Friday, October 26, 2012

Respecting Boundaries

If you watched the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game last weekend, you saw a wild finish.  On their last drive of the game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were down by a touchdown and out of time outs.  Starting from their own nineteen-yard line, they managed to work their way down to the New Orleans nine-yard line in the last two minutes of the game. 
The game came down to the final play:  quarterback Josh Freeman tossed a pass to receiver Mike Williams in the back corner of the end zone.  Touchdown, right?  Nope.  To understand why this score was negated, you have to look at the NFL’s rules regarding receivers who make a catch after going out of bounds, which are explained below. 


This disappointing (and rare) finish inspired me to review the NFL rules that relate to action taking place at the boundaries of the field—i.e., the sidelines and the end line.*



First, though, let’s start with Rule 3, Section 21, which defines what it means to be “out of bounds.”  Under that rule, a player is “out of bounds” when he touches a boundary line (i.e., a sideline or the end line), or when he touches anything on or outside a boundary line that isn’t another player, an official, or a pylon.  In other words, if a player is standing on the sideline, or brushes against, say, his coach or the down marker, he is out of bounds.

Rule 3 also explains how the ball is considered “out of bounds.”  Of course, the ball is out of bounds if the runner (i.e., the player with the ball) is out of bounds; the ball is also out of bounds if it (and not the player) touches a boundary line or anything other than a player or an official on or outside that line.  
If the ball is loose (i.e., not in the possession of any one player), it is out of bounds when it touches a boundary line or anything on or outside a boundary line. 




Illegal First Touching

So, what about the touchdown at the end of the Saints-Bucs game that didn’t count?

In that situation we look to Rule 8, Section 1, Article 6(d).  This provision declares that a player is ineligible to catch a pass if he “has been out of bounds prior to or during the pass, even if he has re-established himself inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands” (emphasis mine).  Naturally, the pass would be incomplete if the receiver caught it out of bounds.  This rule goes further than that, though, by not allowing a receiver to catch a ball once he’s been out, even if he comes back into the field of play.  Moreover, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 8 provides that it is a foul if a forward pass is first touched by a receiver who has gone out of bounds and has re-established himself inbounds.  The penalty is the loss of five yards.

MECHANICS NOTE:  An official will typically throw his hat to the ground to signify that a receiver has gone out of bounds and become ineligible to catch the pass.

There is one exception to this rule:  if the receiver is forced out of bounds by a foul committed by a defender (e.g., pass interference or defensive holding), he is allowed to catch a pass as soon as he “re-establishes himself inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands.”   Unfortunately for Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams, that’s not what happened at the end of Sunday’s game and he was flagged for illegal touching.**


(Note, though, that the announcer is wrong when he says that you become eligible once you’ve reestablished your position inbounds.)


Sideline Catches

We’ve talked before about what a player needs to do to catch a pass under the rules.  What we didn’t discuss were the rule provisions that specifically address catches made at the sidelines.  Two provisions apply here.  First, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Items 2 states:

If a player goes to the ground out-of-bounds (with or without contact by an opponent) in the process of making a catch at the sideline, he must maintain complete and continuous control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, or the pass is incomplete.

Really, this is just another way of stating the requirement for a catch, just making it specifically apply to players going out of bounds as they catch the pass.  More interesting to me, though, is Item 6:

If a player, who is in possession of the ball, is held up and carried out of bounds by an opponent before both feet or any part of his body other than his hands touches the ground inbounds, it is a completed or [if the player is a defender] intercepted pass.

So, if a player is at the sidelines, leaps up and catches the ball, it is a complete pass if he is “carried” out of bounds by an opponent before he can touch the ground in the field of play.  It sounds like this would require Cirque du Soleil style acrobatics, but it is possible.


The NFL’s rules also address the situation when a fumbled ball goes out of bounds.  There are two different provisions, depending on whether the ball goes out of bounds between the goal lines or in the end zone.  The applicable rule is Rule 8, Section 7, Articles 3, Items 3 and 4.  These parts of the rule might seem complicated when you read them, but they can be summarized fairly easily.

Basically, when a team fumbles between the goal lines, it can lose yards, but it can’t gain extra yards.  Here’s the rule:

·  If the fumble went backwards, the ball is returned to the team that last had it at the spot where it went out of bounds (so, the team loses yards);

·  If the fumble goes forward, the ball is returned to the team that had it at the spot of the fumble (in other words, you don’t get the extra yards the ball traveled before it went out);

·  If the ball was fumbled in the team’s own end zone and entered the field of play before going out, the result is a safety if it was that team’s action that put the ball in its own end zone*** (if not, it’s a touchback for the opposing team).


Here’s the rule when the fumble goes out of bounds from the end zone:  

·  If the fumble starts outside the goal line but enters the opponent’s end zone before going out of bounds, it is a touchback for the opposing team (e.g., the offense is on the defense’s two yard line and the running back fumbles as he approaches the end zone);

·  If the fumble is in the team’s own end zone, the rule is the same as the third bullet point above.

Easy, right?



Illegal First Touching on Kicks

Rules similar to the one applied in the Saints-Bucs game also exist regarding players who go out of bounds on kicking plays.  For free kicks (kicks that don’t begin from a line of scrimmage, like kickoffs and fair catch kicks) Rule 6 applies.  Section 2, Article 4 prohibits a member of the kicking team from being the first player to touch or recover the ball if he has gone out of bounds.  However, once a player on the receiving team touches the ball, it’s up for grabs and anyone, even the player who was out, can recover it.  The penalty for the illegal touching of a free kick is the loss of five yards.


Similarly, Rule 9, Section 2, Article 3 prohibits “illegal first touching” in scrimmage kicks—i.e., punts and field goal attempts.  The penalty is five yards again, but if the illegal touch occurred within the receiving team’s five-yard line, the receiving team can elect to take a touchback, thereby getting the ball on its own 20-yard line.


Aside from the issue of who touches the ball on a kick, the rules don’t even like it when players go out of bounds in the first place and, in some instances, if the ball goes out of bounds.  Rule 9, Section 1, Article 5 provides that, on a scrimmage kick, it is illegal for a player on the kicking team to go out of bounds voluntarily (i.e., without being contacted) before the opposing team gets possession of the ball.  The penalty?  You guessed it:  five yards.


Section 3 of Rule 12 lists the many unfair acts that fall under the “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” category. Included in this list is Article 1(t), when a member of kicking team that has been forced out of bounds or goes out voluntarily does not attempt to return inbounds “in a reasonable amount of time.”  For this infraction, the kicking team is hit with a 15 yard penalty.


Finally, Rule 6, Section 2, Article 3 states that it is illegal for a free kick to go out of bounds untouched.   Enforcement of this penalty is nice and complicated:  on a kickoff, the receiving team can elect to take possession either 25 yards from the spot of the kick or where the ball went out of bounds; on a kick after a safety, the receiving team can take possession either 30 yards from where the ball was kicked or where the ball went out of bounds.

So now if some crazy play happens like it did last weekend, you’ll probably be the only one in the room who isn’t confused!  You’re welcome.


* The end lines are the lines at the backs of the end zones.
**By the way, the New Orleans defender who pushed Williams out of bounds was not flagged for the push because when the quarterback leaves the pocket, the defense can’t be called for illegal contact. See Rule 8, Section 4.
***Click here for a review of what is required for a safety to occur.

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