Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

Several years ago rulemakers began putting “when in question” guidelines in the rulebook. They say that in certain cases, if a ruling could go either way, it should go as specified. There’s a sound rationale for them and they’re in accord with the advantage-disadvantage philosophy of officiating. Better to do that than to just fly by the seat of your pants when you face those situations.

Below I identify some guidelines and the reasoning behind them. In each case, assume the prefatory “when in question.” I chose the ones that come into play most often. I’ve paraphrased them in the interest of brevity.

A catch, recovery, or interception is not completed.

Because an interception or a catch for a first down, long gain or score can be a game-changer, it must be clear that the team earned it by satisfying all required elements, so in a borderline case we’re to rule it didn’t. The requirements of a catch also apply to the recovery of live balls, hence that part of the guideline.

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Except in games using instant replay, rule pass, not fumble.

Studies have shown that it’s usually a fumble if a quarterback is in the act of passing, his arm is hit and the ball comes loose. The blur of the hand going forward can make it seem like it started before the ball came out when it’s actually empty. So, in games with replay the idea is that on a tight play it’s better to rule fumble and let things play out — with replay intervening if need be — than it is to whistle the play dead with what may be an erroneous incomplete-pass ruling that prevents team B from deservedly recovering. If there’s no replay, the governing principle in borderline cases is that we don’t want cheap turnovers, so we should rule the opposite way: forward pass, not fumble.

Except in games using instant replay, rule a pass forward, not backward.

Same thinking here. A pass is forward if it first hits anything beyond the spot where it’s released; otherwise it’s backward. On tight plays in non-replay games, we should rule forward based on the “no cheap turnover” principle. We don’t have to worry about it in replay games, however, so unless we’re positive the pass is forward, we should just let things play out with replay intervening if necessary.

Having different “when in questions” depending on whether replay is involved can be confusing. If you work games with and without replay, you have to get your thinking cap on and make the necessary adjustment that day. Folks who switch back and forth between NFHS and NCAA rules have to do that on a much larger scale, so it can be done.  

Roughing the kicker rather than running into.

If a defender trying to block a punt hits the kicking leg, it’s a five-yard running-into foul, whereas it’s a major foul for hitting the plant leg. Sometimes the defender gets both or gets into the kicker’s body but not full-bore. Because another principle is that in calling fouls we should err on the side of safety, if it’s 50-50, go with roughing.

A block in the back and a low block are below the waist.

An illegal block in the back carries a 10-yard penalty, whereas an illegal block below the waist is a major foul. The thrust of those two guidelines is that when it’s questionable whether the force of the initial contact is above or below the waist, rule it below the waist, based on the “safety” philosophy.

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The following are “when in questions” in the philosophies of the Collegiate Commissioners Association but not in the rulebook. I address them because they often arise.

The runner fumbled the ball and was not down.

If we’re unsure if a runner was down before fumbling, rule that he wasn’t. This makes sense in games with replay because of the “let things play out” philosophy. But it’s also logical in games without replay. The runner caused the problem by not maintaining control of the ball while being tackled, so why bail him out and rule him down unless we’re positive that he is?

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On false start versus illegal motion, it’s a false start.

A false start kills the play, whereas illegal motion is a live-ball foul. Why let a play get off if it’s likely to be negated due to the foul? To prevent a waste of time and myriad other things that might happen, shut the play down in close cases involving abrupt pre-snap movements by offensive players.

Don’t be technical on whether a wide receiver is off the line of scrimmage.

It matters if a tackle is too far back because that gives him an advantage in blocking. But the defense knows wideouts are receivers, so there’s no advantage gained if they’re a few inches off the line although that may mean there are technically too many players in the backfield. Ignore that unless it’s blatant.

If one receiver is meant to be on the line and another in the backfield so both are eligible, there’s also no advantage if one is marginally covering up the other. The “blade of grass” principle says if there is any “stagger” between them — any separation, albeit by a blade of grass — rule that one is on the line and the other isn’t. Deem them both on the line only if there’s no other option.

If you’re a wing official and you have borderline situations, get word to the coach so he can fix the problem. This is good preventive officiating.

In sum, these directives aren’t meant to be crutches to use if we’re not in good position or a play really isn’t that close but we’re not sure what to do with it. But they’re good to follow in legitimately tight situations. It’s better to do this than to arrive at a decision by just mentally flipping a coin.

Jon Bible is a replay official in the Southeastern Conference. A resident of Austin, Texas, he formerly officiated collegiate and pro football.

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