Jerry Markbreit's answers

We've got a rules debate going on and need an expert clarification. When the offensive team has a fourth down inside the opponent's 20-yard line and throws an incomplete pass into the end zone, where does the other team take over on downs? I always thought it came out to the 20-yard line, just like a touchback, but my friend insists it is spotted at the previous line of scrimmage. Can you tell us which one of us is correct? Is the rule different between the NFL and college? No dollars are riding on this, just bragging rights. -- Seth Greeley, Houston

More than 30 years ago, the NFL rule stated that a fourth down incomplete pass into the opponent's end zone would result in a touchback if the ball was snapped from somewhere inside the 20-yard line. That rule was changed and it presently states that a fourth down incomplete pass into an opponent's end zone will be returned to the previous line of scrimmage, wherever it might be, with a first and ten from that spot for the defensive team. The collegiate rule is the same as the NFL rule.

Two questions -- Why are there no female NFL referees? And what happens if a coach that is out of timeouts (but still has a challenge left) challenges a play but loses the challenge? -- Joe Sofia, Island Lake, Ill.

To be considered for a position on the NFL officiating staff, the official must have at least five years of collegiate officiating and the same number of years on the high school level. These requirements are not limited to men. To my knowledge, there are only a few female officials working at the collegiate level in the United States. If a female fulfills all of the requirements and is judged to have the ability to move up to the National Football League, then I am sure she would be considered.

As to your second question, during the first 28 minutes of either half, a coach can only challenge a play if he has a timeout remaining. Once a team has used all of its timeouts, whether it be in the first or second half of the game, the replay equipment is removed by the game officials and the coach can no longer challenge. During the last two minutes of either half and overtime, the replay official is in charge of all challenges and no team timeouts are required.

During the Giants-Panthers game, the referee was injured. I have two questions about this. How is it determined who takes over as acting referee for the reminder of the game and is there a limit as to how many officials you need to have on the field to complete a game? (i.e. say if 4 or more refs were hurt). Are there alternates at each game? -- Jack Sheehan, Beverly Hills

At the beginning of the season, each NFL crew selects one of its seven officials to be the alternate referee, in case the head referee is injured. He is usually an official who has worked the referee's position during his collegiate career. There is no limit as to how many officials you must have on the field to complete a game. If four officials were hurt, the crew would work three-man mechanics to complete the game. There are no alternates at regular season games, but during the playoffs, there is one alternate for each wild card and divisional playoff game and two alternates for the championships and Super Bowl.

If two players are in the end zone receiving a kickoff and one laterals to the other and is subsequently tackled in the end zone, is that a safety? What would constitute him getting a touchback? Does he actually need to touch his knee? Is making any effort at returning the ball out of the end zone considered grounds for a safety? -- Brian Guest, Arlington Heights, Ill.

The answer to the first part of your question is: No, it is not a safety. It is a touchback. The impetus that put the ball into the end zone was from the kickoff. To have a safety, the impetus would have to come from the receiving team. If the kickoff was received on the 1-yard line and then was carried back into the end zone by a receiving team player, you would have a safety if the ballcarrier was tackled in the end zone. It is general procedure for a player to touch his knee down in the end zone to let the officials know that he will not attempt to run the ball out of the end zone. He could also say to the nearest official that he is down –- and the ball would be blown dead. But when a kick is received in the end zone, no matter how much running around in the end zone occurs, it is a still a touchback if the ball is blown dead in the end zone in the possession of a receiver.

On a field goal attempt, the ball is spotted seven yards behind the line of scrimmage. Is there any rule preventing the holder from spotting it further back in the hopes of increasing the odds against a blocked kick? -- John Mase, Wilmington, Del.

The kicker decides where he wants the holder to be on field goal attempts. There is no restriction, but seven yards is generally the spot chosen by most kickers. On field goal attempts of great distances, moving the ball farther back to present a possible blocked kick would make the kick that much more difficult. The experts believe that seven yards is the optimum spot. Very few kicks are blocked during a season. In most cases, they are the result of poor snaps or missed blocking assignments.

I saw a game recently where the QB threw a pass and the ball bounced off the goalpost. If a player (offense or defense) caught the ball in-bounds after it hit the goal post, is it still in play? -- Drew W., Rockford, Ill.

The goal post is out-of-bounds in the end zone. Whenever a ball strikes the goal post, it is dead by rule and cannot be caught on the rebound by any player. On a try for extra point or field goal attempt, if the ball bounces off any part of the goal posts and goes through the uprights, the kick is good.

Great column, I always enjoy reading your answers to some very interesting questions regarding the rules of the NFL. I have a general question that has to do with how the measurement for a first down is handled and how the chains are moved from the sidelines to the field where the measurement is going to take place. In watching the games, it is noticeable that the chains are usually placed behind the chalk on the sidelines and there is some kind of marking device which is located on the chains itself. How is this used in conjunction with moving the chains from the sideline to the field of play for the measurement? I've often wondered how the officials use this device when measuring for first downs. -- Jeff Kersey, Naperville, Ill.

Thank you for the compliment. I am glad you enjoy the column. There are four men manning each chain crew: one each at the front and rear stakes, one holding the down box, and one handling a clip that is put on the yard line closest to the rear stake when a first down is established. When the referee calls for a measurement, the head linesman brings the chains out, holding the clip, which is then put on the same yard line in the middle of the field be fore the chains are stretched. This ensures that the chains are in the exact same spot on the field as they were on the sideline.