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Inside Slant: NFL rulebook too thick (redux)

Over the years, I've noted how the considerable heftiness of the NFL rulebook has inevitably left officials struggling to keep it all on quick recall. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight added some data to the idea last month, noting its 70,000 words is nearly three times the length of FIFA's rulebook, more than twice that of the NBA's and considerably larger than what Major League Baseball and the NHL use.

The latest consequence took place last Sunday in Cleveland, when referee Bill Leavy's crew failed to recognize that a Cleveland Browns trick play violated league rules. Leavy was bailed out when his crew caught an unrelated Browns penalty, but absent that, the Browns would have gotten credit for the kind of "hideout" play that the NFL's competition committee wants to eliminate.

A quick synopsis: Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel jogged toward the sideline after a play but stopped just short of the white line, as if he were talking to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Manziel stood at the 38-yard line with his back to the line of scrimmage.

The Baltimore Ravens didn't realize Manziel was in essence a wide receiver for the ensuing play, and at the snap, he took off downfield under Shanahan's direction. Running back Terrance West wasn't set at the snap, however, and Leavy's crew called an illegal shift penalty.

But as designed, the play was illegal -- as Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 informs any inquiring mind that wants to search for it. Offensive players can't line up within five yards from the sideline when in front of the team's "bench area," which is defined as between the 32-yard lines. For this play to have been legal, Manziel would have needed to be farther away from Shanahan -- where the Ravens would have been more likely to spot him -- and the Browns would have needed the line of scrimmage to be inside the 32.

Otherwise, the NFL considers the trick play to be unsportsmanlike conduct. You can debate among yourselves whether that should be the case, but the point is that it wasn't intuitive enough for Leavy's crew to process Manziel's position and make the connection.

To me, this is not inexcusable. It's the result of 70,000 words scrambled inside the human brain, and as you might recall, it's not the first time Leavy's crew has missed or misapplied a rule in recent years.

Moving on, this post contains two charts.

The first, to the right, is our weekly look at penalty frequency among the NFL's 17 officiating crews. You'll see that the range remains notable. If Clete Blakeman's crew has your game, you've seen less than half the average penalties as Ronald Torbert's, Tony Corrente's or Carl Cheffers' (not including Thursday night's game at FedEx Field).

The second chart updates how each crew has reacted to three major points of emphasis this season. Again, through three weeks, the range is significant. When one crew has been more than four times as active on a group of penalties as another, as the chart indicates, it's worth noting.