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2016 rule changes

Simplifying enforcement when flags and fumbles fly

When you see prolonged conferences between officials, it is usually when there is the complicating factors of multiple fouls, changes of possession, and kicks. A rule revision removes some of that complexity.



Football: Jets-v-Eagles, Sep 2009 - 29

2016 rule changes

The enforcement of penalties is a fairly routine matter during the game, as there are straightforward criteria with each type of rule. When you see prolonged conferences between officials, it is usually when there is the complicating factors of multiple fouls, changes of possession, and kicks — each presenting additional factors to be hashed out before the referee opens his microphone.

In 2014, the Competition Committee took a look at simplifying three enforcements: a defensive foul and the dead-ball spot are behind the line of scrimmage (Behind/Behind enforcement), fouls on a run followed by a change of possession, and fouls by the receiving team with the punt in the air. In each of those cases, there were options as to where to enforce from, which meant the coach had to be informed of the options, exacerbating delays. By removing many of the enforcement multiple-choice, it also decreased the chance of error in a mark-off.

The current revision is to address a defensive penalty when there are fouls by both teams and a change of possession, which supports a minor correction from 2013 that addressed one specific scenario. To understand this revision, we are going to refer to the NFL’s penalty-enforcement bible, the Hopperbook, which is edited by referee Ed Hochuli.

In the Hopperbook, Hochuli uses the long-standing officiating parlance of hoppers, or imaginary “buckets,” in which each foul is placed to determine how to enforce it. I spent an entire chapter on hoppers in my book So You Think You Know Football, and I still left some hoppers untouched. There are three hoppers that we are going to work with regarding this rule change to understand how a mixed bag of turnovers and penalty flags are sorted out. Those hoppers are:

  • Fouls by both teams with a change of possession (Double/With)
  • Fouls by both teams after a change of possession (Double/After)
  • Fouls by both teams and multiple changes of possession (Double/Double)

Throughout these examples, a team is said to have possession “with clean hands” means the team taking possession had not already committed a foul earlier in the play. If the defense recovers the ball and subsequently commits a foul, that is considered a clean-hands recovery. Also remember that changes of possession include fumbles, interceptions, and all kicks, but not a turnover on downs.

Double/With enforcement means that there was at least one foul committed prior to a change of possession. If it is by the defense, then they don’t have a clean-hands recovery, and the change of possession is wiped out by their foul, regardless of when the offense’s foul occurs. If there is a clean-hands recovery with the offense committing the foul prior to the change, then the defense gets the ball, and only the defense’s foul is enforced. The exception is that a defensive foul that would be a safety would result in offsetting fouls, on the premise that the defense would not have the chance to keep the ball.

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Double/After enforcement means that all fouls occurred after the change of possession. If one team fouls before and after the change of possession, the Double/With is sorted out first. Rather than relying on the spot where the fouls occur, the enforcement is going to wipe out any defensive return, and the ball will go to the change-of-possession spot.

When a kick is involved, the fouls are generally considered to be “after” the change, even though the ball is in the air or has just been kicked. This is to minimize the number of rekicks. The receiving team does have the option of repeating the down, in which case, this would revert to a Double/With, and offsetting at the previous spot. This does not apply, however, if the kicking team commits the foul before the kick or after the receivers physically take possession.

A foul for roughing or running into the kicker is an exception, as it is always enforced from the previous line of scrimmage, even if it is part of offsetting fouls.

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Double/Double enforcement captures any combination of fouls by both teams and multiple changes of possession. This was updated in 2013 to avoid officials having to step back to the various change points during the play to find when there was a clean-hands recovery. The rule now simply requires the team that had the ball at the end of the play to have made a clean-hands recovery. If they did, the fouls are offset at the recovery spot; if they did not, offset at the previous line of scrimmage and repeat the down.

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When a clean-hands score occurs, that means that the score will count, and any fouls by the opponent prior to the score are declined. Fifteen-yard penalties are always an exception, to minimize the infractions being ignored. So, in a Double/After situation with a dead-ball celebration foul by the scoring team and a live-ball facemask by the opponent, the facemask penalty carries over the score. Since there are two 15-yard fouls, they cancel out, but the score still counts.

In all cases, if the scoring team fouls before the score, the applicable enforcement will prevent the score from occurring.


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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