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Palpably Unfair and Unfairly Pleasing

Celebrating some of the best moments in football rule book loophole history

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In a report issued by the NFL Rules Committee in 1940, according to an online league presentation called Bent but Not Broken: The History of the Rules, representatives outlined their vision for the growing football league. “Each game should provide a maximum of entertainment insofar as it can be controlled by the rules and officials,” the document said, adding that “the number of plays per game of a type that will be pleasing to the audience” was an important metric. If that’s the case, unless you’re a suffering Cincinnati Bengals fan, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh’s play calling Sunday was a football success.

With 11 seconds remaining and the Ravens holding a 19–12 lead against the Bengals, the Ravens lined up to punt on fourth down. Instead of sending the ball to Cincinnati for one final prayer, punter Sam Koch dawdled after the snap while his teammates played a mutant version of Red Rover and did anything they could, including draw flags upon flags, to buy him some time. Per the NFL’s tome of rules and regulations, a game won’t be extended on an offensive penalty, the way it would on a defensive infraction.

And so, as the clock expired, Koch retreated to the end zone for a meaningless safety to finish the game. As The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman pointed out, this wasn’t Harbaugh’s first time dabbling in these dark arts. And as Stephen Amell, better known as Green Arrow, noted: “John Harbaugh complaining about the Patriots using odd formations loses a little luster after what the Ravens did to end the game.” Indeed, Harbaugh has not only been a master of tactics, he’s also been a student. It’s the loophole of life, and it moves the ball.

Good NFL coaches are like lawyers who contemplate fact patterns and plumb procedural nuances. They are like artists using negative space, finding purpose in the absences. They are like good teens or hedge fund managers, seeing rules as creative challenges. They are infuriating or brilliant; crazy like a fox or too clever by half. And it’s not just the coaches; smart players can find ways to exploit loopholes or push boundaries. (If they’re good enough at it, they might inspire a new rule with their name.) And it isn’t a new phenomenon. Here, we celebrate some of the best memories in football rule book loophole history.

Most Omniscient Deity

Bill Belichick has, over the years, become the patron saint of finessing NFL rules. (One New York Times article used the phrase “Belichickian subterfuge”; insert your own Spygate joke here.) In the playoffs following the 2014 season, the New England Patriots confounded the Ravens with some strategery meant to jumble up who was and was not an eligible receiver on a play. The gambit worked, Harbaugh lost his mind (he later called the play “deception,” which, yeah!) and Tom Brady had this to say: “Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out. We obviously knew what we were doing and we made some pretty important plays.” Later, against the Indianapolis Colts, Belichick had more tricks up his sleeve. If you ever want to get the man talking, this is the subject.

Most Influential Interpretation

In 1932, during the NFL championship game against the Portsmouth Spartans, the Chicago Bears’ Bronislau “Bronko” Nagurski faked a running play on fourth-and-goal, took a few steps back, and threw a successful forward pass to break a 0–0 tie. Forward passes back then were exceedingly rare and heavily penalized if not successful. Portsmouth raged, arguing that Nagurski wasn’t the mandated 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, but the complaints fell on deaf ears. And that offseason, NFL bigwigs who had taken note of the entertainment factor of the passing play changed a number of rules — including one allowing passes to be thrown from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage.

Best Loophole Play Nickname

The Holy Roller. In 1978, Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had the ball on the San Diego Chargers’ 14-yard line, down six with 10 seconds to play. As he was about to be sacked, he fumbled the ball forward — later, he would say that he “fumbled it on purpose” — in the hopes that his teammates might be able to recover it. They were: Raiders tight end Dave Casper fell on the ball in the end zone to tie the game. (Oakland would win on the PAT.) The NFL later changed the rules to say that on any fourth down, or any down in the final two minutes of a half, the only offensive player who can advance a fumbled ball is the one who first lost the ball. It is sometimes called the Ken Stabler Rule.

Worst Loophole Play Nickname

Buddy Ryan’s “Polish Goal Line” and “Polish Punt Team” strategies aren’t exactly politically correct, but they are fascinating. A page from Ryan’s playbook shows how the legendary coach mapped out his plays situationally. In the event that a defense is trying to stop the other team inside the 5, he wrote, and also wants to run down the clock, the solution is to send too many men onto the field and eat the half-the-distance-to-the-goal-line penalty, which in this case wouldn’t advance the ball by much. The defense still needs a goal-line stand, but Ryan’s playbook seems confident about that part: “WE WILL THEN GO BACK TO OUR REGULAR GOALLINE DEFENSE AND STOP THEM TO WIN THE GAME.” (Some felt that the Giants tried a version of this in Super Bowl XLVI, although others weren’t so sure it was intentional.)

Best Tweet

“that’s what happens when the Qb scrambles…..” Seattle Seahawks corner Richard Sherman tweeted to Deadspin earlier in November, ominous ellipses and all, after the site’s Twitter account posted a GIF of Sherman leveling Buffalo Bills receiver Walter Powell in the end zone. “check the rule book ……” he added. According to that rule book, “if the quarterback leaves the pocket area with the ball in his possession, the restrictions on illegal contact and an illegal cut block both end.” Game on!

Best Potential Rule Book Nerd Coaching Tree

“There’s a lot of crazy rules,” Powell said in 2015. “Like on kickoff returns, if they kick it near the sideline, I could step out of bounds, hop back in with one foot, and if I catch it, it’s a penalty and we get the ball at the 40. There’s a lot of stuff people don’t know.” This rule comes up from time to time (Leon Washington exploited it for the Jets in 2008) and was in the news again recently when Green Bay kick returner Ty Montgomery downed the ball at the 2 — but with a foot out of bounds, which gave the Packers the ball at their 40 instead. It wasn’t the first time Green Bay had done this. Randall Cobb did it in 2012. And Cobb himself potentially learned it from Chad Morton, the former Washington kick returner who successfully pulled it off in 2004 and later coached Cobb on the Packers. Morton is now an assistant special teams coach for Sherman’s Seahawks; may he become the Bill Parcells of obscure rules.

Best Ups

As Jonathan Jones wrote in a great Sports Illustrated piece about NFL coaches and the rule book, some rule manipulations are letter-of-the-law, while others use athleticism not envisioned by the rule writers to, well, leap right over them. That’s what the Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor does when he leaps over the long snapper on place kicks, but avoids “land[ing] on the player.” It’s what Broncos rookie Justin Simmons did this year in Week 10. And it’s what Seattle’s Bobby Wagner did, twice, against the Cardinals in October.

Best Drops

Cripes, I wish this stuff happened all the time. Is this what Aussie Rules football is like? As always, viva Doug Flutie.

Best Internet Comment That I Can’t Stop Thinking About

Responding to information about the Ricky Williams Rule (hair is considered part of the uniform, and can thus be pulled) and the Greg Pruitt Rule (no tearaway jerseys allowed), one commenter mused: “Is there anything to prevent a running back from wearing fake tear-away dreadlocks? This just seems like a viral video waiting to be made.”

Best Idea Utilizing High School Punks

All hail the wacky A-11 Offense, the brainchild of a California high school director of football operations who used a rule book loophole regarding legal punt formations to turn football into a psychedelic free-for-all. Alas, it was too beautiful for this cruel world; the A-11 offense was essentially banned after a season.

Best Game Your Grandfather Likes to Go on About

In the 1954 Cotton Bowl, between Alabama and Rice, the Owls’ Dicky Moegle ran for three touchdowns: a 79-yarder, a 34-yarder, and a 95-yard phantom play in which he became the first runner to score a touchdown “while flat on his back 38 yards away from the goal line,” according to the Reading Eagle. That’s because as he took off on a sure run toward the end zone, Alabama captain Tommy Lewis, who was on the bench, lunged out and tackled Moegle. This was not specifically disallowed per the rule book, and officials had to exercise their discretion to award Moegle a touchdown in the event of a “palpably unfair act.” (If you think that’s a fun set of words, I’ve got something better: The Eagle’s sub-headline says: “Alabama Captain Praised by Coach Despite Grid Boner.”)

Closest We’ve Come to Getting Some of That Sweet, Sweet Palpably Unfair Action in the NFL

Yes, the NFL claims that it will be cracking down on these creative violations going forward, but sadly the league did not get a chance to have to do so in what would have been the best/worst way. During Super Bowl XLVII, which ended with a Niners punt return, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was caught on tape telling some of his fellow players on the sideline to do whatever it might take to stop a potential game-winning return, including jumping out onto the field to make the tackle. “I mean, they might be able to get a touchdown on that,” he said, “but I don’t know.” When a teammate asked why he shouldn’t make the tackle himself, Flacco said, “I will — I’m going to.” He never needed to, ultimately, and who knows if he was even serious? But man, just allow yourself to imagine. The subsequent chaos would have been truly elite.

Best Lookin’ Out

Not technically a loophole, I guess, but mad props to the Packers’ Jordy Nelson for trying to bail out his coach by stuffing a wadded-up flag in his pants, the football equivalent of swallowing the weed when the cops come.

Best Screw-You Shenanigans

When college football changed its rules to speed up the game by starting the clock upon a kickoff rather than upon the ball’s reception, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema fought back, intentionally going offside twice at the end of the first half. “I knew the rule and wanted to maximize it,” Bielema said. “It worked exactly as we envisioned it.”

Best Rule, Period

The “Fair Catch Kick” has become a bit of a unicorn in the football world. Some of the NFL rules are archaic holdovers from when the game more closely resembled rugby; it’s kinda like how certain old towns still have weird laws on the books about how three girls sharing an apartment is considered a brothel. Anyway, when teams make a fair catch, they have the option to embark on their regular first-and-10 … or to take a kick from the fair catch spot toward the uprights for three points. (There’s no snap, the opposing team must stand back 10 yards, and the ball can be placed or drop-kicked — no tee.) The set of circumstances in which a fair catch kick would even make sense is extremely specific; John Madden lamented that he never got the chance to try. The rule doesn’t come up much. (It almost did in Super Bowl XLVII!) But when it does — even if it hasn’t been successful since 1976, despite Mason Crosby’s best efforts in 2008 — it is silly and glorious, “a play of the type that would be pleasing to the audience” indeed.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly described the Ken Stabler Rule. The rule allows only the offensive player who committed the fumble to advance the ball; anyone can recover the ball.