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Zebra Report: First Touching on Punts, Offensive Helmet-to-Helmet

Nov 17, 2010 – 9:00 AM
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Matt Snyder

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During the Auburn-Georgia game, there was a punt that was inadvertently touched by a member of the punting team before it had come to rest. As the ball was still bouncing around, the color commentator started screaming at the receiving team to pick the ball up and run because it had "nothing to lose."

And he was right.

In a case like this, the receiving team has absolutely nothing to lose (well, assuming it hadn't already committed a penalty).

Technically speaking, the punt team is not permitted to touch a punt until the receiving team has touched it. Now, hear me out before going crazy because of how often you've seen this happen without a penalty flag. It's a violation, not a penalty. With the violation, the stipulation is that the receiving team gets the privilege of taking possession of the football where the punt team touched it. It's one of those formalities we all kind of take for granted in most cases, because it's usually downed at it's furthest point downfield and that's it.

But what about when a punt hits a member of the punt team and bounces much farther toward the end zone? It's not automatically whistled dead, and everyone who watches football knows this. You may also notice the officials mark this spot with a beanbag, and that's for a specific reason. That's the spot of first touching. No matter what happens the rest of the play -- again, assuming there's no penalty on the receiving team -- the return team will have the option to take the ball at that spot.

That means a returner could see the defense has touched the ball and attempt to pick it up and take it back to the house. If he's tackled, who cares? They can take the ball at the spot of first touching. If he fumbles and the opposing team runs it back for an apparent touchdown, again, it doesn't matter. The return team can elect to take the ball at the spot of first touching.

So, young returners, if a member of the punt team has already touched the ball and it's still live -- go grab it and see what you can do with it. There won't be any consequences, but there is plenty of upside. Unless your officials don't know the rules, that is ...

• During the Northwestern-Iowa game, I had a short Twitter discussion with an Iowa City-based writer after he sent a tweet that said, "apparently Northwestern is allowed to helmet-to-helmet on offense." I replied that everyone on offense can do it. I should not have sent this tweet, because it was impossible to be accurate in the little 140 character limit without going on and on all day. Furthermore, what I said in and of itself is inaccurate. The language of the rule is very simple: "No player shall initiate contact and target an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul."

So, if an offensive player intentionally targets an opponent with the top of his helmet, it's illegal. I completely misrepresented what I wanted to convey and for that I apologize.

My reply was based in the root of how helmet-to-helmet contact usually happens. If a running back lowers his head, is he initiating helmet-to-helmet contact? I'd say no, he's bracing for a hit. The lack of penalties on offensive players for this on all levels of football reflects this sentiment. By the same token, if a back lowers his head at the last instant and a defender hits him helmet-to-helmet, I'd say this should not be a penalty, either, and we've discussed that before in this space.

My main point on the offense vs. defense thing is that in order to get a call on the offense, I believe it would have to be a blocker. A ballcarrier will avoid being called for this penalty in well over 99 percent of the cases where two helmets hit each other. It's just the nature of how this sport is played.

• A field goal that may have beaten Oregon was taken off the board because the Cal kicker was moving forward at the snap. Most probably know this, but just in case, we'll cover. The kicker can certainly move around before the snap, provided he gets set at the snap or is the only person moving laterally at the snap. If anyone else is moving or he's going forward at the snap, it's just like a slot-back took a step forward as the ball was being snapped. Unfortunately for Cal, had the kicker either reset himself for one second before the snap or only stepped sideways, the field goal would have counted. On the other hand, if he makes what is deemed as an abrupt motion forward, the officials could deem it a false start and kill the play before the snap.

We'll skip the fallacy for this week, as nothing really got me too riled up this past weekend in watching the games that I hadn't already covered in this space.

Have a question or comment involving officiating? E-mail me at or simply drop it in the comments section below. Feel free to submit plays for examination for future columns. I guarantee a response to serious inquiries.

Also, potential future zebras, if you want to get started but don't know how, drop me a line and I'll find your local association for you. The count is now up to four guys I've put in touch with mentoring programs across the country and I'm happy to help.
Filed under: Sports
Tagged: zebra report