Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Strange rule probably has stranger origins

Strange rule probably has stranger origins
(Tue, Oct/23/2007)

At first, everything seemed so certain. The football skidded past Bears quarterback Brian Griese on a bad snap by center Olin Kreutz, and there was Eagles safety Sean Considine swooping in to scoop up the ball and take it for a tie-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter Sunday. The Eagles would beat the Bears. Everything seemed so certain.

Then it wasn't. Then referee Ed Hochuli was blowing his whistle to stop play, and Considine was slowing down, and everyone at Lincoln Financial Field, from the press box to the soft pretzel stand, was wondering what was going on and why the Eagles' offense wasn't heading on to the field. Eventually, Hochuli provided the answer: Because the quarterback was under center and never touched the ball, by rule the ball is dead, and the offense is penalized five yards for a false start.

Needless to say, Hochuli's answer was unsatisfactory to the 67,806 at Lincoln Financial Field, especially once the Bears scored with nine seconds left to win, 19-16.

“That's been an issue of the competition committee, or something that's been discussed in years past,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said yesterday when asked about the obscure rule. “Again, that's a tough one to swallow, but that's the rule.”

That the rule exists, no one can dispute. Pardon the Joe Friday-style lingo, but Rule 7, Section 3, Article 4 of the NFL Rulebook states: “Any extension of hands by a player under center as if to receive the snap is a false start unless, while under center, he receives the snap.” Since the ball never touched Griese's hands, he never received the snap. Hence, no fumble.

(That said, judging from his reaction to Hochuli's call on Comcast SportsNet's “Eagles Post Game Live,” Governor Ed Rendell might be pushing a resolution through the General Assembly declaring that Pennsylvania does not recognize Rule 7, Section 3, Article 4 of the NFL Rulebook as being “fair and just to our Commonwealth's most treasured football team.” Don't laugh: The state House last week passed a resolution recognizing Oct. 16, 2007, as “National Feral Cat Day.” An NFC wild-card berth is just as important, no?)

Really, the more interesting question is why the rule exists in the first place. Bob Carroll, the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, speculated yesterday that the rule's origins trace back to the early days of the NFL, when teams employed more ostentatious and intricate pre-snap shifting and center-quarterback sleight of hand was more prevalent.

“Back when all the teams played the single wing or Notre Dame shift, unexpected snaps weren't a problem,” Carroll wrote in an e-mail. “However, once the modern T-formation became popular, the center simply lifted the ball and handed it to the quarterback. If the QB wasn't ready, the center would either plop the ball a few feet into the backfield or, more likely, crouch there with the ball still in his hands. Either way, some offensive linemen are going to move, and some defenders may be drawn off-sides.

“Rather than try to sort out the difference between the plopped ball (which might have been treated as a fumble) and the center holding the ball (a definite false start), my guess is they simply made the rule that when the ball doesn't get to the quarterback, it's a false start.”

As an example of the rule's original intent, Carroll cited a strange moment in the NFL's first championship game, a 23-21 New York Giants victory over the Bears in 1933.

Positioned at the end of the offensive line so he was eligible as a receiver, Giants center Mel Hein snapped the ball to quarterback Harry Newman, who then slipped the ball back to Hein before faking a handoff and pretending to trip.

The Giants' plan was to have Hein hide the ball and walk down the field for a touchdown.

“He might have gone all the way, but after a few yards he became excited and began to run,” Carroll wrote. “That attracted the defense, and they dropped him after a modest gain.”

It's a shame for the Eagles that the rule still exists. Not only did it prevent Considine from scoring a game-changing touchdown Sunday, but having Jamaal Jackson waddle over the goal line with the ball stuffed under his jersey is certainly a more creative option than anything else they've tried in the red zone this season.

“Their linemen were convinced I had the ball, and several of them landed on top of me,” Newman once said, according to his New York Times obituary from May 4, 2000. “George Musso, who was about 270 pounds, got this very puzzled look and said, "Where's the ball?' I said, "Next time, you want to see me do some card tricks?' ''

Mike Sielski is the sports columnist for Calkins Media. E-mail him at

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