Just before halftime Thursday night, the San Francisco 49ers attempted a scoring opportunity that many fans never knew existed. Buried deep in the NFL's 114-page rulebook -- in Rule 10, Section 2, Article 4(a) -- is the acknowledgement that a team can attempt a free kick immediately after a fair catch.
Phil Dawson's 71-yard attempt was wide and short. Referee Jeff Triplette's crew administered all aspects of the play correctly and without hesitation. But the sudden introduction of such an obscure rule elevated a discussion many of us have been having this week: Has the league's rule structure grown too thick?
After all, veteran referee Bill Leavy has made two mistakes of basic rule application in the three games he has worked this season. Tony Corrente, another respected and experienced referee, added a third error by erroneously waving off a chop block last weekend in a game between the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers.
Is it fair to ridicule Leavy and Corrente for in essence not knowing the rules? Perhaps. But when two experienced officials separately fail to keep a nuance or rule exception straight in their heads, and when the rulebook can give birth to a play most people have never seen or heard of, have we reached a breaking point?
Mike Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating, is wondering the same. Now a Fox Sports analyst, Pereira said this week: "The question has to become, has this manifesto become a little bit too big and too confusing?"
In each instance, a caveat contributed to mis-applying the rule in question. A quick review:
In Week 1, Leavy forgot that a dead-ball foul does not call for a replay of the down. As a result, he put the 49ers in a third-down situation when it should have been fourth down.
In Week 3, Leavy penalized the Minnesota Vikings 15 yards after coach Leslie Frazier challenged an unreviewable call. The rule was rewritten this spring to penalize the team one timeout, rather than 15 yards, in such instances as long as the team had one available.
In Week 3, Corrente did not call a chop block on what was initially a Titans pass play but became a run when quarterback Jake Locker scrambled. Corrente announced that "there is no foul for a chop block because the play turned into a run," but he was wrong about that. A note attached to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 3 states that chop block rules also apply when "an offensive player indicates an apparent attempt to pass block, but the play ultimately becomes a run."
So what is the solution here? Will the long-term shift toward full-time status give officials a better chance to commit the rulebook to active memory? Should the league pare down its exceptions, caveats and other nuance? Would it help to hire and assign an additional official to sit in the press box, rulebook in hand, to help ensure proper application?
Cutting back the rulebook seems as daunting as rewriting the U.S. tax code. The other two suggestions are dependent on the league's financial commitment to officiating. One way or the other, however, the league must move to ensure a most basic expectation: That its officials know the rules.