Getting an accurate spot every time is the goal for Nick Martin, Seattle, especially if the line-to-gain is threatened. On other plays that end near the sideline, Martin may have to concern himself with confrontations, particularly if the players wind up in the team area. If the choice is player safety or a precise spot, go with player safety. (Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

Like many other sports, football is a game of inches. If the ball is an inch short of the line-to-gain stake, it’s not a first down — no debate necessary. If a runner’s foot touches one inch of the sideline, he is out of bounds — no discussion. There are, however, many situations in which making a distinction of inches doesn’t make sense and doesn’t serve the interests of the game. Unless otherwise noted, the material applies to NFHS and NCAA rules.


For a formation to be legal there must be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage (NFHS 7-2-5a) or no more than four backs (NCAA 7-1-4a-4). A lineman must face his opponent’s goalline with the line of his shoulders approximately parallel thereto and have his head or foot breaking an imaginary plane drawn parallel to the line of scrimmage through the waist of the snapper when the ball is snapped (NFHS 2-32-9; NCAA 2-27- 4a-2).

A back is any team A player who has no part of his body breaking the plane of an imaginary line drawn parallel to the line of scrimmage through the waist of the nearest teammate who is legally on the line (NFHS 2-32-3; NCAA 2-27-4d-1).

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Thus, it is possible for a player to be neither on the line nor in the backfield because there is a region between the plane through the waist of the snapper and the plane through the waist of the nearest teammate who is legally on the line. That is informally known as “no-man’s land.” The existence of the region makes it necessary for the rules to state that a player in position to receive a hand-to-hand snap or a player under the snapper — the quarterback — is also a back (NFHS 7-2-3; NCAA 2-27-4d-2).

If there is more than one player in no-man’s land (there won’t be anyone there in a scrimmage kick or shotgun formation), it is an illegal formation under NCAA rules, but not necessarily in NFHS play (NFHS 7-2- 5; NCAA 7-1-4a-2).

Officials should work to keep offensive linemen legal and only call a foul when it is obvious or when a warning to the player and a subsequent warning to the coach are ignored. Waiting until the fourth quarter to enforce the rule is asking for trouble. An example of an obvious foul is when a player who intends to be on the line is lined up with his head clearly behind the rear end of the snapper. When in question, it is not a foul.

More leeway should be given to wide receivers and slot backs in determining if they are off the line of scrimmage. If they are lined up outside a tight end, they should be ruled on the line of scrimmage and covering the tight end if there is no stagger between their alignments. If in question, the tight end is not covered up. According to a philosophy in the CCA mechanics manual, formations during the execution of a trick or unusual play have the highest degree of scrutiny and should be completely legal.

Passer beyond the neutral zone

The NCAA rule regarding a pass thrown from beyond the neutral zone was changed in 2008 in part to make it easier to officiate. For a foul to occur, the passer must have his entire body beyond the neutral zone when he releases the ball. In NFHS play, it is a foul if the passer throws the ball with either foot beyond the (plane of the) neutral zone (NFHS 7-5-1; NCAA 7-3-2a). Violations under the NFHS rule are difficult to discern, especially when you consider the edge of the neutral zone is usually not easily discernible. High school officials should not be overly technical in calling a foul and must be certain a foul has occurred before throwing their flag.

Passes crossing the line

The rules regarding pass interference and ineligible receivers downfield are dependent on whether a forward pass crosses the neutral zone (NFHS 2-31-3; NCAA 2-19-3). Whether the ball has crossed an unmarked line is a difficult distinction to make and the rule should not be nit-picked. Officials should not consider a pass to have crossed the zone unless it has clearly done so. The NCAA philosophy is to expand the neutral zone one yard in determining if an untouched pass is beyond the line.

Intentional grounding

NCAA rules allow a quarterback to legally throw the ball away out of bounds if he is outside the tackle box and the ball is thrown beyond the neutral zone or its extension. The CFO philosophy advises officials not to be technical when there is a question as to whether the ball went beyond the line. Also, the offense should not be penalized for having ineligible players downfield in that situation.

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A replaced player must begin to leave the field within three seconds. There is no need to be precise. The accepted procedure is for the official to count twice and if there are still 12 or more on the field and no one is attempting to leave, a deadball foul should be called.

Spotting the ball

The ball can be placed on a yardline to begin the next series after a change possession. For example, if a punt return ends with the ball between team B’s 33 yardline and its 34 yardline, the ball should be moved forward to team B’s 34 yardline. If there is a way to put the ball on or just inside team B’s 10 yardline for a new series rather than just outside it, it prevents a potential measurement near team B’s goalline. At all other times, the ball is placed where it became dead, including when a change of possession occurs when a fourth-down running or passing play ends short of the lineto- gain.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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