NFC West Penalty Watch: Ref was right

Right tackle Anthony Davis had played a strong first half for the San Francisco 49ers against the Detroit Lions in Week 6.

His reward, miscast blame, was only fitting for an offensive lineman.

"Illegal formation, offense, No. 76," referee Mike Carey announced to a packed Ford Field and millions watching on television.

All Davis had done was hustle to the line of scrimmage in time for quarterback Alex Smith to spike the ball with 8 seconds left in the half and the 49ers driving. Davis first had to sidestep Carey, who was blocking his path, but by all accounts, he arrived at the line and set himself in time for the snap.

No matter.

Adding to the confusion, Carey announced in administering the 5-yard penalty that there would be no 10-second clock runoff "because the offense got set before the foul."

A football fan shouldn't require an advanced degree to grasp the rules. A longtime acquaintance of mine, Richard, does own such a degree, as a physics professor, and he wasn't sure what Carey was talking about, either. That made me feel a little better.

"Was that the correct ruling?" Richard asked via Facebook. "If so, why don't NFL teams exploit this rule? It seems only logical that the team would instruct players to be alert and have the two players closest to the ball hustle to take the ball and snap it as soon as the umpire marks it as ready to play."

The other players would freeze momentarily, satisfying the requirement for being "set before the foul" (Carey's words).

"Best of all," Richard added, "using this strategy it is highly likely that defensive teams will be caught offside, so the penalties should offset, effectively giving offensive teams a free stoppage of the clock on every play during a 2-minute drill."

Not so fast.

A few things to know regarding this situation, based on conversations I've had with the NFL office and in consultation with the rulebook:

  • Carey was correct in calling illegal formation. Davis was technically the guilty party, but it wasn't his fault. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. had lined up off the ball on the right side of the formation. Rules require teams to have at least seven players on the line at the snap. Of the seven, the players furthest outside the formation on each side must be eligible receivers. When Ginn lined up off the ball, Davis became the player on the line of scrimmage furthest outside the formation on the right. He was not an eligible receiver, however. Hence, the penalty for illegal formation.

  • Carey was correct when he said there should be no 10-second runoff. However, to Richard's question about offenses gaming the system, one little-known aspect of the rules requires offensive players to line up within an imaginary "box" near the line of scrimmage before getting set for the snap. That box exists roughly between the line of scrimmage and where a quarterback would line up in a shotgun snap. If the offensive players do not set themselves in that area, officials are to penalize the offense for a false start, which would carry the 10-second runoff in the final minute of a half. That would prevent offensive players from setting themselves 10 or 15 yards from the line of scrimmage while two teammates hurried to execute a spike.

Davis incurred another penalty for illegal formation in this game when officials determined he had lined up too far back, getting a head start in pass protection on a third-and-5 play. The two penalties gave Davis six for the season, tied for fifth-most in the league. Six of the 11 players with at least six penalties play for NFC West teams.


2011 NFL Penalty Leaders: Weeks 1-6