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Zebra Report: Fun With Formations

Dec 23, 2009 – 10:00 AM
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Matt Snyder

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Monday night, the Washington Redskins took a page out of, well, someone's old-school playbook. They attempted to run the old "swinging gate" from a field goal (known to officials as a "scrimmage kick") formation. From where I sit, the timing couldn't have been better. Not only do I believe we have never gone through the legalities of offensive formations yet in the Zebra Report (side note: I've been running this feature now for less than two seasons and I can't even remember if we've covered something or not. And I'm 31. Is this what aging is like?), but I've gotten a few e-mails about possible illegal formation infractions in the past couple weeks as well. It's like the karma police intervened and handed me Jim Zorn's coaching carcass on a silver platter.

Anyway, yes, obviously the swinging gate is a legal formation since nothing was called by the officials after they had a timeout to think about it. Since I received a few questions on the matter, we'll delve a little deeper into formation rules. We'll discuss that, some general guidelines and tackle two e-mails. Also, stay tuned even if you don't care about formation rules, because there are some other random tidbits to cover.

• Generally speaking, the offense has to have seven stationary men on the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. Someone has to be a snapper, but it doesn't matter if that person is an eligible receiver or not (which makes the swinging gate possible). There's no rule as to how many people have to be on each side of the snapper.

Any player on the line may shift sideways before the snap, assuming he:
1) Resets for at least one second prior to the ball being snapped;
2) Doesn't make a sudden movement that draws the defense off-sides; and
3) Has not touched either hand to the ground to form a "three-point" or "four-point" stance [note: this stipulation only applies to interior lineman, as eligible receivers can touch their hand down and pick it back up]

For the players off the line, they must be at least a full yard behind the line of scrimmage. They can all move around all they want pre-snap, as long as no more than one is moving within one second of the snap and no one is approaching the line of scrimmage.

That should be enough to cover the most basic portion of the formation rules, especially when viewing something so odd-looking as the swinging gate. I can easily see how it just looks illegal to the casual fan.

• E-mailer Hudson asks, "At the end of the 1st half of the Eagles-49ers game, Leonard Weaver and some LB from SF were yapping at each other, on Philly's side of the ball, as the Eagles were attempting to spike the ball or run another play with about 15 seconds left. My question is, if Philly would have just snapped the ball, with Weaver and the 49er guy yapping, would the 49ers have just been called for offsides? Would Weaver have been called for illegal formation? I mean, he was in the backfield, or are there certain areas you have to be within in order to be a good formation?"

ZR: Assuming the Eagles had seven guys on the line of scrimmage, Weaver is fine. He could be standing 70 yards behind the football facing backward and he'd be legal (as long as he's not moving toward the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped or moving at all when someone else is in motion). Now, I wasn't able to find a highlight of this specific play (again, don't I pay enough for NFL Sunday Ticket to gain access to full game replays online? My DVR won't let me record eight games at once), but if a defender is across the line of scrimmage at the snap for any reason, he's definitely off-sides.

• Loyal reader and All-Star e-mailer Guy from Montana also asked if it is illegal to have eight men on the line of scrimmage, because you always hear about seven needing to be on the line. Well, seven is the minimum, but there isn't explicitly a maximum (though there is an unwritten one, due to other rules and common sense). The reason most teams don't use more than seven on the line is because they want the most possible eligible receivers possible, and only the outside guy on the line is eligible. If you ever hear someone use the term "he is covered" about a player when talking about an offensive formation, it means he's on the line and someone else outside of him is also on the line -- making him an ineligible receiver.

Oh, and the maximum amount of guys you can have on the line of scrimmage to start a play? Ten. Teams are only allowed 11 players in the field of play, and someone has to legally be behind the center to take the snap.

Other Officiating Items

• Brandon Jacobs clearly threw a punch (in fact, it was a haymaker) in full view of everyone Monday night during his little tiff with the Redskins. Pretty classless on Jacobs' part, but I'm most annoyed with the officials. There was already a fracas breaking out, so how did none of the converging officials see it? He should have been ejected on the spot.

• Speaking of unsportsmanlike acts, did anyone else notice D.J. Williams appear to club Joseph Addai in the head on an attempted reception in the flats during the Colts' Week 14 win over the Denver Broncos? It states pretty clearly in the rules (12-2-9k, page 83) that this is unnecessary roughness:

(k) if the initial force of the contact by a defender's helmet, forearm, or shoulder is to the head or neck area of a defenseless receiver who is catching or attempting to catch a pass.

If you saw this game and remember the play, do you think Williams violated the rule as it's written, or was he within his rights as a defender? Vote in the poll and/or let your thoughts be known in the comments section. Personally, I thought it looked like a clear forearm to the side of the head.

• Reader Tim C. has a really obscure, yet awesome, question: "In the Colts' week 12 victory over Houston, the Texans attempted to recover a short kickoff at the end of the game. A couple of players touched it, apparently no one doing so illegaly, before the ball was batted out of bounds by Indy special teamer Jacob Tamme. Following that, the Colts got the ball at the Houston 42. The guys in the booth said that Tamme made it look enough like a fumble that there was no foul called for batting the ball, but I know better than to listen to the guys in the booth (besides which, he swatted it out of the air with an open hand, clearly not trying to possess the ball). I know that there are situations where a penalty should be assessed for batting the ball out of bounds (I think it happened in Super Bowl XLII). Is it a foul to bat the ball out of bounds on a kickoff, if no player had possession of the ball after the kick, and the officials just missed it? Or was Tamme just more aware of the rules than the commentators and me?"

ZR: Well, I can tell Tim has been reading all season, as he definitely knows not to trust the announcers. His intuition was correct (and I'm electing him into the Zebra Report Hall of Fame; he and Guy from Montana are the charter members), as the announcers, once again, had no idea as to the actual rule and just made stuff up. Seriously, guys, just say you don't know the rule. It's much more honorable. Tamme didn't have to act like he was trying to recover the fumble. He's perfectly within his rights to bat a football out of bounds. Here's the rule on illegal batting (12-1-8, page 80).

A player may not bat or punch:
(a) a loose ball (in field of play) toward opponent's goal line;
(b) a loose ball in any direction if it is in either end zone;
(c) a backward pass in flight may not be batted forward by an offensive player.
Exception: A forward pass in flight may be tipped, batted, or deflected in any direction by any
eligible player at any time.

That's it. As long as it's not toward his opponent's goal line or in the end zone, a player can purposely bat a loose kickoff out of bounds. It's actually a smart play on an onside kick for a member of the receiving team to bat it out -- as it prevents his opponent from recovering in bounds and his own team will gain possession.

• Loyal Browns fan Martin N. of Garfield, OH submitted this inquiry: "the Cleveland Browns were called for an illegal wedge on a kickoff. I'm a fan of many years and I've never heard that before."

ZR: Great submission, Martin. This is actually a new rule for 2009. Players can no longer form a "wedge" on kickoffs. Rule 6-1-3d (page 35) states:

"(d) After the ball is kicked, no more than two receiving team players may intentionally form a wedge in an attempt to block for the runner. An illegal wedge is defined as three or more players lined up shoulder-to-shoulder within two yards of each other.

Note: This does not apply when the kicking team lines up in an obvious onside kick formation.

Penalty: For players intentionally forming an illegal wedge: Loss of 15 yards."

That should do it for this week. Keep those eyes peeled for questions and keep my inbox full. There may be a renewed interest in coming up with great questions due to my impromptu Hall of Fame inductions.

Here's wishing a good holiday season to all TZR followers.

Zebra Report is FanHouse's analysis of actual NFL rules and how they are to be applied ... because most fans think they could do a better job than the NFL officials, yet definitely could not. Click here for an introduction as to how we do things. Got a rules-related question? Whether it's elementary, high school or NFL, e-mail TZR and he'll see what he can do.
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