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You make the call: Did the Dolphins have a legal formation on TD?

The Dolphins had a touchdown nullified by an illegal formation foul. Was this the correct call?



Week 6: Steelers at Dolphins

The Dolphins scored a touchdown on a 1st-and-goal play in the second quarter with an elaborate formation shift. The touchdown wound up being nullified by an illegal formation penalty, and the Dolphins wound up kicking a field goal on fourth down. Did the officials correctly wipe out this touchdown?

On the play, Dolphins lineman Anthony Steen (number 65) is a tackle-eligible, meaning he doesn’t have the number of an eligible receiver, but he reported as an eligible player legally prior to the play. Steen’s eligibility was properly signaled and announced by referee Ed Hochuli prior to the play. Tackle Ja’Wuan James (number 70) also has an ineligible number, but did not report eligible, so he remains ineligible just like any other standard play. After presenting a set formation, the Dolphins shifted five players in the formation prior to the snap and were set legally for a second.

The Dolphins completed a touchdown pass, which was nullified by an illegal formation foul. You make the call:

  1. Is this correctly flagged as a foul?
  2. Is the play any different if number 70 also declares eligible before the play?

The initial and pre-snap formations show Steen (marked E for eligible) and James (I for ineligible). (Click on either image to enlarge.)

The initial formation is legal — there are the minimum 5 ineligible linemen and the required 2 eligible end linemen. The receiver at the left side of the formation is set back from the line, which makes eligible-65 legally lined up as and end.

The presnap formation is not legal. The split receiver at the top is still off the line, which keeps 65 legally positioned as an end. However, 70 is ineligible, and cannot be at the end of the line. One of the two receivers must be up on the line of scrimmage so that 70 remains an interior lineman. The space between the eligible end and the last ineligible interior lineman does not matter in most circumstances. The penalty in this case was correct.

Incidentally, if both receivers on the near side moved to the line of scrimmage, this would not be legal, either. There may only be one eligible on either end of the line, so an eligible receiver who becomes an interior lineman is “covered” by the other eligible end.

As to the second question, this is still a foul for two reasons. If both 65 and 70 report eligible, then they are legally eligible ends, but there are only four ineligible interior linemen between them. The second reason it would not be legal is that the initial formation has 70 covered. If 70 reports eligible, he must be on the end of the line in any formation the offense is set in, even if the offense subsequently shifts its formation. An offense that lines up and sets in an illegal formation any time prior to the snap will be flagged on the snap.

Either Dolphins coach Adam Gase has to tear this page out of the playbook and correct the formation issue or fix the execution issue if the formation was correct as the play was written up.

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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