by Mike Kurtz
Principles of Penalty Enforcement
While game management and officiating mechanics are useful, the real meat of an official's job is the recognition and enforcement of penalties. With 22 players running, blocking, and engaging in all manner of actions common to the game, there are a ton of possible infractions in a dozen different spots all over the field. Two factors keep the officials on track: specialization and position.
What do I mean by specialization? While every official is able to call and enforce any penalty in the book, some penalties are far more common for certain positions than others. For instance, the back judge is unlikely to throw many flags for roughing the passer, as he is far away from the pocket and likely to have his eyes on the action downfield. The various officials are so experienced at their positions, in fact, that the calls common to that area of the field are more muscle memory than conscious rules interpretation. This allows the officials to attend to their other duties while still keeping watch for infractions.
Position is a similar concept: the idea is that an official is responsible for calls in the field zones for which they are responsible (I covered these zones in Part I and Part II). This philosophy is backed by the concepts that an official must have a clear view of the infraction to call it, and the farther from the action an official is, the less likely he'll have a clear view of the possible foul. Commentators (particularly former players) are actually rather clued-in on this concept, and even a casual viewer will pick up on Troy Aikman wondering why a flag came from across the field when there was another official right in front of the action. Each official has his keys for enforcement on each play, and those keys generally correspond to a number of players in a certain area of the field. By slicing the action into chunks, the crew can make sure all the action is covered.
The other major concern, of course, is how the possible penalty impacted the play. While few officials would admit it, there are some penalties (holding is the classic example) where borderline infractions occur on nearly every play. For something like holding, the choice to throw a flag is a snap decision by the covering official based on the foul's proximity to the point of attack, the angle of attack, and the flagrancy of the foul. A tackle block opening a lane for a runner is going to be called every time, whereas a hook against a defensive lineman when the ball is already 20 yards downfield is significantly less likely to draw a flag. Should that offensive lineman turn the hook into a twist and throw his opponent to the ground, however, the impact of the holding on the play is probably overshadowed by the need to enforce order on the game.
For each penalty, I will note the official primarily responsible (or simply most likely to throw a flag), the enforcement of that penalty, and a brief cheat sheet on what the officials are looking for on each infraction. Some will include information on the spot from which enforcement begins, which even has its own chapter in the official rule book. However, most fouls are penalized from the line of scrimmage, so general enforcement is simple. If an offensive foul occurs beyond the line of scrimmage but behind the succeeding spot (where the play ended), the offense is not given credit for the post-penalty yardage. Some penalties (most famously defensive pass interference) are enforced from the spot where the foul occurred. If the offense commits a foul behind its own goal line, the play is by rule a safety. If the defense commits a foul in its opponent's end zone, the spot for enforcement is the goal line. The umpire is responsible for measuring out the penalty and re-spotting the ball.
Roughing the Passer (12-2-8)
Covering Official: Referee.
Enforcement: 15 yards from the previous spot and an automatic first down. Disqualification if flagrant.
Roughing the passer is one of the most important penalties in the game and, alongside the other safety-related fouls, is one of the most strictly enforced. In fact, the official rulebook explicitly states that "[w]hen in doubt about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactic against the quarterback, the Referee should always call roughing the passer." Oftentimes during a game the audience hears the commentators equivocating over whether a questionable play was "really" roughing the passer. What the broadcasters and most of the audience fail to realize is that, if there is a serious question, the play will be penalized as a matter of course. This leaves a tremendous burden on defensive players to ensure that nothing about their play even suggests roughing or any "potentially dangerous tactic," but football at all levels is keenly aware of the extreme risk carried by quarterbacks, and is training its officials to always err on the side of player safety.
That said, there are specific actions a defender can take against a quarterback, depending on what stage the play has reached. A defender may never:
- Hit the passer while he is clearly "out of the play"
- Hit the area below the knee of a passer, even if the initial contact occurred above the knee, unless he is blocked into the passer
- Perform a forcible blow to the head or arm of the passer with his arm
- Perform a forcible blow to the helmet of the passer using the defender's helmet, regardless of where the initial contact occurred
All of these guidelines are subjective, but it's a "you know it when you see it" sort of subjective. Remember: the league has decreed that any questionable activity that falls into these categories must be flagged, so these categories are quite broad in practice. The addition of language equating to "forcible" to the last two categories is a relatively recent rule change, and the only recent change that has favored defenders. In practice, the only legal hit on a quarterback is above the knee, without any contact between the players' arms and helmets. There are, however, special rules for plays during the "protected" period immediately following the release of the pass and preceding the passer being "out of the play." The basic rules for this protected period are:
- A defender may only hit the passer through the defender's first step following the pass's release
- A defender may not perform any "unnecessary" acts while hitting the passer
- A defender may not "club" the passer's arm during a pass or immediately thereafter
- A defender may not hit the passer's neck or head with any part of his helmet
- A defender may not lower his head and hit any area of the passer with the forehead or crown of his helmet
Immediately after the pass has been thrown, the rules for contact with a passer become considerably more strict. The "two-step" rule, which used to be merely a rule of thumb, is now an official interpretation. The second prohibition, against unnecessary acts, is most commonly called for driving the quarterback into the ground after the pass has been thrown. The third entry is honestly not enforced, since a defender would have to blatantly be attempting to injure a quarterback in order for a club to be distinguishable from the defender merely attempting to knock the ball free. The final two are pure safety violations and as such are given zero tolerance, much to James Harrison's chagrin.
As a rule of thumb, if the passer's head gets hammered, it's a penalty. If the defender does anything other than what's required to perform the tackle, it's a penalty. If the defender leads with his helmet after the throw, it's a penalty. Applying those three basic tenets demystifies most roughing calls and safely removes us from the commentator morass of what "looks like" roughing.
Covering Official: Umpire, line judge, head linesman (offense); field judge, side judge, back judge (defense).
Enforcement: 10 yards (offense), 5 yards and an automatic first down (defense).
The most important concept to understand about holding is "close line play." This phrase is actually a decodification of the former NFL and current NCAA rules regarding the "free blocking zone" which covered players on the line of scrimmage and inside the tackles when the snap occurred. If the players are involved in "close line play," then there will be no foul for holding if the defender is being double-teamed, if the action is away from the point of attack, or if the ball has already been thrown downfield. The exception to this enforcement is if the hold is flagrant, especially if it results in a defender being thrown to the ground.
Despite its practical application, defensive holding is extremely similar to offensive holding. In both cases, the offending player is attempting to impede the progress of another player toward some goal (the ballcarrier on defense and the player's passing route on offense). The methods players use to illegally hold their opponents fall into six general categories:
- Pull and falls
- Hook and restricts
- Jerk and restricts
- Grab and restricts
Note the importance of "and restrict" for hooks, jerks and grabs. It takes an extremely powerful and flagrant hook, jerk, or grab to actually obstruct a football player from his goal. What these maneuvers do, however, is make it much more easy for the player to restrict his target after hooking, jerking or grabbing him. Due to this dynamic, these moves are useful indicators that a restriction, and therefore a hold, is about to ensue. Recognition draws the official's eyes to the action and helps ensure he sees the entire restriction and therefore the holding penalty.
Let's look at a few of these in depth:
Tackles are self-explanatory. The only player that may be legally tackled is the ball carrier or a player simulating possession of the ball on a misdirection play. Sometimes defenders will attempt to tackle or submarine a pulling offensive lineman in an attempt to break up a running play, so actual tackles in line play are actually somewhat common.
Takedowns are basically tackles but with some play-acting involved. The player (almost always an offensive lineman, although occasionally a defensive back in the five-yard chuck zone) begins with what appears to be a legal block, then attempts to leverage his blocking angle or the other player's momentum and drive that player to the ground.
Pull and falls involve one player latching on to another player (usually a pass rusher) and attempting to use his weight to unbalance the other player and cause him to fall. If an offensive lineman is beaten on a bull rush, for instance, he would grab the defensive lineman's jersey and allow himself to fall, taking the defender with him. This creates the appearance of a defender tripping over a blocker who blew his block.
Hook and restrict primarily breaks down into two maneuvers: hook and turns, and armbars. Armbars are most famously employed by defensive backs, but they can occur anywhere on the field. Any time a player is thrown off a route in which he has priority (a pass rusher outside the body of an offensive blocker, for instance) by an arm extension slowing his progress -- even if there is no contact -- it is considered a hold. Hook and turns have some overlap with pass interference, and often involve a defensive back or receiver (whichever has been beat to the ball) hooking his arm around the body of the other player and tugging, causing the player to pivot and be thrown off his route.
Jerk and restrict is somewhat unique among holds in that it is an affirmative strategy rather than the result of a blocker being beaten. In order to "jerk" a defender, the blocker must have already initiated a legal block. Afterward, the blocker grabs his opponent's jersey while his momentum is stopped and jerks him to the side, usually away from the point of attack.
Grab and restrict is the classic holding technique; a player is beaten, and as his opponent runs by, he grabs or bear-hugs him. It is important to note that just grabbing isn't holding so long as the grab itself does not impede the other player. Holding in this scenario involves a grab which is maintained and impacts the path of his opponent.
The important axiom for holding (aside from jerk and restricts) is "if you're beat, you cheat." Look for dominant players who aren't drawing a double-team, a particularly small or inept blocker, or a slow or inexperienced defensive back. Watch how they react to their individual opponents. Oftentimes that opponent will blow by them and the player, with a mix of instinct and desperation, restricts or tackles the other player. This is why officials make it a point to know the playmakers on both sides of the ball before a contest, as those players are most likely to draw illegal conduct from the other side.
Covering Official: Side judge, field judge, back judge (both offense and defense).
Enforcement: 10 yards from the previous spot (offense), Spot of the foul and an automatic first down plus 15 yards if the interference was a personal foul (defense).
The rule for pass interference is deceptively simple: "It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible receiver's opportunity to catch the ball." This rule implies, but does not set, a standard of intentionality to the interfering player's actions. This, to my mind, is the rule's downfall, and why it is the subject of so much controversy. Much like the definition and interpretations regarding the catch, the league has instead chosen to generate a large list of "allowed" activity, followed by a list of permitted exceptions to that activity. A player may not:
- Come into contact with an opponent in a way that restricts the opponent's opportunity to make the catch, unless that player is "playing the ball"
- Play through the back of an opponent in an attempt to knock the caught ball loose or defense the pass
- Armbar, under any circumstances
- Cut off the path of another player to the ball by making contact with him
- Hooking and/or hooking and restricting
- Pushing off, under any circumstances
"Playing the ball" is an extremely difficult concept to apply to real-time football action. In response, an official will usually attempt to replay the action slowly in his head to reconfirm the possible interference. The interpretation he employs is a combination of these specific categories and a heavy emphasis on the basic rule of interpretation, that a player who takes an unfair action in order to gain an advantage on a play has committed a penalty. Then, after confirming that the action did fall into one of the above categories and that the player gained some advantage by it, the official then has to rule on whether the contact he saw fell into a broad grouping of permissible, "incidental" contact:
- Contact with the arms, hands or body when both players are competing for the ball or neither player is looking for the ball
- Inadvertent tangling of the feet while both players are competing for the ball or neither player is looking for the ball
- Contact that would be interference, but the pass is uncatchable
The exceptions are generally a more fine-grained version of the "advantage" analysis the official has already applied, but with the key difference that the official is ruling on the posture of the two players during the suspected interference. If both players are making a bona fide attempt to catch the ball, contact between the two is ignored, since both players have equal right to the football. Likewise, if two players are running neck-and-neck (one of the keys officials look for in these situations) and their legs become intertwined as they are both looking back to catch a pass, it was likely incidental contact and not interference. Conversely, if neither player is looking for the ball, the interfered-with team should not gain the advantage of a play they had no chance of converting; hence the exceptions for neither player looking for the ball, and for uncatchable passes.
The saving grace for this rule is the official interpretation that "[i]f there is any question whether player contact is incidental, the ruling should be no interference." That interpretation is key to many of the plays that have us as fans staring at the screen in bewilderment, wondering how the zebras could have missed it. The overwhelming likelihood is that the official didn't miss the contact, but had some doubt in his mind as to whether it was incidental. Pass interference is a serious sanction, especially on the defense. The league is determined to ensure that it is only called when the evidence of interference is crystal clear.
During the Season
Between positioning, play keys, and interpretations of the more controversial rules, we have a good starting point to more intelligently watch and comment on the officials' performances as they relate to game management and penalty enforcement. When you next see a flag, don't stoop to the commentator's level and start thinking about whether it "looked like" or "really was" a penalty. Instead, think about where the official is and what he can see, then apply the rules to what action unfolded on the field. By doing so, we not only gain a more sound understanding of penalty enforcement, but the strategic and technical choices employed by the teams and individuals players on every play.
I will periodically be posting XPs during the season to give reactions and explanations for important and controversial calls. Some of these will come from our weekly Audibles column, but I would love to address any questions or confusions encountered by our readers. Send any officiating or rules interpretation questions to the mailbag, and we'll make sure they get to me. Even if your question doesn't end up in an XP, I'll be sure to respond to them all.
Enjoy the season, and happy zebra spotting!