Ask Jerry Markbreit

I noticed on Sunday that Kyle Orton threw the ball near the sideline and either he threw it to the wrong area or the receiver ran the wrong route. The play was called intentional grounding. Is this sometimes a judgment call or is there some kind of rule for a play like that? --Sean, Cocoa, Fla.

When Kyle Orton threw the pass in question, he was in the pocket, which is between the tackles and the pass landed in an area where there was no eligible offensive receiver in the vicinity. This is intentional grounding and it was correctly called in the game. If the quarterback moves out of the pocket and throws a ball in an area where there is no eligible offensive receiver, he needs to get the ball in the vicinity of the line of scrimmage in order to avoid intentional grounding. There, of course, is a degree of judgment involved in all intentional grounding situations, and the referee needs input from the wing officials as to whether or not receivers were in the area.

Watching the NFL lately, I've noticed referees tossing a black object onto the field. I assumed it was some kind of yard marker used to spot the ball after a play, but then I saw referees throwing them down on punt returns, for example, at the spot of the catch. What are these objects used for? --Mike, Cannon Falls, Minn.

The object that you see being thrown by NFL officials is a blue bean bag. All officials carry a bean bag to mark the spot of a fumble or the spot where possession was gained on a punt. There are penalties that are enforced from the spot of the fumble or the spot where possession was gained on punts. The bean bag gives you a spot of enforcement and they're used in collegiate, high school, and professional football officiating.

During the Bears game Sunday, a Tampa punt bounced from the field of play up in the air toward the goal line. A Bucs player leaped and caught the ball in the air while his momentum carried him and the ball into the end zone. As he came down in the end zone, he threw the ball back into the field of play and a touchback was ruled. I say the reason for the touchback was because his foot hit the ground in the end zone before he released the ball. My buddy says it was because the player and ball crossed the plane of the goal line in the air, immediately causing the touchback. What do you say, oh wise one? There's $10 riding on your ruling. --Steve Poppe, Portland

You are absolutely correct. The kicking team player touched in the end zone as he was batting the ball back into the field. This is a touchback by rule. Had the kicking team player batted or thrown the ball back into the field, the ball would have been put in play where it was ultimately recovered. The Bears would have put the ball in play inside the five-yard line instead of getting it on the twenty, which they did. When a kicking team player crosses the goal line in the air, he is not considered to be in the end zone unless he touches the ball there while he is touching the ground. You win your bet.

Why is a facemask penalty, committed by the defense behind the line of scrimmage, marked off at the spot of the tackle instead of the line of scrimmage? It often rewards the defense if the tackle is for loss of yardage. --Tony Navarro, Chicago

Under NFL rules, there is a penalty enforcement called a "behind/behind." This means that when the offensive player fails to get back to the line of scrimmage and he is fouled by the defensive team behind the line of scrimmage, the enforcement spot is either the spot of the defensive foul or the spot where the ball became dead. The normal enforcement spot, as you suggest, is the previous spot, and this is one of the few exceptions.

Most officials look to be in their mid-50s or older. Do they have offseason workout routines that are mandatory, such as physicals or endurance tests to maintain their high level of quality? --Maurice Smith, Chicago

Most officials in major college and professional football are between 35 and 60 years old. The collegiate officials are younger. The NFL officials' average age is around 49 to 50 years old. The officials work out on a yearly basis and have to pass physical and endurance test in order to be able to work in their respective conferences. The officials are in terrific condition and if they are not, they will lose their position as an onfield official.

Let's say the quarterback pitches the ball to a running back who then looks to throw the ball downfield but no receivers are open. The back then throws the ball to an area where there are no receivers. Could intentional grounding be called on the passer if he was inside the tight end box, similar to what would be called on a quarterback? --Robert Lahti, Beach Park, Ill.

Intentional grounding may be called when the passer throws the ball into an area where there are no eligible receivers if he is in the pocket. A passer who is out of the pocket need only get the ball close to the line of scrimmage, even if no eligible receiver is in the vicinity. The passer, by definition, is anyone on the offensive team who passes the ball beyond the line of scrimmage. In your play, the running back becomes the passer, and if he does not meet the criterion stated above, intentional grounding will be called.