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Best Seat in the House: An Official's Take on the Game of Football, Part 1

Fellas, please, let me do my job here. - Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

"Football is a simple game…you kick the ball, you throw the ball, and you catch the ball. You got it???"

I know what you’re thinking. "Isn’t this a quote from Bull Durham and…wait a second, that was a BASEBALL MOVIE!" Yes, this is an accurate assumption and no, I haven’t gone COMPLETELY insane, at least not yet. To me, this moderately modified movie quote sums up my basic understanding of the game of football about 5 years ago. I had been a fan of the game since I was about 11 when I first saw the Rocket shooting off into the Orlando night to win Notre Dame its second National Title in four years. I remained faithful to both the Irish and to the Dallas Cowboys as an ardent and outspoken fan and I thought I knew a good deal about the way the game was played. My father was also an official while I was growing up, so I had ready access to the rulebook and I always looked forward to reading his cartoon copy of the rules.

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Fast forward about another 15 years and I finally decided, after serving as a baseball umpire for 4 seasons, to try my hand as a football official. It is commonly stated--and I am finding it so true every single season that I get under my belt--that I only THOUGHT I knew what football was. I never fully understood how the nuances of the game, slight variations in definitions of key items, and seeing things from certain angles mattered to how the sport we all love is played.

So I decided recently that I would try to bring some of my learned knowledge in this area to my dear friends and fellow Irish Nuts here on OFD. I hope to make this a somewhat regular contribution and follow in the footsteps of our resident S&C guru, jchrapek; our recruiting genius, Jim Miesle; and our spiritual guide, First Down Moses to become a contributor to the general outstanding knowledge that comprises this forum. A secondary benefit for me would be to inspire a few of y’all who may be considering joining the brotherhood of officials, but for some reason have not made the full jump into the fraternity.

Let’s get this show started, shall we?

I want to begin our fun, yet lengthy journey through the forested maze of the NCAA rulebook by starting smack dab in the middle of the thing. I do this for a few reasons. First of all, the beginning of the rulebook is dripping with legalese and I will be referencing those portions as they come up in each of these installments. Rule 1 discusses the dimensions of the field, requirements of player jerseys, and exact measurements of footballs and other articles of clothing worn by players. That can get fun, but it would bring us dangerously close to the treacherous waters that are patrolled by the Scylla and Charybdis that is commonly known here as ‘the maths.’ Not that there is anything particularly wrong about discussing such things on this forum, but I wanted to woo you with more interesting aspects of the rulebook first.

That brings me to my second reason for starting in the middle, which is definitely self-serving…the passing game is by far the most exciting part of football, so I’m hoping that if I come out with a segment on this high note, there will be higher readership in the future. Yes, I have sold my journalistic integrity for page views. EsPN, I expect a call forthwith.

Finally, I begin in Rule 7 because it is such an integral part of the modern game that a lot of the confusion in other rules will be easier to explain with the analogy of the passing game. Also, there will be better video and images to illustrate my points later on.

Rule 7: The Passing Game

OK, I promised to reference ‘beginning of the book’ items in these discussions, and this will be the first one. There are some key terms to understand regarding the passing game:

· A Pass: Pretty self-explanatory that a pass means to intentionally throw the ball. What you may not know--and this becomes key--is when a pass ceases to be a pass. Until the ball either is caught, intercepted, or becomes dead, it is still defined as a PASS.

· Forward Pass or Backward Pass: Rule 2.19.2 tells us that a pass is FORWARD if it first hits something (player, ground, official, yellow mums, elderly alumni in the stands, etc.) that is beyond the spot where it was released. Anything else, meaning a lateral pass that hits something behind the line it was released from, is called BACKWARD. A key point here is that if there is a question of forward or backward, it must be ruled FORWARD.

· Beyond or Behind the NZ (neutral zone): A lot of things hang on whether a pass was or was not beyond the NZ. This is similar to kicks where the same things hinge on whether a kick was or was not beyond the NZ as well. The neutral zone is as wide as the length of the ball (Rule 2.17) and starts at the line of scrimmage. If the ball hits anything beyond this zone INBOUNDS, the pass is beyond the NZ. If it goes OUT of bounds, where the ball crosses the sideline determines if it was beyond or behind the NZ.

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Line of Scrimmage in relation to the Neutral Zone

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Forward Pass Beyond LOS

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Forward Behind LOS

· Legal or Illegal: This becomes key all over the rulebook. Certain penalties can be called ONLY on legal forward passes, and others can be called on ANY pass. There are 8 scenarios in the rulebook that dictate whether a forward pass is legal or illegal, but a good summarization is this: Only the offense can throw a forward pass; there can only be ONE (think Highlander); you have to throw from behind the LOS; and you have to throw it near somebody on your own team. (Rule 7-3-2)

~~~

So now that we have that out of the way, how do these definitions change certain scenarios? The best one that I always describe is pass interference. PI both on offense and defense is a source of consternation from fans, coaches, and players alike. I find that ignorance is often the culprit and that most people simply don’t understand how and why this penalty is officiated. Now, to have pass interference (both offensive AND defensive), there has to be a pass (duh); but it has to be LEGAL, it has to be a FORWARD pass, and it has to cross the LOS. Here’s a scenario to illustrate this:

Scenario 1: Team A (offense) has the ball 1st and 10 at the Team B (defense) 30 Yard Line. QB A3 drops back 5 steps and throws a pass to receiver A80 at the B28. Before the pass arrives, B40 hits A80 in the chest and the pass falls incomplete.

RULING: This action is LEGAL and not defensive pass interference. Rule 7-3-8 defines Pass Interference as illegal contact "during a down in which a legal forward pass crosses the neutral zone."

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In the NCAA rulebook, there are also rules determining who is eligible to catch a forward pass. This will be very different from Federation rules, which is how the "A11 offense" is run. In Federation, there are no numbering rules that require linemen to wear 50-79 and therefore become ineligible receivers. In college, though, (1) your number cannot be within that range and (2) you have to be either a BACK (in the backfield) or the last player on the end of the offensive line(TEs, WRs). Now remember our definitions and keep these eligibility rules in mind in this scenario:

Scenario 2: Team A ball, 3rd and 4 at the B 40. QB A3 drops back to pass and laterals the ball forward to end A52 at the B39. A52 catches the ball and runs to the A45, where he is tackled.

RULING: Penalty for illegal touching of a forward pass. There is no distinction between underhand passes, laterals, shovel passes, or traditional throws. These are ALL still defined as a pass and even though this pass was caught behind the LOS, it is still a foul. Rule 7-3-3 states that "Eligibility rules apply during a down when a legal forward pass is thrown", so regardless of beyond or behind LOS, this is illegal. Next play will be A 3rd and 9@B35.

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The rest of the passing rules are quite extensive and I will elaborate on them in the future. Hopefully this lesson has given you a good idea of the basics of this aspect of the game, as well as a foundational understanding for when we get into more difficult aspects next time. Segment 2 will dive directly into pass interference, and I will elaborate on the 5 offensive PI and 8 defensive PI categories that officials look for before throwing a flag.

I want to close with a bit of a shameless plug, however. All sports officiating (and football is no different) is always looking for young blood and new perspectives and energetic people to get involved in their games and to serve as members of a crew. If you have ever been interested in trying out football, or any other sport for that matter, I encourage you to look for a local officiating chapter or statewide organization and get involved. If anyone is in Texas, our website for High School football is taso.org, and if you are in the Dallas area like me our local chapter website is DFOA.Org.

~~~

If you have any questions, observations, or recommendations, then go light up that comment section!

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