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When is it a foul for pulling a ball carrier forward?



There are many obscure rules and fouls in the NFL and at all levels of football, and one of those rules that seems to be popping up often is aiding or assisting the runner. It is an extremely rare call, but after a spate of plays across the NCAA and NFL in the span of three days, there was more than a fair share of discussion as to why there wasn’t a flag.

In the NFL, Rule 12-1-4 states that it is a foul for an offensive player to pull the ball carrier in any direction. This seems to encompass actions that are fairly common, however this is a foul that is very rarely called. With assistance of our partner site Quirky Research, the last time we can find this flag was thrown was in a divisional playoff game between the Chiefs and Bills in 1991. Add to that fact that there are not even mentions of it in the official casebook — the manual that supplements the rulebook with approved rulings for certain scenarios — this is clearly a foul meant to be reserved for the most blatant occurrences.

The most common situation that has the potential to be a foul are short yardage scrums whether needing a touchdown or a first-down conversion. In these pileups it can be difficult to discern whose arms are whose and things of that nature, and in order to have any consistency with this rule it must be obvious who is pulling or pushing the ball carrier. A foul should only be called if it is extremely clear that an offensive player has clearly pulled or aided a runner to obtain yardage that they had no chance of getting on their own. For example, in the Chiefs-Bills playoff game, it is clear that the defenders have him stopped when his teammate has jersey stretched out as he drags the runner across the line to gain. It’s also interesting to note that for such an uncommon foul, there are flags thrown by multiple officials which highlights how obvious this foul was.

The current language of the NCAA rule is largely the same as the NFL version, the only difference being that it is a 5-yard penalty in college instead of the 10 yard in the NFL.  However, until a rule change in 2013 it was also illegal by rule to to push or assist the runner directly in gaining forward progress in anyway. (The NFL had wording that included pushing a player up through 2005, but was paired in context with lifting a runner.) Even with that wording this was still an incredibly rare call.

Some may remember the controversial no call in the infamous “Bush Push” game between Notre Dame and the University of Southern California in which Reggie Bush certainly provided some help to quarterback Matt Leinart sneaking his way across the goal line for the winning score. The fact that pushing the pile on short yardage scrums was by rules philosophy ignored may have played a large part in the NCAA updating the rule to match that of the NFL.

Back to 2019, there was one additional NFL play that had a potential for an aiding the runner flag, but was not called. In Week 3, Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay got into the end zone with a little extra help as well.

It seems that with every team doing all they can to get the ball across the line, and the many angles and high definition looks that viewers get in replay that there are shouts for assisting the runner on an increasing percentage of short yardage plays. The reality is, however, that unless it is so obvious — to use an officiating parlance, “in front of God and everybody” — it is a flag that is best kept in the back pocket.

But, we may have reached a tipping point. Although it appears that the foul was never called by any official during his NFL tenure, former Super Bowl referee and current Sunday Night Football rules analyst Terry McAulay believes it may merit a closer look.

We shall see if the Competition Committee takes a look at this in the offseason or if it merits a mention in the 2020 NFL casebook.

Patrick Weber is a four sport official working at the high school and college levels in football, baseball, basketball and soccer. He currently resides near Chicago, Illinois.

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