In their November 6th game against the Saints, the 49ers intentionally committed defensive holding fouls in order to gain an advantage. While this is certainly not the only time such a tactic has been used, it has been rare enough that each situation was not examined as to whether there should be a different enforcement.
According to Sports Illustrated‘s Greg Bedard, however, the NFL has instructed officials to deem such fouls as “palpably unfair acts” going forward if they occur more than once in a given game. This implies that a team gets a warning first. The palpably unfair acts clause of the rulebook give the officials wide latitude in enforcement, but in this case they would award a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct foul and put time back on the clock.
Football Zebras has not been able to confirm that report yet, but it is certainly possible that the NFL have given the officials an “official ruling” for such situations. According to Rule 3, Section 1 of the NFL rulebook, an official ruling given between the annual rules meeting is only in effect for the current season until a rule change or addition to the casebook can be made. While this situation is rare, it is necessary to address this situation with officials and within the league before such tactics become common.
A palpably unfair act has not been called in the NFL, but it has occurred in a college bowl game, as Football Zebras editor Ben Austro wrote in his book, So You Think You Know Football:
In the 1954 Cotton Bowl, the Alabama Crimson Tide had their hands full trying to contain Rice Owls halfback Dicky Moegle, who racked up 265 yards rushing in the New Year’s Day game. That’s when one player went to extraordinary lengths to stop Moegle.
With Rice at the 5-yard line, leading 7–6, quarterback LeRoy Fenstemaker handed off to Moegle, who broke free along the Alabama sideline en route to a potential 95-yard touchdown run. Alabama running back Tommy Lewis came off the bench and tackled Moegle at the Alabama 42-yard line, and then returned to the bench as if nothing happened. Only one Alabama defensive player had an angle to tackle Moegle on the play; the rest had been outrun. Referee Cliff Shaw—a sales manager at the family dairy of future NFL referee Walt Coleman (a toddler at the time)—convened his crew to determine how to rule the play.
9. What rule did Shaw invoke on the play?
The officials ruled that Lewis committed a palpably unfair act—a catch-all category of actions that are undefined but blatantly outside the norms of the game. The current NFL rulebook states the following:
- For a palpably unfair act [the] offender may be disqualified. The Referee, after consulting his crew, enforces any such distance penalty as they consider equitable and irrespective of any other specified code penalty. The Referee may award a score.
In this Cotton Bowl, Shaw and his crew felt Moegle was likely to score, so they awarded the touchdown to Rice. Oddly, Lewis was not ejected from the game, but this conduct would unquestionably be ruled a disqualification today. Lewis apologized to the Rice coach for his actions and told reporters after the game, “I guess I’m just too full of Alabama. He just ran too close.”