receivers that step out of bounds was closed by one of the rule changes that will take effect in 2016. If a receiver that stepped out of bounds during the course of the play was unable to re-establish in bounds, the pass would be incomplete, without the ability to replay the down. If the receiver was able to re-establish, the fact that he stepped out would be punished by the penalty, but the team would have the chance to replay the down after a 5-yard penalty. In 2016, the penalty for this illegal touching will be a loss of down from the previous spot.
A player who is out of bounds is re-established when his second foot comes down in bounds, or if another body part (other than the hand, ankle, or wrist) touches in bounds when no part of the body is touching out of bounds. Until a player is re-established, he remains an out-of-bounds player, even though he may appear to be fully in the field of play.
Let’s take a look at the foul for illegal touching, and then address the consequences of the change in the penalty for that foul.
Rule 8-1-8-b states:
It is a foul for illegal touching if a forward pass first touches or is caught by an eligible receiver who has gone out of bounds (either by his own volition or by being legally forced out) and has re-established himself inbounds.
Penalty: Loss of down at the previous spot.
Simply put: any receiver who has by any means gone out of bounds may not catch, or be the first to touch, any pass. Re-establishing himself in bounds makes the pass complete, but his touching of the pass remains illegal. The change is underlined — in previous years, the penalty was a loss of five yards, while the down would be replayed. In 2016, there is no yardage penalty attached, but the team cannot replay the down.
The rule will be enforced as follows:
- Receiver is out of bounds: dead ball, incomplete pass
- Receiver is in the field of play, but did not re-establish in bounds: dead ball, incomplete
- Receiver re-establishes and is first to touch the pass: live-ball foul, down continues until ball is dead; if penalty is accepted, return to the previous line-of-scrimmage, and increment to the next down
- Receiver re-establishes and touches or catches a tipped pass: live ball, no foul; once a ball is tipped, all 22 players are eligible
Consider this play from the 2010 NFC Wild Card playoff between the Packers and Eagles (video). On a 2-point attempt after a touchdown, Eagles tight end Brent Celek stepped out of bounds in the back of the end zone with his right foot, re-established himself in bounds, then caught a pass in the end zone. Had Celek not re-established himself in bounds, there would have been no penalty for illegal touching; the result of the play would have been an incomplete pass, and the try would be no good. While his touch of the ball was illegal, Celek still made a completed catch because he re-established himself in bounds. The Packers could decline the penalty, but because the receiver made a completed catch, the result of the play would be a successful try. As the rules stated up until this season, the penalty was therefore enforced and the down was replayed.
Origin of the loophole. This is not the first re-working of the rules of such a play. Originally, a completed pass to an ineligible receiver caused the play to become dead. In 2001, the rule was changed to give the defense a potential advantage, should the offense turn the ball over before the end of the play. However, this change created a loophole whereby the offense could gain an advantage with the opportunity to replay the down.
In the 2016 season, if a receiver steps out of bounds and catches a pass, the result will be as if the pass was incomplete. The ball will returned to the previous spot, and the penalty will include a loss of down (which is the loss of the right to replay the down). If this foul happens on an extra-point attempt, it will not score. The offense will not get the right to replay the down, and the try will fail.
When there are other fouls. Even though the penalty includes a loss of down, illegal touching can still be combined or offset with other fouls. For example, the defense would have to choose between an offensive holding foul and the illegal touch foul (10 yards and repeat the down vs. no yards and loss of down) and decline the other.
If the receiver is ruled out of bounds, thereby making the pass incomplete, there is no foul to be offset.
Just as before the rule change, a receiver who is out of bounds due to a defensive foul will remain eligible, and will not be flagged for an illegal touch. The receiver will, however, need to re-establish in bounds to complete the pass. The defensive fouls in this case are typically pass interference, illegal contact, and holding, but the foul action must put the receiver out of bounds for this exception to apply.
Ineligible linemen. Illegal touching can also be a foul for touching of a pass by a player who is ineligible by position, such as an interior lineman or a quarterback lined up under center. This foul dictates a loss of five yards, but does not carry the loss-of-down penalty. The touching also must be deliberate to be illegal in this category, but intent is not judged when ruling on a receiver who has become ineligible.