With under two minutes left in the half, Alabama downed a P.J. Fitzgerald punt at the Mississippi State 1-yard-line and then held the Bulldogs to a three-and-out, hoping to set themselves up for a quick score before half-time.
The Heath Hutchins punt didn't quite make it to return man Javier Arenas, who attempted to keep the return team away from it by waving them off. A fortunate bounce landed right in his arms and he took off -- only to have the flags fly in, the whistles blow, and the Tide be assessed a 5 yard penalty for attempting to return a ball after a fair catch signal.
'Bama fans, and even Eli Gold, were understandably confused, since even on the replay it did not appear that Arenas called for a fair catch. At halftime, Gold conferred with the officials who told him that a rule change for 2010 allows any motion by the return man to suffice for a fair catch signal.
This isn't entirely true -- it doesn't seem that this rule has changed at all from 2009 -- but it appears that the refs made an arguably correct call on the play.
NCAA football rules 2-7-2 and 2-7-3 define a valid and invalid fair-catch signal. They read as follows:
ARTICLE 2. A valid signal is a signal given by a player of Team B who has obviously signaled his intention by extending one hand only clearly above his head and waving that hand from side to side of his body more than once.
ARTICLE 3. An invalid signal is any waving signal by a player of Team B that does not meet the requirements of a valid signal (Rule 6-5-3).
So, as we can see, one hand above the head waving back and forth signifies a fair catch. According to 2-7-3, however, any other waving signal is considered an "invalid signal."
Rule 6-5-2 defines the penalty for attempting to advance the ball after a fair catch signal (emphasis supplied):
ARTICLE 2. No Team B player shall carry a caught or recovered ball more than two steps in any direction after a valid or invalid fair catch signal by any Team B player (A.R. 6-5-2-I-IV).
PENALTY—Dead-ball foul. Five yards from the succeeding spot [S7 and S21].
The key to this rule is that an invalid fair catch signal works exactly the same way as a valid one for the return man, the primary difference (for everyone else) being that making an invalid signal provides less protection from getting hit after the catch.
The first thing to understand about the construction of this rule is that it serves a very important purpose: to keep return teams from employing trickery (fake fair-catch signals) to gain an unfair advantage on the return. Expecting players on coverage teams to be able to distinguish from a barely correct and a barely incorrect fair catch signal is a recipe for disaster, so anything that even slightly resembles a fair catch signal is going to be treated like one (valid or invalid).
If you're suspicious that the scenario that played out against MSU might not be a situation that the rule authors had contemplated, consider approved interpretation 6-5-VI:
Team A’s scrimmage kick is rolling beyond the neutral zone when B17 alerts his teammates to stay away from the ball by a "get away" signal at his waist or below. RULING: Invalid signal. The ball is dead by rule when either team recovers.
So from the above, it's pretty clear that the officials were easily within the letter of the law on the Arenas call but, if you're anything like me, your first reaction is something like: "Baloney, return guys wave their teammates away from kicks all the time and they're not flagged." After spending some time this afternoon thinking about it, I came up with two possible explanations for this apparent discrepancy that might suffice for an answer:
For starters, we're definitely talking about a judgment call made by the official as to how close what Arenas did was to a valid fair catch signal. The official thought it was close enough to be confusing, and thus considered it an invalid fair catch signal.This is an issue, though, because it seems to conflict with everything we think we know about how fair catches work, and it could leave an awful lot of confusing standards for return teams to try to keep up with.
The other option I've come up with was that the primary deficiency with Arenas' signal was the fact that he made it with only one hand. In order to be valid, a fair catch signal must be a) above the head, b) one hand only , and c) waved more than once. You can bet that any waving motion above the head is going to be considered a fair catch signal. Arenas, as you can see from the image above, was waving his hand at chest level, waved only one hand, and did it multiple times. Which puts him about 45 degrees of inclination from a valid fair catch signal . . . which is pretty close.
My guess (and this is purely speculation on my part) is that if Arenas waved both hands -- maybe like an "incomplete pass" officiating signal or even waving them in a direction like a "wide left" signal -- he would have avoided the appearance that he was making an invalid fair catch signal and might have been allowed to return the ball.
So it appears that the officiating crew made the correct call on Saturday night, but it was still a frustrating situation and I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is something that the coaching staff covers in some detail with the special teams unit this week in practice.