The Steelers/Ravens game and the NFL Rulebook

Posted by Dan on Dec 15, 2008 @ 9:33 AM

There was a lot of discussion last night on whether or not Santonio Holmes scored a TD against the Ravens last night. However, it appears like there's a real lack of understanding of the NFL rulebook by the media, so I'm going to quote the NFL rulebook:

Rule 11 Scoring

Section 2 Touchdown

Article 1      It is a touchdown (3-38):

(a) when a runner advances from the field of play and the ball touches the opponents’
goal line (plane); or
(b) while inbounds any player catches or recovers a loose ball (3-2-3) on or behind the
opponents’ goal line.

I've bolded the important part. Notice that the rule says as long as "player" is on or behind the opponents goal line, it's a touchdown. There's nothing in the rule book that says the ball must break the plane on a catch. It specifically states this is the case for a "runner", but in the case of a receiver it states "any player catches or recovers a loose ball on or behind the opponents' goal line."

I don't think there's any doubt that Holmes clearly had two feet in the endzone when he caught the pass. However, the only thing being brought up by the media has been that the ball has to break the plane—which doesn't appear to be the case.

I must confess, I was unclear of this rule as well, but most fans learn the rules from listening to broadcasts, which in the past they've always declared the ball must break the plane of the goal line.

I had to look this rule up after hearing the refs ruling after the review. If you listen to his ruling, he specifically doesn't mention anything about the ball breaking the plane—just that the receiver had two feet down with clear possession of the ball while being the endzone.

Anyway, there's much debate about this ruling yesterday and the Ravens fans are up in arms about the call. Hopefully this rule adds some clarity to the situation.

This quote comes from the 2006 NFL Rulebook (page 79), but I can't find any rule changes that indicate this rule has changed over the past two seasons, so I believe this ruling is still accurate.
Categories: Sports


  • Thanks for the clarification. I live in Baltimore and, as you can imagine, there are a lot of folks around here who are pretty bent this morning. :-) I assumed that the ball had to break the plane as well and, if so, the Ravens got jobbed. It was quite clear, though, that Holmes had possession with both feet in the end zone.
  • Couldn't you parse that sentence the ball being "on or behind the opponent's goal line" ? It's ambiguous, but I would read it as the ball being the subject of that clause.
  • @Drew:

    I don't read it that way. I'm not an English major, but it looks to me as "player" is the subject and not "ball." Part (a) is very clear that it's the ball that must break the plane.

    The other reason I believe the rule is written with the player as the subject, is you could write the rule much simpler if it was just the ball that needed to break the goal line. The whole run could be written as:

    "A touchdown is scored any time a player with possession of the ball, in the bounds of play with control of the ball and the ball breaks the plane of the goal line."

    The fact that they break the rule into very specific subsets leads me to believe it was done this way on purpose (so that only the receiver needs to be in bounds.)

    Also, I do seem to recall a catch within the past 2 years where a receiver caught the ball in a similar manor (where his feet were in the endzone, but he caught the ball clearly over the line) that was ruled a TD. I think maybe this was a Giants game, but I can't recall for sure. It's also possible this was a college game (and I know rules differ from College to Profession football.)
  • As written it is an ambiguis reference which cannot be proven to mean one or the other without clarification. Many times rules have "Interpretations" or "further clarifications" and I don't know if any official ones exist on this rule.

    The second rule was written to address a touchdown where the ball is not in anyone's possession when breaking the plane such as a pass, fumble, blocked punt or a kickoff to the end zone.

    Instead of defining all the nuances of how the ball could recovered, it might be very simply to state: It is a touchdown when: a team possesses the ball when the ball is on or beyond the opponents goal line (plane).

    This would require an additional rule for the pass play where the player has two feet in the endzone and catches a ball that never crosses the plane... :)

    But that brings to question the feet rules. Out of bounds needs to have both feet in the field of play, meaning that one foot on the sidelines means you are out of bounds. True interpretation of that rule means that yes, you need two feet in the back and sides of endzone to establish in bounds and a touchdown, but only one foot in the endzone should be necessary if one foot is in the field of play. Thoughts?
  • While I find these rules typical of governing documentation (written so only lawyers can argue their meaning and collect fees), the discussion should not be on what constitutes a touchdown rather the rules of replay.

    The play on the field was originally ruled "not a touchdown". So by the media explanation of replay rules, the replay had to show UNdisputable evidence to overturn the ruling on the field. I feel this is the reason the call is so controversial. Even at superslow motion on my DVR, I could not tell exactly where the ball reached.

    Before I get accused of being a Baltimore fan, I follow the Vikes in the NFC, don't really care about the AFC. Just want to see the rules evenly applied to all.
  • @RatMan -

    But that _is_ the discussion. If the rule simply requires possession + 2 feet in the end zone then the replay did provide indisputable evidence and it was, in fact, a touchdown (and was properly reversed). On the other hand, if the rule requires the ball to cross the plane then the replay could not be considered indisputable and the call should not have been reversed.

    The vagaries of the rule make all the difference in the world.
  • @Rob:

    As Rob said, the point of the post was to indicate that it appears from the rule book, only two feet in the endzone w/possession of the ball is required to constitute a TD. The replay clearly shows that he has two feet in the endzone w/possession of the ball.

    I think this rule also explains why when the ref explained the ruling, he never said the words "broke the plane," but simply stated that the receiver had two feet in the endzone and possession of the ball.
  • But you also need to read the notes after the rule it says
    (1) The ball is automatically dead at the instant of legal player possession on, above, or behind the opponents’ goal line.

    If the rule was that a TD occurs at the moment of possession, i.e. when the players two feet landed in the TD area then the above rule note would appear to be unnecessary.

    Further, the question is does the rule is subject to two different interpretations - if the emphasis is on the ball then the ball must be on or above the goal line, if the emphasis is on the player than where the player two feet landed would be the deciding factor.
  • Also, the Ref after the game explained he decision as indicating that he believed that ball had touched the goal line and that he had mispoke during the game. So it appears to me that if the ball itself was not touching, above or behind the goal line and was in the field of play and not the end zone/goal line then it would not be a TD. This is not same situation as where the player caught the ball with two feet in but the ball technically out of bounds but behind, above or touching the goal line (i.e. the imaginary extention of the goal line beyound the sideline)
  • "(b) while inbounds any player catches or recovers a loose ball (3-2-3) on or behind the
    opponents’ goal line."

    This does not refer to the player, it refers to the ball.
  • Its the same if a play catches a ball at the end of the end zone and it is out of bounds but the player is still in bounds. It technically has forgone the breakin' of the plane. Either way the dirty birds were destined to lose! Besides let us call it karma for the mere fact on the previous drive Harrison was not only blocked and held but continued to be held even after he was past the man and running to the QB on the next play there was flagrant offensive pass interference....
  • I thank Dan very much for providing the specific rule. I can't imagine how it could be any clearer that rule (b) refers to the player and not to the ball. It's nice to know that the Steelers touchdown was absolutely legit.
  • To all you Steeler fans. This was a gimme you were beat by the dirty birds. This ref not only got the call wrong but he single handedly changed the legitimate history of the NFL this season.
  • During a punt if the kicking team has 1 foot on the goal line or in the end zone(but not the ball) and keeps the ball out of the end zone it is ruled a touch back. I was surprised to hear Collingworth say that the refs got it wrong. Also, if an offensive player touches the pilon with his foot it is a TD even if he holds the ball out of bounds.
  • Bizare interpretation of the rule: If the rule refers to the player, than wouldn't it be possible for an offensive team to earn a touchdown while not gaining enough yardage to make a first down, if say they needed to get the BALL to the half-foot line for the first but failed to do so becuase the player caught it before it got there while his feet were in the end zone..
  • To Mary Lou ---

    Since you "can't imagine how it could be any clearer," here's one way:
    "(b) while inbounds any player catches or recovers a loose ball (3-2-3) while the player is on or behind the opponents’ goal line."

    Consider the following two sentences with the exact same sentence structure:
    "I will eat the pizza on the table."
    "I will eat the pizza on the beach."

    In these sentences, the context makes it clear that in the first sentence the subject of the prepositional phrase is "the pizza" whereas in the second it is "I". In rule (b) for touchdowns, it is completely unclear (to me) whether the subject is the ball or the player.
  • There are other considerations that logically put it all in context to be understood.

    We all know how the rules break down a catch in the endzone... like when a WR is on the side or backline of the endzone and makes a catch of a ball that is well out of bounds. If he can get two feet clearly in the field of play (endzone) with control of the ball, it is a score, right? We don't talk about the ball breaking the plane then, and the play in Balt. is like that kind of play more than it is like another kind of play... one where a player's body is not in the endzone at all as he reaches out to get the ball where his body isn't, like as someone streaks toward the goal line and is tackled at the one-foot line, but still reaches for a score via the ball breaking the plane.

    Also consider the player who is running laterally with the ball near the goal line and is running out of field as the sideline comes closer and closer. To convert for six points, he is allowed to sneak his feet inside of the pylon without having to "break the plane". He can also do the inverse - break the plane with the ball without ever stepping into the endzone - and still get the six points.

    Most will see that, if thinking of the plethora of rules that affect the type of situation seen in Baltimore yesterday, we can garner some logic for why the call was correct. Just seeign the play yesterday through the "breaking the plane" approach limits one as to all of the variables that can help us to understand the situation. Imagine Holmes was on the endline instead...does he score???
  • Very simple. Thanks for the rule explanation. A former Steelers hater and Bronco/ Raven, Shannon Sharpe said it was a touch down based on the rule (b). Just like you see Randy Moss making those diving catches out of bounds with his two feet in bounds, ball not breaking the plane of the plan of the goal line and the ball clearly out of bounds on the side line of the end zone... Well done Dan!
  • Sorry, the touchback rule is different from the touchdown rule - the touchback rule specficially indicates that if the opposing player's body is touching the endzone and touches the ball its a touchback - again later explanations by the referee and the league state that based on the evidence the ball had touched or crossed the plane of the goal line - this would be unecessary if all that was necessary was for the player's two feet to be in the enzone at the time of possession.
  • Sorry Dave H, but the situations you describe are completely different from the situation presented in the game. In the situations you describe the ball is on or has crossed the plane of the goal line (which extends beyound the sidelines) or is behind the goal line (i.e. as stated in the rule "a loose ball (3-2-3) on or behind the opponents’ goal line"; phrase "on or behind the opponent's goal line refers to the ball not the player).. If the ball is in front of the goal line and not on or behind the goal line than it is not a TD notwithstanding the the player is deemed to be inbounds in the endzone.
  • If you watched & played football at any level. Shannon Sharpe qualifies. It simply is a touchdown. If you have already established position in the end-zone, two feet in the end-zone and receive the ball whether thrown to or fumbled to as an offensive player; touched by a defending player in the end-zone or falling out of bounds on the side of the end zone. It is a touchdown. If you are advancing with possession of the ball and you are not in the end zone with two feet the ball must touch the plane or the pylon. Simple.
  • Unless the league officially indicates what the interpretation of the rule is that all that is needed for a receiving TD is two feet in bounds in the endzone at time of posession I would not rely on Shannon Sharpe - after all McNabb plays football and he didn't know that a regular season game could end in a tie - the ref and league after the game did clarify that the ball was touching the goal line - there would be no need to clarify the position of the ball if two feet in the end zone at the time of possession was all that was required - it was a given that the player had caught the ball while his feet were in the end zone - the ref and league had to make the clarification because the two feet at the time of the receving possession alone do not constitute a TD
  • The ref got the call right despite not knowing the feet only matter for receivers rule in the endzone. Whats even more sorry is that the VP of officiating didn't know either.
  • Given the definition of Touchdown in 3-38 (page 23 of the PDF), I suspect the reference in 11-2-1-b is to the ball and not the player:

    A Touchdown is the situation in which any part of the ball, legally in possession of a
    player inbounds, is on, above, or behind the opponent’s goal line (plane), provided it is
    not a touchback (11-2).

    By the way, thanks for the link to the official rules. I've only seen the Digest of Rules for sale to the public, and that makes discussions like this even more difficult.
  • If the rule was referring to the position of the ball, not the player, it would be written as:

    (b) while inbounds any player catches or recovers a loose ball (3-2-3) [which is] on or behind the opponents’ goal line.

    It's referring to the player. Final word!
  • Sorry, Sam... I'm not buying the pizza reference. Rule 11-2-1-b is NOT referring to the ball, it refers to the player (as when the player is at the back of the end zone, catching a ball clearly out of the pretty white box, dragging toes to make the play). There is NOTHING in that part of the rule that refers to breaking the plane. The call was corrected, as it should have been.

    And for all the Raven whiners out there... GET OVER IT. If (a) your offense would have outplayed the Steeler D; or (b) your defense wouldn't have stopped its regular game plan and let the Steelers O march down the field in their last drive; or heck, even (c) had a QB who didn't crumble and throw a bad pass in the end zone during the 43 seconds they had to get into FG range... well, it certainly wasn't one call that was the cause for your loss.

    Harrison was held all night with no calls. There was FLAGRANT pass interference that wasn't called. There were missed calls that should have gone against the Ravens and a couple that should have gone against the Steelers that didn't. It's called SMASHMOUTH football, and if they called everything... they'd still be playing.
  • I don't understand how anyone can say that it is clear that in rule (b), the phrase "on or behind the opponents' goal line" refers to the player rather than the ball. Any native English speaker must at least admit there are two possible interpretations of the sentence! (See my example above with the pizza --- the sentence structure does not imply one interpretation over the other.) The fault lies with the author of the sentence, who could have added "while the ball is" or "while the player is" before the word "on" and removed any possible ambiguity.

    I claim it is impossible for anyone on this blog to divine what the author intended from reading the sentence alone. If we look for clues in other areas, I agree with Dave DuPlantis --- in another part of the rulebook it says that the ball has to break the goal line plane to be a touchdown. Also, this is what the NFL VP of officiating (Mike Pereira) appears to have said. Why would you assume that he "doesn't know the rule" rather than that he knows what the correct interpretation of rule (b) is and that your interpretation is incorrect?

    Finally, can anyone post a link of a clip of any other situation in NFL history where a touchdown is called and the ball doesn't cross the goal line plane, and there is no controversy? "We've all seen those Randy Moss diving catches" doesn't count --- I'm not sure the ball didn't break the plane in those cases.
  • Lisa V --- When a player catches a ball in the back of the endzone, the ball is "on or behind the opponent's goal line," so this example doesn't contradict the possibility that "on or behind the opponent's goal line" refers to the ball, not the player. I agree that your interpretation is possible, but so is the other one.

    Can anyone give an example of any other touchdown where the ball didn't break the plane?

    I don't have a dog in this fight --- I'm a pathetic Redskins fan --- but I find it bewildering that people are insisting they see clarity in the face of patent ambiguity.
  • 1- The ball broke the plane. So this is all moot and the NFL looked at it and agrees with me...

    2- I will play your little game . In the above quote from the rule book there is an OR in there.  WITHOUT the "OR" it would be redundante. Why would you even need the second part.

    I have never seen so many stupid posts as I have seen after this particular play. Bunch of jealous mofos who have lost their minds. Watch the TAPE the ball only need to oh so barely touch the FRONT PART of the GOAL line..NOT THE BACK..  I am amazed at the HATERs and the DENIERS. FRIGGIN Hilarous.
  • This is pretty funny, people actually believe that a touchdown can be scored without the ball crossing the plane of the goal line. If nothing else simple common sense should tell you that is NOT the intent of the rule. A receiver catching the ball with part of his body in the end zone and the ball outside the end zone is absolutely, without question NOT a touchdown. (The rule you are referring to is the touchBACK rule.)

    So let me explain this from the digest in clear English. The rules that apply in this case are:

    - Possession: When a player controls the ball throughout the act of clearly touching both feet, or any other part of his body other than his hand(s), to the ground inbounds.

    - Touchdown: When any part of the ball, legally in possession of a player inbounds, breaks the plane of the opponent’s goal line, provided it is not a touchback.

    That is very clear, I'm not seeing any opening for interpretation, so let's move on. I think the conditions for "possession" were very hard to ascertain and while the ball may very well have cracked the plane for an instant, it was anything but clear that the conditions for possession were met for that instant (if anything I would say they were clearly NOT met). There was simply no way that there was conclusive evidence to overturn the call on the field (regardless of what it was). Poor call on the overturn, and poor job by the NFL to clean up the ruling after the fact.

    And by the way, the first down was clearly not a first down; no idea how that was not conclusive and the touchdown was. At least they could have been consistent...
  • I was not only an English major as an undergraduate, a Master's student in English, but also, I hold a Ph.D. in English. The subject of the sentence in question is NOT "ball." "Ball is the OBJECT of the clause. The subject is "player."

    The rule is clear that a receiver need only to catch a ball, secure it, and have two feet inside the end-zone to score a touchdown. This rule is the near inverse of the rule for sideline catches. Surely, the BALL does not need to be inside the field of play for a sideline catch to be legal. Similarly, the ball itself doesn't need to be in the end-zone (across the plane of the goal) for a catch to be a touchdown. Consider a catch wherein the receiver has two feet in bounds and the ball is far out of bounds, yet the receiver pulls it in. No one would doubt that the play is a touchdown, though the ball may never even have crossed the goal line IN THE AIR! Think people!
  • 1 - If a reciever catches the ball as he fall out of bound but drag is 2 feet, the ball will be spotted on the spot of his feet, and not the forward progress of the ball or where the ball is - Isn't that right?

    2. "I will eat the pizza on the table." - If all the spots on the bench are all taken, or there are no chair available, I will sit on the table to eat pizza. So the 'on the table' could also be referring to 'I'. Sam's statement may be vague, but the rule is clear. If rule (a) were to read "when a runner advances from the field of play and . . . touches the opponents’ goal line (plane)" ("the ball" are deleted) then the author of the rule were probably refer to "a runner" touches the goal line, not the ball. But he want to be clear that the runner must bring the ball to touches the goal line and that's why the words "the ball" are in rule (a). As for rule (b), the author definitely referred to the "catcher and recoverer" and not the ball, else he would have added the words "the ball" in there. I don't think he omits words for no good reason.

    3. After studying the words (English is my 3rd language) and in my opinion (not football professional), rule (a) is for runner and not for catcher or fumble recover. It clearly states that the "runner" must advance the football "and the ball touches" the goal line to score. Rule (b), however, is for catcher and fumble recovers. It does not say "and the ball touches" the goal line anywhere, but it said "catches . . . ball . . . on or behind the opponents’ goal line." Which the receiver did.  In this case rule (a) does not apply because it was not a running play, thus no need for the ball to touch plane. Because of the word "or", not "and", after the rule (a), we must ignore rule (a) and apply only rule (b) in this situation. Deleting all detail not relevant to this controversal play, the rule would have read: " It is a touchdown . . . while inbounds any player catches . . . ball . . . on or behind the opponents’ goal line." this is the rule the the ref use to overturn the on-field-call.

    4. last but not least, if one argue that the rule clearly states that the ball must touches the plane to be considered a touchdown (run, catch, or recover), wouldn't it then be simpler for the author of the rule to just write: "It is a touchdown when a player or players, while inbounds and have control of the ball, advance the ball to touches the opponents’ goal line (plane)." Clearly the author of the rule states that there are 2 ways to score, a) - "runner" must bring the ball to touch the plane, "or" b) - "player" catches or recover the ball and be inbounds "on or behind" the goal line (no mention of touches the plane).

    The evidence that the ball touches the plane is not indisputable, but the evidence that the player catches the ball behind the opponent goal line is clearly indisputable. The reversal was correct, so does explaination immediate follow.
  • The comments that I thought were relevant had nothing to do with the ball or the player's position. The decisive issue, to my mind, was whether the player had possession of the ball. Nothing that I saw on the replays conclusively indicated he had possession before he was knocked out of the end zone. In the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary, the ruling on the field should have prevailed. Since when does having your finger tips on the ball constitute possession?
  • Please don't throw your English Masters or PHD at me. You are assuming that the person or persons who wrote the rules are saavy enough to come up with a sentence that does not have two different interpretations. In any case, the rule cannot be read in a vacuum. Based on the official and VP of officiating explanation after the game and digest explanation. The intent if not the literal interpretation of the rule is that for a TD to occur the ball itself must be on or behind the goal line.
  • Caught the Official Review on the NFL network show Total Access - the VP of officiating clearly stated that the referee had correctly determined that there was a TD because in part that the ball was on the goal line, i.e. had broken the plane of the goal line. As such, those who had the contrary view based a reading of the rule are wrong - the NFL league interprets the rule as meaning that the ball not the player must be in on or behind the goal line.
  • Um... 'ON or behind the goal line' means the ball has to break the goal line! Hence the ON part! Remember the ball has to break the front of that thick goal line, not the whole thing. At no point did the receiver have possession with the ball breaking the goal line. Nor did the video review show CONCLUSIVE evidence to overturn the original call!

    And no, I am not a Ravens or Steelers fan, but I AM a football fan!
  • What so many people fail to grasp is that the ball does not HAVE to break the plane of the goal line to be a touchdown unless the player is advancing TOWARDS it It is a myth perpetuated by supposedly knowledgeable people just like the whole "ground can't cause a fumble" thing that you hear so often. If the guy already has both his friggin feet down in the end zone, it doesn't matter where the hell the ball is!

    To Fred Bartstone: I know you've seen late in games where the quarterback throws toward the sideline first down marker and the receiver curls back towards the ball and catches it falling out-of-bounds while dragging his feet in-bounds. Do they mark it back where the BALL was when he caught it?...No they don't. They spot the ball where his FEET were.

    Actually, this whole argument is a moot point because the ball DID touch the plane of the goal line anyway. Any Ravens fan who watches the replay and is honest with himself/herself would admit as much. If you want to b**** about a call, what about the first down given the Steelers that was obviously short of the 30 yard line? I'll give you that one.
  • Sorry man, I am a Steelers fan and that catch was REALLY close. I couldn't justify the change in ruling. I am not saying that I didn't cheer when it came down to it, but it was far from conclusive.
  • It is apparent that the league is trying to straddle the fence between two different rules for touchdowns, indicating that instead of trying to make the catch satisfy only ONE rule--the rule for runner's or fumble recoverers, OR the rule for receivers, they are trying to make the catch satisfy BOTH rules, when indeed it does not have to satisfy both rules. They are trying to cover themselves, and the apparent ambiguity in the rule-book, thereby.
  • freeze the picture of the touchdown and don't cheat and wait for holmes to fall into towards the one yard line. then take a rule forming a perpendicular line. td. no question.

    see 17 second point at

    what is that black thing crossing the plane?

    now pretend it is in high def like the official saw it.

    clearly a td.
  • j -

    Issue is he has to have POSSESSION AND TWO FEET DOWN while or before the ball is touching the line. I totally agree that the ball touched the line, it is far from conclusive that he immediately had possession of the ball (he appears to double clutch it momentarily) and I would say he only has one foot down when he first touches the ball. Once he clearly has possession and both feet down (about 18 sec) the ball does not touch the plane again.

    So in summary:
    -> Possession + Two Feet then ball touches plane = touchdown
    -> BUT it seems really obvious to be that we can argue all day about when he posses the ball and when both feet touched. That in my book = "inconclusive".
    -> Inconclusive means don't change the ruling.
  • Peter Marzbanian's Gravatar
    Peter Marzbanian
    Found this purely by accident while doing a search for another NFL rule. Regarding the initial posters comment, it is clear the rule is describing the footballs position as it relates to the goalline, not the players. Those of you who cant grasp this simple definition, along with the ball crossing the plane concept are in denial. I'm neither a Ravens nor a Steelers fan but would love to see officials get something as simple as this correct on the field.
  • OK, so Larry Fitzgerald ran after Harrison out of bonds, up the sidelines, is that legit?
  • Yes the rules say that Larry can do that. That's why Antrel Rolle is my MVP for the game since he put a nice block on Larry because he was standing too close to the sidelines. If not for Rolle, Larry would have tackled Harrison at about the 10 yard line.

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