In 1980, the Philadelphia Eagles played the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Veterans Stadium.
With the game in doubt, the Eagles ran a fake punt where punter Max Runager threw a pass to John Sciarra for a first down. On the play, the Vikings were guilty of a personal foul face mask (called by the venerable Tom Kelleher), so the Eagles were sitting pretty.
But, back on the line of scrimmage, line judge Dick McKenzie (pictured above), officiating his first of 13 playoff games, had his flag down.
McKenzie (father of current NFL official Dana McKenzie) ruled that Sciarra was guilty of an illegal hideout. In other words, Sciarra snuck onto the field. The rules of the day stated that Sciarra had to come more than 5 yards off of his team’s sideline and onto the field of play, if there were teammates on the sideline in close proximity to him. If the Eagles sideline was clear of substitutes and replaced players, it would have been a legal, fake punt.
But, Sciarra didn’t go five yards onto the field, there were team mates in the vicinity and McKenzie dropped his flag. The foul on Sciarra was unsportsmanlike conduct for the attempted hideout.
Talk about a complicated substitution rule! No wonder Tunney, umpire Lou Palazzi, Kelleher and McKenzie needed to take an extra moment to talk it out.
The foul on Sciarra, plus the face mask foul on the Vikings created an offsetting penalty, and the Eagles had to replay fourth down.
The Eagles coaches and players were quite excited to hear the officials’ ruling. The Veteran Stadium fans were not happy either.
In the book So You Think You Know Football, author Ben Austro writes that the illegal hideout rule was born in Week 2 of the 1954 NFL season.
This rule was a reaction to a play when the [Los Angeles] Rams faced Baltimore [Colts] on September 26, 1954 … On the first play of the season, no less, Rams quarterback Norm Van Brocklin connected with halfback Skeet Quinlan for an 80-yard touchdown on a hideout play. Commissioner Bert Bell halted the practice, saying, “This thing never should have happened in the first place. No matter how many good rules we have, somebody also comes up with something that we have to correct.” A memo was issued to the 12 NFL teams the next day, making a hideout an unsportsmanlike conduct foul.
In 1989, the NFL revised its substitution rule requiring incoming players on offense to come to the top of the yard line numbers before the getting in formation. Once the substitute makes it to the top of the numbers, he may then to back toward the sideline. Coming to the top of the numbers allows the defense to see the substitute and match up with him. If the substitute does not reach the top of the numbers before the snap it is a 15-yard penalty on the substitute. If line of scrimmage is outside the team bench area (effective with the 2021 season, from the 25-yard line to the goal line), the hideout provision goes away he and may line up 5 yards from the sideline. At some point in the 1980s, the NFL took out the verbiage about teammates on the sideline in close proximity to an in-bounds player. This made any offensive player — even those that participated in the preceding down — who is within 5 yards of his bench an illegal hideout, unless the defense matches up.
In high school a substitute also needs to make the top of the numbers everywhere on the field, but the foul in high school is illegal formation, five yard penalty.
The NCAA has an interesting way to prevent a sleeper play or hideout. In NCAA Rule 3-5-2e, if an offensive substitute comes onto the field and does not get to the top of the numbers, the head down judge or the line judge will make a “T” signal to the umpire or center judge with arms extended on either side and hands in a fist. The umpire or center judge will stand over the ball and prevent the snap until the substitute either gets to the top of the numbers or leaves the field. If the play clock expires before the snap, it will be delay of game on the offense, for failing to complete the substitution. So, in theory, if the wing officials are alert, they will prevent the snap and never allow an illegal hideout play to happen.
There is an amusing note in the Eagles-Vikings clip above. The CBS announcers during that 1980 game were Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. During the official’s huddle, Summerall started to suspect an illegal hideout and asked, “Where did Sciarra come from?” Brookshier didn’t pick up on what Summerall was getting at, so he happily read off Sciarra’s bio and where he played his college ball. Summerall had to steer the conversation back on track and Tunney confirmed his suspicions of an illegal hideout a few moments later.
But, Brookshier was very complimentary of Tunney for taking control of the situation and getting all the information from McKenzie, who just called a once-every-10-years foul in his first-ever playoff game.
A substitute entering the field seems like a simple act. And it is, until teams start getting sneaky. That’s when the officials have to earn their money, and McKenzie certainly earned his money that cold, loud, hostile day at The Vet.