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2017 rule changes

Obscure substitution foul is now a warning before 15 yards assessed

An obscure illegal substitution that fell under the category of unsportsmanlike conduct will now be issued following a warning.



In a series of wording changes in the latest edition of the rulebook, an obscure illegal substitution that fell under the category of unsportsmanlike conduct will now be issued following a warning. The foul came to light when it was enforced by referee Tony Corrente in last year’s Divisional Playoff between Green Bay and Dallas.

Cowboys receiver Brice Butler (#19 in the video below) reached the huddle, but withdrew when there was apparent confusion. Since players were swapping out, this was not a foul for 12 in the huddle — a 5-yard penalty enforced between downs — but considered a “simulated substitution” which increases the distance to 15 yards. 

The rule, 5-2-5(b), states that a player is required to participate in at least one play if he approaches the huddle and communicates with a teammate. The player will be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct if he enters and leaves the huddle without taking part in one play. The Butler substitution, under the new language in the playing rules, would first be a warning, and any subsequent violations will result in a 15-yard penalty. Unlike the 12-in-the-huddle foul, it not enforced before the snap, as a timeout or other stoppage can preempt the foul.

The rulebook also explains that:

The intent of the rule is to prevent teams from using simulated substitutions to confuse an opponent, while still permitting a player (or players) to enter and leave without participating in a play in certain situations, such as a change in a coaching decision on fourth down, even though he has approached the huddle and communicated with a teammate. Similarly, if a player who participated in the previous play leaves the playing field by mistake, and returns to the playing field prior to the snap, he is not required to reach the inside of the field numerals, provided the defense has the opportunity to match up with him. However, a substitute (i.e., someone who did not participate in the previous play) is required to reach the inside of the field numerals.

Substitution rules have remained relatively the same since the 1950 NFL season. In 1943, players were first allowed to freely substitute and were not required to report to officials that they were taking the place of a player on the field. In 1946, there was a limit of three substitutes per dead-ball period during game play, and three years later that limit was removed. The inception of this unsportsmanlike conduct rule came about in order to prevent relaying of sideline information to the huddle in an era that predated headsets and helmet earpieces. The provision of communicating with teammates was easily observable when players wore a single-bar facemask or wore no facemask at all. In more recent years, the rule’s intent evolved to prohibit simulated substitutions over the relay of information.

The commonality of this foul is exceedingly rare in modern times. Prior to the Butler foul, the only other known instance of its enforcement in recent memory was in Week 8 of 2014, during a Monday Night Football game between Dallas and Washington, as noted in Ben Austro’s book So You Think You Know Football?. The referee who threw the flag that day was also Tony Corrente.

[Photo: Green Bay Packers]

Cam Filipe is a forensic scientist and has been involved in football officiating for 12 years. Cam is in his fourth season as a high school football official. This is his ninth season covering NFL officiating for Football Zebras.

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