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When a dead-ball foul is not a dead-ball foul

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Week 6: Bengals at Patriots (video)

In the fourth quarter against the Bengals, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught a 12-yard reception and was tackled at the Bengals 8-yard line. After some two-sided friction after the play, officials separated the teams. While Gronkowski was being lead away by field judge Aaron Santi, Gronkowski separated to turn and strutted proudly in front of the Bengals bench and spiked the ball. This immediately drew a taunting flag from Santi and umpire Paul King, and it was a warning to Gronkowski that another foul of that type would have him ejected.

Referee Ron Torbert initially announced that the foul would result in a 1st-and-10. This is ordinarily the case: The first down line-to-gain was achieved, and the dead-ball foul is assessed after the first down is granted. (Contrast to a live-ball foul, such as an offensive holding during the run, which would be assessed first and then the down is determined.) The penalty yardage is added before the first-down stakes are set: it is 1st-and-10 at the new spot, not 1st-and-25.

The Patriots next snap was properly spotted at the 23, but it was 1st-and-goal, meaning the penalty was added onto the next down, not before the next down. This was incorrectly enforced according to the penalty announcement, but it is still possible that this fell into a different classification, making the enforcement correct. It is hard to tell if there was a follow-up announcement regarding this new classification.

Dead-ball fouls apply to the continuing action after a play: a late hit out of bounds, a celebration infraction, or if a fight that develops after the play. As long as there is continuing action attached to the previous down, a dead-ball foul can occur. But, take an example like an offense’s 12-in-the-huddle foul. This is not a live-ball foul, but it isn’t a dead-ball foul, either. It is a between-downs foul, and the mark off for the foul will be assessed against the line-to-gain, which would bring up 1st-and-15 if it occurs before a 1st-and-10. At some point between the end of the previous play and the huddle foul we moved to that new classification.

When does that occur? It is a matter of interpretation.

In the case of a huddle foul, this is clearly between downs. In Gronkowski’s case, he was escorted from the continuing action after the down, and a case can be made that the dead-ball action was then over, making the Gronkowski infraction in between-downs territory. Because every post-play action is different, there are no strict parameters that provide a precise delineation between dead-ball/between-downs fouls; it is a matter of the officials’ discretion.

Without hearing a follow-up announcement from Torbert, it is not clear if this was the assessment of the crew, so we can’t completely discount that an error was made.

Photo: David Silverman/New England Patriots

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)

One thought on “When a dead-ball foul is not a dead-ball foul

  1. If a team has no timeouts left with less than 2 minutes left on the clock and is down by 5 points and also has possession of the ball, can the defenders after tackling the ball carrier inbounds then purposely very slowly get off the ball carrier so as to eat up the maximum amount of seconds off the clock???

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