- Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports
It is the worst enforcement of a rule in football.
You’ve seen it. A runner or receiver is tackled. But wait! He pops up and keeps running, gaining tons of free yards because everybody thought the play was over but it turns out he was never technically down.
Some call it good hustle and a heads-up play by the runner. In reality, the officials are penalizing the defense for making a good football play, and penalizing them in the worst way possible (i.e., lots of free yards for the offense and often a touchdown).
It happened again in this week’s Monday Night Football game, and it cost the Baltimore Ravens a chance to win the game. With the Cardinals up 17-10, Chris Johnson was tackled and seemed to be down, only to scamper for an addition 58 yards while everybody else was standing around.
This led to a Cardinals field goal that effectively put the game out of reach.
Here is the replay, showing that Johnson never actually touched the ground with anything but his right hand.
Instead of second-and-6 at the Cardinals’ 34-yard line, it was first-and-goal at the Ravens’ 8-yard line.
There are many problems with letting this play continue. By refusing to call the runner down, the NFL is: a) asking the defense to suddenly develop superhuman abilities of determining whether a part of the runner’s body actually touched the ground; or b) suggesting they should come in late with hits to make sure the runner is down, something nobody wants or needs.
In fact, the rules explicitly state that a player should not initiate contact with a player whose forward progress has been stopped.
Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7: PLAYERS IN A DEFENSELESS POSTURE. It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture [including] (4) A runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped.
The NFL, in other words, is asking the players to assume the player is down, but the officials are not treating plays in this manner.
NFL officials are instructed to err on the side of safety. Calling the play dead would be erring on the side of safety and would avoid unnecessary late hits. The alternative is to ask defenders to continue to hit players who may or may not be down.
But this is not only a safety issue. It is also a fairness issue. The NFL is penalizing the defense for making a good football play and assuming what any normal person would assume, that the runner had been stopped. That’s terrible sporting.
The runner has been tackled, but instead of calling the play over, he is allowed to get up and keep running, because of a technicality.
The easy fix
To fix this, the NFL doesn’t need to change or add a rule. Rather, it need only instruct the officials to enforce a rule already in the book: forward progress.
Former NFL official Gerry Austin defended the ruling during the ESPN broadcast, in this case by arguing that Johnson never stopped trying to move forward.
“Just for a split-second it looked like he stopped, but he’s still making an effort to go forward,” Austin said. “Therefore you can’t say forward progress has truly stopped.”
That’s nice. It is also wrong.
Nowhere in the NFL rules does “effort to go forward” pertain to forward progress being stopped.
Rule 3, Section 13, Article 1: FORWARD PROGRESS. The Forward Progress of a runner or airborne receiver is the point at which his advance toward his opponent’s goal ends and is the spot at which the ball is declared dead by rule, irrespective of the runner or receiver being pushed or carried backward by an opponent.
If “effort to go forward” were enough to keep a play from being ruled over, we would never see a runner ruled down because his forward progress had been stopped. Runners are always making an effort to go forward. What matters is whether the defense has done enough to stop that effort.
If a runner has been tackled, has fallen down, is lying on top of another player, and is no longer on his feet with those feet actually running, that effort has been stopped.
And for what it’s worth, “playing to the whistle” is a myth. Any good official will tell you that a whistle only ends a play when blown inadvertently (i.e. a play ends if an official blows a whistle on accident). In most cases, the play ends itself (e.g., runner is down, out of bounds, incomplete pass, etc.) and the whistle is just a courtesy. This is to keep players from using the “I didn’t hear the whistle” excuse for late hits.
Meanwhile, every other player on the field has stopped playing football, even Johnson’s own teammates.
The ruling was huge in terms of the outcome of this game as Johnson’s “second effort” put the Cardinals in field goal range. They would eventually add a field goal, turning a 7-point game into a 10-point game. The Cardinals would win 26-18.
Who knows if the Ravens would have come back without the Johnson run. But by allowing it, the officials effectively killed Baltimore’s best chance.