Player-safety fouls such as illegal low blocks and late hits should always be called, but I believe technical infractions that don’t disadvantage opponents should be ignored. One area ripe for abuse in terms of that philosophy is offensive formations.
When I was working sub-college ball we could always tell when first-year officials had discussed formations in their Monday night training sessions because fields the next week would be awash in flags for formation fouls. Most were hyper-technical but the newbies had not yet learned to call the things that matter.
A friend told me about a recent high school playoff game in which an official flagged team A for players not being on the line. The coach sent the play in to the reviewing authority and my friend said that while the video was not clear, it looked like the offending players may have been two inches back of where they should have been. When that was discussed with the official, instead of admitting that he had been too picky, he took pride in his ability to spot that infraction.
Assume that team A has a split end and a slot back to one side of the formation. The end is plainly on the line and, if one were to draw lines across the shoulders of both men, the slot is lined up maybe a foot behind the end. Because a player is in the backfield if his head doesn’t break the nearest lineman’s waist, one could argue that both are on the line so the slot is covered up and ineligible to go downfield on a pass that crosses the line. But why should we so deem him? The defense likely knows that both are meant to be eligible. That will be confirmed if they put defenders on both. So the proper thing to do is to rule that the slot man is a back.
We call that “stagger” or the “blade of grass” principle. If both men are not lined up in a straight line, we say there is stagger between them. Put differently, if the lines drawn through their shoulders are separated by even a blade of grass, consider one on the line and the other off. Regard them as being where they’re supposed to be.
What if there are four other backs? Ignore the stagger and consider both men to be on the line, otherwise there will too many players in the backfield. Of course, if a pass is thrown across the line and the inside man goes downfield, he is ineligible by position. But there’s no way around that because team A has fouled regardless of where we put that man. And we have to rule that both are on the line if there is absolutely no stagger between them. We have nothing to hang our hat on in ruling otherwise.
What about interior linemen, who by rule must break the plane of the snapper’s waist to be on the line? Again, don’t nit-pick. If they’re borderline or even a couple of inches back, give them a warning or two or tell another official to do that. And if you warn, get the message to the head coach so that, if you have to later put a flag down because they won’t clean up their act (and you should after a couple of warnings) he knows you gave them a chance to fix things on their own.
If they are plainly too far back, no warning is needed. An example is a tackle who sets up almost as far back as a slot man. He has an unfair advantage because it’s easier to handle a rushing defender than if he were lined up properly. The advantage-disadvantage philosophy says put a marker down.
Games in which there are a lot of flags are frustrating to everyone. Sometimes that can’t be avoided, but we don’t need to contribute by calling picky illegal formations. Call the big stuff that puts the defense at a disadvantage and let the other stuff go.
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