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Friday, October 21, 2011
NFC West Penalty Watch: Ref was right

By Mike Sando

Right tackle Anthony Davis had played a strong first half for the San Francisco 49ers against the Detroit Lions in Week 6.

His reward, miscast blame, was only fitting for an offensive lineman.

"Illegal formation, offense, No. 76," referee Mike Carey announced to a packed Ford Field and millions watching on television.

All Davis had done was hustle to the line of scrimmage in time for quarterback Alex Smith to spike the ball with 8 seconds left in the half and the 49ers driving. Davis first had to sidestep Carey, who was blocking his path, but by all accounts, he arrived at the line and set himself in time for the snap.

No matter.

Adding to the confusion, Carey announced in administering the 5-yard penalty that there would be no 10-second clock runoff "because the offense got set before the foul."

A football fan shouldn't require an advanced degree to grasp the rules. A longtime acquaintance of mine, Richard, does own such a degree, as a physics professor, and he wasn't sure what Carey was talking about, either. That made me feel a little better.

"Was that the correct ruling?" Richard asked via Facebook. "If so, why don't NFL teams exploit this rule? It seems only logical that the team would instruct players to be alert and have the two players closest to the ball hustle to take the ball and snap it as soon as the umpire marks it as ready to play."

The other players would freeze momentarily, satisfying the requirement for being "set before the foul" (Carey's words).

"Best of all," Richard added, "using this strategy it is highly likely that defensive teams will be caught offside, so the penalties should offset, effectively giving offensive teams a free stoppage of the clock on every play during a 2-minute drill."

Not so fast.

A few things to know regarding this situation, based on conversations I've had with the NFL office and in consultation with the rulebook:
Davis incurred another penalty for illegal formation in this game when officials determined he had lined up too far back, getting a head start in pass protection on a third-and-5 play. The two penalties gave Davis six for the season, tied for fifth-most in the league. Six of the 11 players with at least six penalties play for NFC West teams.