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Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Dirty Laundry: Fractions of a yard

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Every March, NFL owners approve a handful of new rules at their annual meeting. One or two of them might generate public interest, and this year it was the much-discussed changes to overtime. The rest typically seem irrelevant and hardly worth a sentence of explanation -- until they impact the outcome of a game.

Such is the case with Rule 7, Section 2, Article 2 of the league's 2010 rulebook. Added seven months ago, the rule states:
During a punt, field-goal attempt, or a Try Kick, a Team B player, who is within one yard of the line of scrimmage at the snap, must have his entire body outside the snapper's shoulder pads.

The intent was to protect long-snappers from getting drilled while their heads were, quite literally, between their legs. With a yard or more separation, the theory went, long-snappers would have an opportunity to brace for the oncoming pass rush.

The corresponding penalty was as minor as possible: 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. This past Sunday, however, those 5 yards meant the difference between a punt and a touchdown in the Green Bay Packers' 23-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins.

To explain: With 7 minutes, 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins faced fourth-and-2 from the Packers' 43-yard line. The score was tied at 13, and Dolphins coach Tony Sparano elected to punt. Tramon Williams fielded the punt at the Packers' 8-yard line, and the game went to a TV timeout.

During the break, referee Ed Hochuli's crew gathered and determined that Packers linebacker Robert Francois had violated the new rule. The 5-yard penalty gave the Dolphins a first down, and four players later, Chad Henne threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano.

Replays showed Francois off the line, and Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum actually produced a photograph that he said showed Francois in a legal position. Hochuli, however, told a pool reporter that Francois' positioning was judged by whether he has "a foot or any part of his body up within -- if you look from the sideline -- within the linemen that are down on the ground. And he did. So that was what the penalty was."

I went back and watched the replay, freezing the screen on the sideline view provided by the CBS cameras. While the line of scrimmage was technically the 43, it was one of those spots where it's almost at the 44. Francois is definitely off the ball. Was it a full yard? Frankly, I'm not sure. In the TV view, you can't see the ball. But you can see Francois' right toes touching the 43-yard marker.

Ultimately, if he was in error, it was by an eighth of a yard.

More than anything, however, this episode and the entire rule strikes me as another example of selective protection of NFL players. In this case, the league's rule-makers will enforce a 1-yard cocoon around a long-snapper, but they needed to make a midseason announcement to tell players like New England's Brandon Meriweather that they can't spear each other.

On to our Challenge Tracker, which didn't need to be updated this week. I guess every (other) call was perfect!