Zebra Report: Intentional Grounding and More Mailbag
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.
Obviously, the discussion of bad judgment calls never stops when it comes to officiating in any sport. There will always be complaints, legitimate or not, in this field. It does seem like we've sufficiently covered most of the biggies this year in Zebra Report, but our work is never done. For this week's version (and I apologize for the tardiness, in case anyone cares), we'll turn back to the lifeblood of TZR: the readers. Once again, I've got a nice slate of emails from which to choose.
• We've covered this before, but I continue to get questions as to why a quarterback is allowed to spike a football to stop the clock without it being intentional grounding. In the intentional grounding rule (8-2, pp. 53-54), there is an exception for stopping the clock:
Item 3: Stopping Clock. A player under center is permitted to stop the game clock legally to save time if, immediately upon receiving the snap, he begins a continuous throwing motion and throws the ball directly into the ground.
The key part of that rule, remember, is the word "immediate." A quarterback cannot decide to spike the ball and claim it was to save time after dropping back for a few seconds.
• ZR Hall of Famer Guy from Montana wants to discuss intentional grounding and the rule's seeming lack of teeth. I've tried to pare down his questions, but it's a task. Guy himself would tell you he's a bit verbose. I'll answer this in three different parts. Guy's in bold and I'm not. Here goes nothing:
"My pet peeve is when a qb, in the pocket, under duress, throws the ball in the 'area' of an eligible receiver to escape the penalty. The rule is supposed to penalize a qb for intentionally throwing an incomplete pass to avoid a sack. The issue is, more often than not, the ball is thrown in such a way there is no chance in Hades the ball can be caught. Watch Phillip Rivers abuse this rule ... he is always throwing at the feet of a running back once he realizes the screen play called is busted. To me this flies in the face of what the rule was meant to negate. A catchable ball is considered in pass interference calls. Why not on intentional grounding rulings?"
Well, that's a good question. My opinion is that, at some point, you have to give the players credit for finding a way around a rule and gaining benefit for their team. In this example, Rivers is simply making a smart play (oh, and go easy on Guy, Chargers fans, he's one of you). If you get into calling this, you have to start worrying about calling too much. For example, all offensive lineman hold, but they get away with it when they keep their hands inside the shoulders.
"The other issue is what does 'the ball being thrown in the area of a receiver' actually mean? Do the rules actually say what the radius is or is it completely up to the judgment of the official? Can you tell me what the rule actually says? I'd be interested."
The rulebook uses the phrase "realistic chance of completion" and then defines it. All it says is this: "A realistic chance of completion is defined as a pass that lands in the direction and the vicinity of an originally eligible receiver."
It's tough to say a ball definitely doesn't have a realistic chance of completion when you are talking about a human being throwing a ball to another, sometimes 45 yards away and sometimes while the passer is getting hit just as he throws. Think about a terrible quarterback getting hit as he's throwing a pass. Can you really, 100 percent, figure where he wanted to throw it? Generally, officials try to err on the side of believing the quarterback knew where he was throwing it. Which leads us to the last question from Guy ...
"And finally (if that wasn't enough) intentional grounding is the only call the officials, without fail, will always huddle up and call well after the whistle was blown. Why is this? I understand every once in a while the refs needing to talk things out but EVERY TIME??? Can the line judges or referee not make the call unilaterally on their own once in a while? I think this speaks to the obtusiveness of this rule. Refs are afraid to make the ruling without consulting with one another."
Actually, the reason officials all huddle on potential grounding calls goes hand-in-hand with my comment above that we're trying to figure out where a quarterback actually meant to throw a pass. Considering the referee is watching only the quarterback, the umpire is watching the blockers (usually including at least one eligible receiver), the line judge and head linesman are looking at receivers only on their respective sides of the field, you need to have everyone in there to discuss where the eligible receivers were in comparison to where the pass went. Once they all say where their guys were, they can try to figure out if grounding should be called or not. The huddles may be annoying to people watching the game, but they are quite necessary when it comes to getting the call correct. Just remember each official is only watching a certain number of players. They aren't all out there trying to watch 22 guys at once.
Great questions as always, Guy. Keep it up, man.
• Emailer Mike has more on this subject: "Peyton Manning hit one of his offensive lineman in the back instead of grounding the ball during last week's Thursday night game. There were no other receivers in the surrounding area. I thought that was against the rules and lineman were ineligible receivers. The Colts ended up getting the first down on the next play and eventually scored a TD on that drive. Please set me straight."
That I can do, Mike. Offensive lineman are definitely ineligible, but here's the portion of the illegal touching rule that applies to this case (Rule 8-1-8a, p. 52):
It is a foul for illegal touching if a forward pass (legal or illegal), thrown from behind the line of scrimmage:
(a) is first touched intentionally or is caught by an ineligible offensive play
Note the word "intentionally." If a pass hits an ineligible receiver in the back, it's not a penalty because he didn't mean to touch it.
• Reader Wes sent this question along: "I saw a highlight on ESPN about the closing minutes (or seconds, not sure) of the Chargers/Cincinatti game. During a spiked ball to stop the clock by the Chargers, the ESPN people said that LaDainian Tomlinson was in an illegal formation, but that the refs didn't call it. The Chargers kicked the winning field goal on the next play. Now, Tomlinson wasn't on the line, but in the backfield, though he was on the far hash, near the sideline. Was this illegal?"
There's nothing I can find that says it definitely is illegal. The rulebook only says the offense has to have at least seven men on the line of scrimmage and that the players -- other than the quarterback -- not on the line must be at least one yard off the line of scrimmage when the play begins. I did find this obscure rule that says a player cannot "linger." (12-3-2, p. 88):
It is unsportsmanlike conduct for ... (k) Using entering substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players to confuse opponents. The clarification is also to be interpreted as covering any
lingering by players leaving the field when being substituted for.
Now, I don't think this sounds like LdT was lingering, but it's the only possible explanation I can find that would say he was doing something illegal.
Also of note here, in one game this past Sunday (I think it was the Packers-Seahawks game) I heard an official call illegal formation "because the tight end was covered." I scoured all 130-plus pages of the rulebook, and there is absolutely nothing in it that says you can't cover the tight end. In fact, that would mean unbalanced line formations were illegal, and they aren't. I believe this was a mistake, but I'm open to correction (if there are any NFL officials reading and I'm wrong, please shoot me an email).
That's all the space we have for this week. Remember to keep those eyes peeled in Week 17. As I said in the intro, the lifeblood of The Zebra Report is you, thus, I'd like to say thanks to all my readers on this New Year's Day.
Got a rules-related question? Whether it's elementary, high school or NFL, email TZR and he'll see what he can do.