“Why do you let him call a game? He doesn’t know the rules!” I shouted from the stands. It was 1996 at my son’s school. They were playing a football game against a cross-town rival with a playoff spot at risk. The officials made the call, and I made a fool out of myself. It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last. A defensive back for our team had interfered with the receiver, but the ball had sailed way high over both of them into the stands. It was uncatchable. The interference call would stand and I would be livid for the remainder of the game.
The next summer, when it was time for new officials to register, I signed up. One of the first things I learned was that there are three different sets of rules. Three. How could I have made it to forty-five years of age, watched thousands of football games including high school, college, and professional ones, and not known that? What an moron! I’ve earned the right to call ignorant fans the same thing. I certainly was both.
In 1996 and still today, in 2010, there is no consideration for a pass being “uncatchable.” Pass interference restrictions begin for the offense at the snap (they have the advantage of knowing what the play will be) and they begin for the defense when the ball leaves the passer’s hand. Watch for a more thorough discussion of pass interference in a future column.
Another commonly noticed rule difference regards violations of the neutral zone. In high school it is referred to as “encroachment,” not “off sides,” and contact is not necessary for a foul to occur. Once the referee marks the ball ready for play, neither team may enter the neutral zone until the ball is snapped (except the snapper). The NZ is the width of the ball and runs from sideline to sideline. Sometimes wide receivers line up illegally or begin to move prior to the snap causing a foul. It’s not just the interior linemen or the backs that cause problems. If a defensive player enters the NZ because a player on offense moved, that is not a NZ violation; that’s a false start and costs the team with the ball five yards.
Next time you question a call, make sure you know where you are. Is it a high school, college, or professional game? Don’t be too concerned about not knowing the rules. Amazingly, most high school coaches don’t know them very well either.
Our next column will address intentional grounding and the “between the tackles” rule.