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Punt blocks, bats, hoppers: Untangling unusual enforcement on 49ers blocked kick



49ers seahawks genericWeek 14: Seahawks at 49ers (video)

If you rack your brain over this scenario, you can be bouncing across the rulebook for the correct ruling and still not get it right. We are about to get into the deep recesses of refdom here, so stay with us. And, if you’re not careful, you might learn something before we’re done.

Scenario: On 4th-and-24 from their 17 yard-line, the Seahawks punt is blocked. One of the Seahawks players bats the ball forward with his hand at the Seahawks 16-yard line. It goes out of bounds at the 34, short of the line to gain for the first down. A flag was thrown for the illegal batting foul.

Ruling on the field: Since the foul occurred before the change of possession, it was ruled that the illegal bat could be enforced from the previous spot and replay fourth down — or the 49ers could decline the penalty and take the ball at the dead-ball spot. The 49ers chose to decline the foul.

Turns out it was wrong to spot it there. Let’s step through the hard way.

The foul for an illegal bat is in Rule 12–4–1. It states:

Penalty: For illegal batting or punching the ball: Loss of 10 yards. For enforcement, treat as a foul during a backward pass or fumble (see 8–7–7).

Rule 8–7–7 then gives us this clear-cut guidance, with Team A being the team that snaps the ball:

(b) When the spot of a backward pass or fumble is behind the line of scrimmage, all fouls committed by either team, including a foul by Team B in Team A’s end zone, are enforced from the previous spot

This squares up with the options that the 49ers were given: 10 yards from the previous spot and replay the down, or decline the penalty. But it’s not correct. We need help from someone.

Enter Ed Hochuli. Yes, he actually has a role in determining the correct ruling on this play, despite the fact he was at the other end of continent, some 2,900 miles away.

Hochuli wrote the definitive manual of penalty enforcement, called the Hopperbook. It is based on a common officiating parlance of mentally placing a penalty in one of 15 different hoppers, and applying the enforcement that belongs to that hopper. Examples of hoppers include a foul before the snap, double fouls, double fouls before a change of possession, double fouls after a change, and double foul/double change.

Hochuli writes this to his colleagues:

The key to penalty enforcements is to first get the penalty into the correct hopper, and then apply the enforcement. Most of our confusion arises because we start in the wrong hopper. Therefore, always be careful to first decide on the hopper before you start thinking about the enforcement.

First, we need to think about what hopper this belongs in. The foul occurred after the blocked punt, behind the line of scrimmage, and before a change in possession. In the earlier example, we enforced this as a fumble, but there was no fumble on the play. Once the ball is kicked, it remains a kick until it is possessed — not touched, but possessed — by any player or it is declared dead. In this case, the correct hopper is number 6, fouls on scrimmage kick plays:

Fouls by A during the kick, but before possession by team B, (other than KCI or FCI [kick-catch interference or fair-catch interference], which are spot fouls), can be enforced from either the previous spot or tacked on from the DBS [dead-ball spot].

Even though the punt is bouncing around after the block, it is still a kicking play, and a foul by the kicking team before possession by the receiving team. Any fouls that go to the previous spot will replay the previous down (unless it is specifically a loss-of-down penalty); the term “tack on” means the down counts and the penalty is enforced after.

So, the 49ers had these options:

  • Accept the penalty from the previous spot (half-distance), Seahawks ball, 4th-and-32 from the 9.
  • Accept the penalty from the dead-ball spot, 49ers ball, 1st-and-10 from the 24.
  • Decline the penalty, 49ers ball, 1st-and-10 from the 34.

The 49ers were unable to move the ball on the ensuing drive, and kicked a field goal. However, they were entitled to the ball 10 yards closer.

It was a convoluted enforcement on a fluke of a play, but it still comes down to remembering the correct hopper.

So, I drag out the Hopperbook, today of all days — the 107th birthday of Grace Hopper, the pioneer computer programmer, who is memorialized today with a Google Doodle.

This ruling could have used several supercomputers to analyze.

Download the latest version of the Hopperbook (PDF).

Image: San Francisco 49ers photo

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)