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Kicks, Penalties, and Possessions

After Cody's second block last night, when the announcers were yammering on about him taking his helmet off, I assumed that everyone who knew anything about football would recognize that taking one's helmet off is a foul like "excessive celebration:" no matter when it happens, it's the penalty enforced on the next. Play.

As it turns out, lots and lots of Tennessee fans don't really know the rules of football.

Neither does Lane Kiffin:

"If a play's still going, you can't take your helmet off," Kiffin said. "A guy throws his helmet as the ball's still live. He throws his helmet and then two of their guys go and recover the ball. It's a 15-yard penalty, and you kick again."

Now, it should come as no surprise that Kiffin has no idea what the rules are of the game he's coaching. It's not the first time.

But, seeing all of these people come out of the woodwork to talk about "re-kicks" and other silly things has frustrated me to no end.  Allow me to explain how football works, not for the benefit of our readers, most of whom have been on top of this all from the very moment of the block, but for other fans who might need a refresher:

The Helmet Rule

First, understand that removing your helmet while on the field of play is expressly against the rules. Rule 9-2-1:

Unsportsmanlike Acts
ARTICLE 1. There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct or any act that interferes with orderly game administration on the part of players, substitutes, coaches, authorized attendants or any other persons subject to the rules, before the game, during the game or between periods. a. Specifically prohibited acts and conduct include: 1. No player, substitute, coach or other person subject to the rules shall use abusive, threatening or obscene language or gestures, or engage in such acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials or to the image of the game, including but not limited to:

. . .

(f) Removal of a player’s helmet before he is in the team area (Exceptions: Team, media or injury timeouts; equipment adjustment; through play; between periods; and during a measurement for a first down).

. . .

If committed while the ball is alive, these fouls are treated as dead-ball fouls.

PENALTY — Dead-ball foul or live-ball foul treated as dead-ball foul. 15 yards [S7 and S27] from the succeeding spot. Flagrant offenders, if players or substitutes, shall be disqualified [S47]. If a player or an identified squad member in uniform commits two unsportsmanlike fouls in the same game, he shall be disqualified.

Essentially what that means is that dead ball fouls are marked off on the NEXT play and do not ever result in a "re-do" of the play on which they occurred, despite what Lane Kiffin may believe.


But Tennessee could've recovered the ball!

Well, no. No they couldn't have. A scrimmage kick (A.K.A. Field Goal) is a live ball, recoverable by either team, only until it crosses the neutral zone. At that point, the kicking team can only recover the ball once it has been touched by the defending team. Further, if a scrimmage kick touches goes beyond the neutral zone its character changes. From that point forward, the ball is unrecoverable by the kicking team unless it goes on to touch a player on the defending team. To be clear, the initial block would not count toward this. It would need to be touched again. Further, it would need to be touched before it touched the ground beyond the neutral zone. (See update #2 below for correction)

Rule 2-15-1-b states: "Any free kick or scrimmage kick continues to be a kick until it is caught or recovered by a player or becomes dead."

Rule 4-3-h states that the ball becomes dead "when a return kick or scrimmage kick beyond the neutral zone is made." While this might seem to imply that the ball was kicked from beyond the neutral zone, what it really means is that the scrimmage kick (the ball that has been kicked) has crossed the neutral zone and touched something on the other side. (See update #2 below for correction)

Rule 5-4 discusses the "continuity of downs" and says that the continuity is broken in a number of circumstances like the expiration of the half or game, a change of possession during the play, failing to convert a fourth down, and so on. In other words, no matter what down it was, after one of these things, the next down is first down. In many cases, this means a change of possession. One such occurrence that breaks the continuity of downs is: "(b). A scrimmage kick crosses the neutral zone."

In short: when the ball was hit by Cody it was live and could have been recovered by either team . . . until it rolled past the neutral zone, at which point it was dead by rule (See update #2 below) it was only recoverable by Alabama. Julio Jones tracked the ball down and covered it up. At that point, the play was over and Alabama received possession.

Update #1: bobo_the_vol suggests that the mere act of the ball crossing the Neutral Zone didn't result in a dead ball, so there's at least that debatable point, but remember that in order for that to matter a 'Bama player would still have to touch it after it crossed the NZ but before a Tennessee player did.

Update #2: After spending a few hours last night poking around the NCAA football rule book, I see what bobo_the_vol was trying to say, and I now agree with him. My initial interpretations of a few different clauses in the rule book were incorrect. Upon further reading, Rule 4-3-h means exactly what I said it did not mean (oops). The rule that I was leaning on to provide that interpretation, after another few reads through, doesn't support my assertion as I thought it did. As a result, the initial post was incorrect: the ball was not dead before Julio fell on it. As far as this particular play is concerned, it's a distinction with no difference as the ball was never bobbled around and there wasn't a Tennessee player anywhere in the vicinity of it when Julio touched it, so the final conclusion of this post is still valid. Regardless, I regret the error and appreciate bobo_the_vol taking the time to educate my stubborn self .


But what if Tennessee got the ball before it crossed the neutral zone?

Someone arguing this is probably alluding to the rule that the game can't end on a defensive penalty. The problem is that that simple statement of the rule is not entirely correct. A more accurate portrayal of the rule is that the game can't end on a live ball foul. Rule 3-3 controls here:

Extension of Periods
ARTICLE 3. A period shall be extended until a down (other than a try), free from live-ball fouls not penalized as dead-ball fouls, has been played when:
a. A penalty is accepted for a live-ball foul(s) not penalized as a dead-ball foul that occurs during a down in which time expires (Exception: Rule 10-2-2-g-1) (A.R. 3-2-3-I-VIII).
b. Offsetting fouls occur during a down in which time expires.
c. An inadvertent whistle is sounded or an official signals the ball dead during a down in which time expires.

Live-ball fouls that are penalized as dead-ball fouls do not extend the game. So even if Tennessee had recovered that kick, the game would still have been over because the game is not extended by fouls that are treated like dead-ball fouls.


So what you're saying is that there's no way that Cody taking his helmet off could have given Tennessee another shot to win the game?