Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

02 Oct 2012

Officiating: Forward Progress vs. Out of Bounds

Hey, kids, it's the first of our new officiating-centric Extra Points commentaries!

Why is Leslie Frazier waving his arms like a madman?

MIN 20 at DET 13, Lions' third-and-12 from DET 37, :09 fourth quarter
M.Stafford pass short right to B.Pettigrew pushed ob at DET 44 for 6 yards.

Ultimately this play didn't affect the end of the game, but it highlights an important concept for spotting and clock management. Brandon Pettigrew catches the ball and runs forward for a yard before being hit by Chris Cook backward by a yard and out of bounds. The wing official moves up to the spot where progress ended, and kills the clock. Immediately thereafter, Leslie Frazier is seen running up and down the sidelines giving a "run the clock" signal and shouting at the officials.

Frazier was correct. Pettigrew's forward progress ended at the Detroit 44-yard line. Subsequent force by Cook knocked him backward and out of bounds. By spotting the ball at the 44-yard line and killing the clock, the official gave the Lions the benefit of forward progress (the favorable spot) without the drawback (a running clock after a dead ball in-bounds) and vice-versa for the out-of-bounds spot.

Matt Stafford ended up being sacked on an abortive hail mary attempt to end the game, but the enforcement was critical in this situation, as Detroit had used all of their times out prior to that play. It is possible the offense could have set up a hail mary six yards downfield, but it is also possible that time would have expired prior to the snap. While Minnesota quashed Detroit's final play, this simple but incorrect decision could have spelled the difference between a win and a loss in a close game at the buzzer, especially if the line of scrimmage was in Minnesota territory.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz on 02 Oct 2012

40 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2012, 2:51pm by Noah Arkadia


by alien1rock :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 5:06pm

Any thought on the Santonio Holmes fumble? (Other than that it was incredibly stupid...) I thought he should have been ruled down based on the "running giving themselves up" idea. He quite obviously dropped the ball to grab his knee and made no move to advance the ball, but it happened so quickly that I guess I can understand the ruling.

by Pottsville Maro... :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 5:14pm

I think there has to be an element of time incorporated therein. Remember when (rookie) Plaxico Burress spiked the ball after making a catch and going down untouched? He obviously wasn't trying to advance the ball, but he hadn't given an official the chance to blow the play dead either. You can't really tell whether someone has stopped trying to advance the ball until they've actually come to a stop. Holmes let the ball go right after he hit the ground, and although in retrospect he wasn't trying to advance the ball, receivers have popped up and tried to advance the ball after spending far more time than that on the ground.

by tuluse :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 5:52pm

Victor Cruz was whistled down immediately last year.

by Mike Kurtz :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 7:34pm

I just looked at the play, and I don't think you can retroactively say he gave himself up. The only argument you really can make for that is that he seemed injured, but he flipped the ball out well before it became clear that he was injured and giving himself up. Think of it from a competitive balance perspective: if a player is giving himself up, it needs to be obvious to the other team that he is not attempting to advance the ball. In this case, the ball is already in the hands of the defense by the time it becomes clear he is out of the play. Be careful when trying to apply rules like this retroactively.

As for the fumble itself, it was probably a forward pass. That said, considering he clearly wasn't attempting to pass the ball to a teammate, I get the feeling it wouldn't have been called, even without the change of possession.

by Jerry F. (not verified) :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 10:37pm

But do they really read intent into that? If a player throws the ball forward, shouldn't that automatically be a forward pass, regardless of whether he is throwing it to a teammate?

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 5:54am

It seems to me that its the sort of thing that should be overturnable on replay, but I don't think currently is. We've had it twice in the last two weeks where a player has got injured, put the ball on the ground under no pressure, and its subsequently been returned for a touchdown. I think its obvious it wasn't a "fumble", in that he didn't accidentally drop the ball. He just put it down because he was injured.

There should be a rule that on replay, if the ref judges that the player fumbled simply because he was injured, not due to any actual skill of the defence, it should be overturned. I can't really imagine a situation where a player would abuse it, because I can't really imagine a player intentionally putting the ball on the ground if he wasn't injured, then realising what he'd done and claiming an injury. It just wouldn't look right.

Similarly, you don't want officials to blow the play dead on a play like this, because if it was just Holmes being an idiot and chucking the ball on the ground, then he should be punished for it. It would be very tough to make that judgement in real time, but very easy to do it (IMO) on replay.

by Aloysius Mephis... :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:42am

The rule you propose is interesting, but it sounds like it might be unduly subjective. For instance, in that same game Dedrick Epps caught a jump pass from Tim Tebow, and as he turned to run upfield Ahmad Brooks crashed into Epps' knee and he fumbled. It was a hard hit but not really much contact on the ball; Epps pretty clearly fumbled because Brooks hyperextended Epps' knee. Under your rule, fumble or no fumble?

by Podge (not verified) :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 7:28am

Fumble. I'd say that the guideline would be that it was only when there was no contact with the receiver, and it was undisputable that he only fumbled because he was down, he gave himself up and he was injured.

I think in this case, the Holmes one would have been overturned (which would seem fair, as much as I like to see the Jets getting battered), but something like the Epps one wouldn't. You don't really want to punish defences for injuring a player, but I think not giving an option to overturn a fumble that isn't really a fumble, its the player being hurt and stopping playing is quite literally adding insult to injury.

The only possible problem I can see is the one of a player making a catch as he goes to the ground, flipping the ball out to celebrate, realising what he's done and pretending he's injured to stop it being a fumble. I can't think of a time that a player has ever done that (without pretending he's injured), but I think a ref would be able to say either "yeah, he's definitely injured" or "I'm not 100% sure he's injured".

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:58pm

If you did that, you would bring football closer to soccer, with every player faking an injury after a fumble. And you can't have the replay officials wait on an MRI before making a call.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by evenchunkiermonkey :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 3:48am

*edit* Nevermind. Wrong thread.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 5:54pm

Pereira made an interesting comment on the telecast -- he intentionally threw the ball forward. That's not a fumble.

by abc123 (not verified) :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 6:15pm

Same thing happened on the Matt Leinert run to the 3ish (I forget exactly) against Notre Dame years ago. Literally nobody noticed it, I'm screaming at the TV that you cannot give him progress and stop the clock but the announcers were busy basking in the glow of Lein Hart's greatness.

by bernie (not verified) :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 6:58pm

The stupid thing about the holmes fumble, was that he was right on the sideline. If he was going to throw it away, why didn't he throw it out of bounds?

by Jerry :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 8:43pm

If he had his wits about him, he'd have just hung onto the ball. Obviously, he was in too much pain to think about what to do with the ball.

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 1:00pm

If this is true, then he cannot have intentionally thrown the ball forward, like the other poster says Pereira said. Which would then make it a fumble.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 2:15pm

Sure he can. He didn't just release the ball -- he threw it. That's an intentional action.

Regardless, the name of the penalty is an illegal forward pass. It was a forward pass, thrown illegally. What's the problem?

by Noah Arkadia :: Sat, 10/06/2012 - 2:51pm

You're right. Got caught up in logic and semantics.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by Brendan Scolari :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 8:36pm

This is a rule that I think should be eliminated. I don't really see the upside to having it. It's often a very subjective call that's hard to tell either way, and consequently it's called very inconsistently.

Why not just simplify it and say if the ball carrier gets out of bounds (forward progress or no) the clock stops. Otherwise, keep the clock running. Is there any loophole in that rule that I'm not thinking of? Seems to me that if a runner is willing to give up yardage to go out of bounds he deserves to get the clock stopped.

by DaveP :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 9:12pm

Because the forward progress rule is there to keep the defense from holding up an offensive player and running him backward. If the forward progress rule is invoked, then the play is dead at the point where forward progress stopped, so it was already dead before he went out of bounds, therefore the clock shouldn't stop. Same as if there was a fumble after forward progress was ruled. It wouldn't count. If the player is scrambling to get out of bounds on his own, then that's a different matter and the clock stops, but you don't get the forward progress yardage. Can't have it both ways.

by Jerry F. (not verified) :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 10:44pm

But I don't think the team always want the forward progress yardage. Going along with the point made above, the forward progress call often seems arbitrarily imposed only after the player has been forced backward and out of bounds. In such cases, the player was still fighting to get out of bounds, not to get more yardage. The forward progress call in those situations thus acts sort of like a quick whistle--even if imposed retroactively--that would halt the action before it was really over.

by Scott C :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 1:10am

"arbitrarily imposed" ?

It is used on about 50% of running plays and at least 25% of others. Players are regularly pushed backwards before hitting the ground or going out of bounds and forward progress is rewarded every time.

by Jerry F. (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 9:30am

I guess the arbitrariness is in the decision of when progress is "stopped." It's a call that always benefits the offense, except in these out-of-bounds situations. The runner is normally given lots of leeway to try to make up lost yardage after being pushed back. But when he goes out of bounds just moments after being pushed back, his progress is deemed to have come to a sudden stop just before his time-saving exit.

If forward progress is meant to save the offense from having the defense practically carry the ball-carrier backwards and lose all his yardage, when imposed in this way the rule allows the defense to effectively use that as a strategy. Forcing a player backward is suddenly rewarded, not in lost yardage but lost time. The goal for the offensive player is not to "get out of bounds," but to "get out of bounds without any motion backward."

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:15am

I'm with Brendan on this. Just like they've changed the rule regarding out-of-bounds catches where it used to be a judgement call on the referee whether the player would have landed inbounds with two feet had not the other team's player pushed him out, it shouldn't be a judgement call on whether the player intended to go out-of-bounds or not. If the player goes out-of-bounds before being tackled, I think the clock should stop. Even if it means the forward progress was inbounds. This puts the onus on the defense to actually tackle the player in the field of play at the end of the half or end of the game.

My reasoning isn't to punish the defense or make the game more exciting. I just think the fewer judgement calls, the better.

by Mike Kurtz :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:34am

It is still a judgment call in many cases, as the official has to determine whether the force of the defender or the force of the ball carrier took him out of bounds. It just happens to be one of the easier ones.

by Jerry F. (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:52am

What justanothersteve describes is not a judgment call. If the player is tackled in bounds, the clock keeps going. If he goes out of bounds, by force or of his own volition, the clock stops.

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:22pm

Exactly. In the Minnesota-Detroit game, when Pettigrew was tackled the clock should not have been stopped by the current rule. I believe the clock should stop in these cases where the player goes out-of-bounds before being tackled regardless of where progress was stopped. Even if it's usually an easy judgement call, it's one less judgement call to influence the outcome of a game.

by Jerry :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 8:44pm


Do you officiate anywhere?

by Mike Kurtz :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:35am

Yes, I am an Illinois high school football official.

by Jerry :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 6:21pm

Cool. It's nice to know this series is more than theoretical.

And sports, at every level, need good officials.

by nkowal :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 9:25pm

Is there a clip of this anywhere? I was watching live and do not remember it being significant enough hit that it should have been considered forward progress. As I recall Pettigrew was trying to get out of bounds and the player bumped him as he was going out. Seems to me that calling forward progress from a marginal hit like that would mean almost anytime a player is hit going out of bounds and doesn't go forward the clock should still run. That seems really incongruous with the rule of getting out of bounds.

I'd probably has to watch it again (if anyone has a clip, please pass it along) but I'm sure the Lions (or any team there) if given the choice would forfeit the yard gained and take the clock being stopped.

by nkowal :: Tue, 10/02/2012 - 9:36pm

Is there a clip of this anywhere? I was watching live and do not remember it being significant enough hit that it should have been considered forward progress. As I recall Pettigrew was trying to get out of bounds and the player bumped him as he was going out. Seems to me that calling forward progress from a marginal hit like that would mean almost anytime a player is hit going out of bounds and doesn't go forward the clock should still run. That seems really incongruous with the rule of getting out of bounds.

I'd probably have to watch it again (if anyone has a clip, please pass it along) but I'm sure the Lions (or any team there) if given the choice would forfeit the yard gained and take the clock being stopped.

by kailer :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 10:57am

AARGGGHHHHHH, I am so sick of these replacement refs. Bring back the real refs.

by Mike Kurtz :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:35am

I see what you did there.

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 11:36am

I don't think I've ever seen a play called like this.

It would imply that in a normal game situation, when a running back is being tackled and forward progress is called, that the time from when forward progress is called to the time it takes for the officials to actually get the ball should be added back onto the clock, right?

by steveNC (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:33pm

Why are you assuming the clock stops at all in your example? Did someone go out of bounds?

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:37pm

The clock shouldn't have stopped, but the time between forward progress ending and the play actually stopping should have not happened, so that time should be added back on the clock right?

Especially since they don't start the playclock right away.

I guess that would be the alternate solution, as soon as forward progress as been stopped that's when the playclock should start right?

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 1:06pm

No, the clock stops when the refs blow the whistle, there's nothing more to it. If the offensive player is still fighting the refs will give it a few seconds to see if he actually accomplishes anything before blowing the whistle and awarding forward progress. But if you're in a hurry, you're better off giving up quickly because you're not getting that time back.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say you've never seen a play called like that, though. What Mike says is the normal way to call it.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by nat :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:50pm

I'm not so sure this is even a problem. Awarding forward progress when a runner is forced out is not the same rule as ending the play for lack of forward progress.

Imagine a running back getting truly decked - flying four yards backward from a hit. The play isn't over until the ref sees that the RB is actually down - four yards back. But nevertheless, the ref awards forward progress.

The same principle applies when a runner is knocked backward and to the sideline. The play isn't over until the runner lands out of bounds. But forward progress can and should be awarded.

As for the clock, the question isn't "where was the point of forward progress?" It's "where was the runner when the play ended?". Or, even easier for a ref: "Why did I blow the whistle?"

Player was down: roll the clock.
Player was wrapped up and pushed back: roll the clock.
Player went out of bounds: stop the clock.

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 12:59pm

Yeah, that's what I thought. The play doesn't have to end where forward progress is given.

by Noah Arkadia :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 1:16pm

If this were the right call, you'd be able to abuse it by using the defensive player's momentum to run backwards and out of bounds when you need to stop the clock. Then you'd get forward progress and a clock stop. The refs then would have to decide what the player's intentions were when moving backwards and out of bounds and it would get crazy.

FO posters are a peacock. You got to let us fly!

by polyorchid :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 5:32pm

I like the current NFL rules the most, or at least, I dislike them the least of all the possible realistic alternatives.

I like that the defensive player knows that if he can just get to the guy while in bounds, and stop the guy while in bounds, even if the offensive player doesn't go down right away and manages to squirm out of bounds, at least if he does so backwards, the clock has to keep moving.

I think it's a good rule, and I think it's simple enough, and it might not be the simplest way to do it, but simple isn't everything. I think it would be even simpler to get rid of the forward progress concept altogether, but I don't think many people would like the game more if that happened.

It might be simpler to just never stop the clock except in the case of a timeout (probably along with an overall lengthening of the time on the game clock to, say, 90 minutes), or to have a rule that says the clock always stops when the play ends even if it ends in bounds (probably along with an overall shortening of the time on the game clock to, say 30 minutes). And either of these ideas I might actually get behind, because either way, I would think they'd make the game more the same kind of game all the way through, teams would have the option of rushing their way to an exciting last minute comeback touchdown, and the game might end up being a truer test of who the better all-around football team really is rather than as much of a test of which rushing-oriented teams can get ahead early in the game or which passing-oriented teams can successfully come back at the end, or whatever. I think there would be more potential for more drama in more games. In soccer the clock doesn't stop when the ball goes out of bounds, so it's not like it's totally unthinkable to do that in American football.

But if you're taking the basic clock rules as a given that can never be changed, I like the rule the way it is. Besides, I would speculate the current rule probably helps reduce the risk of injury to the offensive player at least a little bit, since the defender doesn't always have an incentive to make an extraordinary effort to immediately slam the offensive player who is near the sideline onto the ground and should be content to just push him backwards and out of bounds.