Jerry Markbreit's answers

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Editor's note: The initial answer to this question from last week was incorrect. The correct answer follows:

While watching the Bears-Titans game, it was pretty evident that in the fourth quarter, Brian Urlacher cleanly intercepted a pass and took at least three steps before his own knee dislodged the ball from his hands. Officials ruled that the pass was incomplete when the ball came free. Why is this call not reviewable when the replay clearly showed he had control of the ball and made a football move? –Jeff K., Naperville, Ill.

Whenever a pass or interception is ruled incomplete and the whistle blows, the play is reviewable. In the Urlacher play, because it was ruled incomplete, if the Bears had challenged and replay had shown he had caught the ball and then fumbled, the ball would not have been given to the Bears anyway, and the ruling of incomplete would have stood. The Bears wanted to challenge the play, but due to current replay rules, the referee said they would not get the ball under any circumstances, so they pulled the red challenge flag.

My friends and I were discussing the use of audio devices in the headsets of QBs during games. What, if any, are the ground rules when it comes to using these devices? Is it possible that teams can use them to gain an unfair advantage? --Joe, Westchester, N.Y.

The ground rules for the coach-to-quarterback audio device is as follows: There is a coach-to-quarterback clock man in the press box, seated in the same area with the game clock and play clock operators. When a play ends, the quarterback-to-coach man presses a button that opens the frequency. This frequency stays open, allowing the coach to talk to the quarterback until the play clock hits 15 seconds. At this point, the frequency is closed, and no more communication between the two can occur by this system. If the play clock is set at 40 seconds, then the coach-to-quarterback frequency is open for 25 seconds. If the play clock is set at 25 seconds, generally for administrative stoppages or changes of possession, the quarterback and coach will have only 10 seconds in which to speak. Remember, when the play clock hits 15 seconds, it's over. Under this system, no team can gain an unfair advantage.

When an offensive player breaks the plane of the goal line with the ball, it is considered in the end zone and ruled a touchdown. Seems as though this should also hold true for a punting team attempting to down a punt near the goal line. Why can a player from a punting team leap into the end zone, grab the ball while in the air, and throw it back into the field of play? --Jeffery Abplanalp, Augusta, Ga.

When a ball breaks the plane of the goal line in possession, a touchdown is ruled, even if the player carrying the ball is not physically in the end zone. This is a basic rule of the game. When a punt bounces in the field of play and crosses the plane of an opponent's goal line, it is not considered to be in the end zone under rule until it touches something or someone who is in the end zone. When a player from the kicking team leaps from the field of play and crosses the plane of the goal line to bat a ball that is in the air and has not touched the ground in the end zone, the ball is considered not to have been in the end zone. The receivers will put the ball in play at the dead ball spot if the batted ball goes back out into the field successfully. If the batter of the ball touches in the end zone before he bats the ball, a touchback will be ruled. Under a new NFL rule, whenever a ball untouched by the receiving team hits in the end zone, it is an automatic touchback. You must remember that all of the rules of the game may not seem equitable; and, the reason for that is that they are not!

What is the criteria for officials calling a penalty on a player for removing his helmet while on the field? In the Bears-Titans game, Michael Haynes returned an interception of a Billy Volek pass for a touchdown. After missing an attempt at a tackle, Volek sat on the field, removed his helmet and repeatedly slammed it into the ground in frustration. I can't believe that each of the seven game officials missed this blatant action, yet no penalty was called. Is there some caveat that allows officials to decide that the penalty won't be called, or was it not a penalty because the Bears had scored on the play? --Mark Early, Arlington, Va.

The unsportsmanlike foul called for removal of the helmet is covered under the following NFL rule: "Removal by a player of his helmet during or after a play is a 15-yard penalty from the spot where the ball will next be put in play. The exceptions to this rule are: The player is not in the game or he is in or has returned to his bench area; the player is in the game and a timeout has been called for reasons of injury, television break, charged team timeouts, or it is between periods." In the play that you describe, none of the above criterion seem to have been met. However, there must have been some reason why a foul wasn't called, as I am sure that one of the seven officials saw the incident.

Two weeks ago I saw the Saints QB turn and throw the ball backwards thinking there was a back behind him. If a player on his own team recovers the ball and then throws the ball away in a forward pass, does the ball come back to the original line of scrimmage as an incomplete pass? --Larry B., El Dorado, Ca

In the play that you describe, the backward pass allows any offensive man the chance to throw a forward pass. If this pass is incomplete, the ball is returned to the previous line of scrimmage, the same as any other incomplete pass. The only restriction on forward passes is that there will only be one forward pass during each down from behind the line of scrimmage.

An official throws a flag for defensive pass interference and then he sees that the ball was not catchable and picks up the flag. Why is this not a penalty for illegal contact? --Ron Jacobs, Port Charlotte, Fla.

If contact by a defensive player occurs while the ball is in the air, defensive pass interference will be called, unless the ball is uncatchable. Illegal contact is a foul that occurs before the ball is thrown. When the contact occurs, the official making the call looks back to the quarterback and if the quarterback is holding the ball and is still in the pocket, the foul will be called, regardless of where the ball is thrown or if it is thrown at all. If a flag is picked up because of an uncatchable pass, any contact that would have been a foul for illegal contact will be disregarded.

During an NFL game, there was a play that was reviewable. The referee said that the whistle had been blown. The network showed the replay with sound and you could not hear a whistle. Can you review a play to listen for a whistle? -Rob Mack, Roselle, Ill.

The current NFL replay system is very sophisticated. But regardless of that fact, a replay review can never take place in an attempt to verify whether or not the whistle had blown. The integrity of the officiating staff of the NFL always owns up to any situation, whether it is correct or incorrect. The noise factor in most stadiums makes it almost impossible to verify every whistle sound.

Two weeks ago, David Terrell was flagged for being on the line of scrimmage "covering up" the tight end when a pass was thrown to a receiver who was not the TE. I think that you can have more than seven guys on the line on a running play, can't you? And if you can, and the pass didn't go to the TE, why the penalty? Wouldn't something like ineligible receiver downfield be more appropriate? --Kyle Gordon, New York

You are correct: The minimum number of men on an offensive line of scrimmage at the snap is seven. The offense could actually have 10 men on the line of scrimmage. However, they must be properly numbered. All offensive linemen must be numbered from 50 through 79. None of these offensive linemen may be on the end of the line at the snap, unless they report to the referee that he is an eligible receiver on the play. Eligible pass receivers must be numbered either 10 through 19 or 80 through 89. Only one eligible receiver may be on the end of each line of scrimmage at the snap. The reason that David Terrell was flagged for illegal formation was that he "covered up" the tight end, who was numbered as an eligible receiver.

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