Football Zebras
NewsHarmonizing illegal pass enforcements: a Football Zebras rules proposal

Harmonizing illegal pass enforcements: a Football Zebras rules proposal

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The NFL released its first set of rules proposals last week which were submitted by the teams. The Competition Committee will release additional proposals prior to the annual owners meeting on March 24.

We floated two possible rules changes during the season. One was to have all 2-point conversions automatically reviewed by the replay official, giving replay the ability to not only subtract points but also add points without a coach’s challenge. The Broncos, one of the two teams who faced a challenge decision in this situation last year, proposed this change. (Former Broncos coach Vance Joseph opted not to throw the challenge flag.)

The second proposal we discussed during the season was to remove an incentive to throw an illegal forward pass. Illegal forward passes are currently handled differently depending on how and where they happen. In some cases, an illegal forward pass can counterintuitively be a smart play.

(All passes are forward passes)YdsFromDown
2nd pass behind the line5previous spotrepeat down
Any pass behind the line after the ball has crossed the line5previous spotrepeat down
Any pass/forward handoff beyond the line5spot of passloss of down
Any pass after possession change or when there is no line of scrimmage5spot of passN/A

The downfield illegal pass is marked off as a loss of down because the offense gets credit for the play up to the illegal pass. The loss of down is more an effort to make the down count for the advance more than being an additional sanction. Live-ball fouls that are committed by the offense behind the line are enforced from the previous spot under what is called the “three-and-one enforcement.” The one exception is that an intentional grounding penalty must make it back to the spot of the pass.

Consider this situation from Week 2, where Titans quarterback Blaine Gabbert has caught his own pass. He is now facing an imminent loss of yardage, a provision in the intentional grounding rule. Gabbert can be flagged for grounding an illegal pass, but in this case, he throws the ball in the vicinity of the receiver.

The Texans have two options: assess the penalty and replay the down 2nd & 12, or decline the penalty for 3rd & 7 (the illegal pass being incomplete). Had Gabbert intentionally grounded the pass, it would be 3rd & 17, giving the Titans a net “gain” of either 5 yards with an extra down or 10 yards. Whether or not there is a receiver in the area, the intent is to avoid the sack by committing an illegal act, and for that reason, they should be handled similarly.

Football Zebras submitted a rules proposal to senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron and to the Competition Committee. The proposal would make all illegal passes by the offense 5 yards and a loss of down, but that the ball must at least get back to the spot of the illegal pass. (By rule, a loss of down is not assessed when there is no line of scrimmage — such as a kickoff or possession change — or when the ball is beyond the line to gain after the yardage enforcement.)

With that in mind, here is a similar play from 2011, when Colts quarterback Curtis Painter threw a double pass.

In this case, Painter avoids being sacked inside his own 5, so the foul would be a seemingly harsh 3rd & 26 from the 4. Rather than repeat the down, the Falcons declined the penalty, but Painter was able to convert the 3rd & 11. Again, had Painter dumped the second pass into an unmanned zone, this would have been a 3rd & 26.

In another situation, we take a legal double pass for the Patriots — Tom Brady to Julian Edelman to James White — and hypothetically let’s say the first pass was forward, thrown from 3 yards behind the line and caught 2 yards behind.

https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1059294227660603393

In this hypothetical, it is two forward passes, and the foul spot is only 3 yards behind the line. It would still be a 5-yard foul plus a loss of down, bringing up 2nd & 15 instead of 1st & 15.

The proposed rule would also make the illegal pass inside the 2-minute warning subject to a 10-second runoff. Also in the proposal is a provision that an illegal pass from the end zone is a safety; this has not changed, but it reinforces this aspect to be worded the same as the intentional grounding rule. For completeness, the proposal adds a definition as to when the ball is considered to have gone beyond the line of scrimmage for times when a throwing motion is not involved

We did receive a response from Riveron that he would review the proposal. The full text of the proposal is below.

Football Zebras rules proposal

Amend Rule 8, Section 1, Article 2 (Legal Forward Pass, pg. 30) to read (new language underlined, deleted language struck through):

ARTICLE 2. LEGAL FORWARD PASS. The offensive team may make one forward pass from behind the line during each down. If the ball, whether in player possession or loose, crosses the line of scrimmage, a forward pass is not permissible, regardless of whether the ball returns behind the line of scrimmage before the pass is thrown.

Item 1. Illegal Passes. Any other forward pass by either team is illegal and is a foul by the passing team, including:

(a) A forward pass thrown when the passer is beyond the line of scrimmage. [Moved note that appears here.]

(b) A second forward pass thrown from behind the line of scrimmage.

(c) A forward pass thrown after the ball has crossed the line of scrimmage and has returned behind it.

(d) A forward pass thrown after there has been a change of possession.

Item 2. Intercepted Illegal Pass. If an illegal pass is caught or intercepted, ball may be advanced and the penalty declined.

Penalties:

(a) For a forward pass from beyond the line: Loss of down and five yards from the spot of the pass. See S.N. 6 below.

(b) For a second forward pass from behind the line, or for a forward pass that was thrown after the ball returned behind the line: Loss of down and either five yards from the previous spot or the spot of the pass, whichever is less beneficial for the offense. If the passer is in his end zone when the ball is thrown, it is a safety.

(c) For a forward pass that is thrown after a change of possession: Loss of five yards from the spot of the pass. If the passer is in his end zone when the ball is thrown, it is a safety.

Notes:

(1) It is a forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage if the passer’s entire body and the ball are beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is released, whether the passer is airborne or touching the ground.

(2) A ball has crossed the line of scrimmage when it is in the possession of a runner whose entire body and the ball are beyond the line of scrimmage. See 3-19-5 regarding a loose ball beyond the line.

(3) When the penalty for an illegal forward pass thrown from beyond the line is enforced from the spot of the pass, it is where the ball is released.

(1) (4)Eligibility, pass interference, and intentional grounding rules apply when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line, regardless of whether the pass is an illegal forward pass. Eligibility, pass interference, and intentional grounding rules do not apply if a forward pass is thrown (a) from beyond the line, (b) on a Free Kick play, (c) on a Fair Catch kick play, or (d) after a change of possession.

(2) (5) Roughing the passer rules apply on all passes (legal or illegal) thrown from behind the line of scrimmage (12-2-9). If a pass is thrown from beyond the line of scrimmage, unnecessary roughness may apply for action against the passer.

(3) (6) When a distance penalty in Penalty (a) leaves the ball in advance of the necessary line to gain, it is first-and-10 for the offensive team.

(4) (7) See 3-2-4 for the definition of team possession during a forward pass (a loose ball), or for when possession ends.

Amend Rule 4, Section 7, Article 1 (Actions to Conserve Time, pg. 15) to read (deleted language struck through):

ARTICLE 1. ILLEGAL ACTS. A team is not permitted to conserve time after the two-minute warning of either half by committing any of these acts:

(c) an illegal forward pass thrown from beyond the line of scrimmage;

Effect: Make all illegal forward passes by the offense consistent as a loss of down and 10-second runoff (if applicable); and ensure the penalty must at least get back to the spot of the pass.

Reason:   Remove incentive to throw an illegal forward pass to avoid a potential loss of yardage or to avoid a safety.

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)

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