Calm on Broken Plays

Coaches, players and fans are allowed to panic when a play goes awry. Officials, on the other hand, must react to broken plays as if they’re routine and they saw it coming all along. However, the crew must be especially vigilant for fouls during those broken plays. Here are some examples of what to do when the play is executed in a manner not written in the playbook.

Field Goal

With a crew of five, there is no “best” way to cover all the possibilities on a field goal attempt or kick try. There are two mechanics commonly used in prep play. One puts the wing official who’s facing the referee in his normal position while the other wing goes under the goalpost with the back judge. That leaves the referee with responsibility for the vacated sideline and goalline. The other option leaves both wings in their normal positions and puts the umpire alone under the post.

When the holder mishandles the snap, many teams use the term “Fire” to alert their teammates of the pending broken play. Officials must ensure whatever follows is legal or does not cause the ball to become dead. Because the rules state a runner is down when his knee (among other parts of his body excluding a hand or foot) touches the ground, there is sometimes confusion over what a place kick holder can do.

In NFHS play, the holder must rise before he may advance, hand the ball to another player, kick or pass (forward or backward). If the holder does any of those things while his knee(s) is on the ground, the ball is immediately dead. The ball remains live if the holder rises to catch or recover an errant snap and immediately returns his knee(s) to the ground and places the ball for a kick, or again rises to advance, hand, kick or pass. If the holder muffs the snap and rises to secure the ball, the ball is dead if he returns his knee to the ground while holding the ball (4-2-2a Exc., Note).

Under NCAA rules, a place kick holder, who at the snap has his knee(s) on the ground while there is a teammate in kicking position at the snap (he doesn’t actually have to kick), need not rise before handing off, running or passing (4-1-3b Exc.).

If the holder rises, he may re-establish his position as a holder as long as:

There has not been a change of team possession,
the ball is behind the neutral zone (it doesn’t matter if the ball had or hadn’t been beyond the neutral zone), and
a teammate is in position to kick.

If the holder muffs the snap or subsequently fumbles the ball, it remains live. Team R may legally bat the ball while it is in the holder’s possession (AR 4-1-3 I).

Officials must also be observant for the illegal kicking of a loose ball. A legal place kick requires the ball be in a fixed position on the ground or on a tee in NFHS only (NFHS 2-24-7; NCAA 2-16-4a). That means the holder must have control of the ball (NFHS 2-24-4; NCAA 2-16-4a). The penalty for an illegal act is 15 yards in NFHS and 10 yards in NCAA and is enforced under the all-but-one principle (NFHS 9-7-1; NCAA 9-4-4).


The rugby-style punt (the punter runs laterally before kicking) is commonplace. On some teams the kicker has an option to keep the ball and run for first-down yardage. That play requires the referee to make a judgment as to roughing if the kicker is contacted, but otherwise is a straight-forward event.

The greater challenge occurs when the punter muffs the snap or the ball goes over his head. When that happens, no one including the punter knows whether a pass, kick or run will eventually result. A run presents the least unusual possibilities and can be officiated the same as a designed running play.

After a bad snap it is not reasonably certain a kick will be made. That means the defense gets the benefit of any doubt as to whether or not contact with the kicker is avoidable. In some cases, the kick will be made as the kicker is being contacted; that certainly is not a foul. Another scenario is when the kick is touched. When that happens, ensuing contact is likely and should be judged to be unavoidable. However, after the kick is touched, the defensive player may not stop and renew his charge, nor may he change direction and charge into the kicker. Touching a kick is not a license for the defense to declare “open season” on the kicker.

A pass presents the greatest likelihood of a foul. Intentional grounding is a distinct possibility and no slack should be given in regard to the lack of presence of an eligible offensive receiver in the area where the pass lands. The odds are probably 50-50 that an ineligible receiver will go too far downfield before the pass is released. Also, confused linemen are apt to hold.


When the ball is knocked loose from a runner and there is a clear and immediate recovery, it’s usually a simple matter for the officials. The “spot” of the fumble is beanbagged and possession is announced. If the defense recovers, the nearest official should signal the change of possession and if the offense retains the ball, the number of the next down is announced. It is not necessary to put the beanbag on the specific blade of grass where possession was lost. All that is needed is the yardline. That spot will be important only if a foul occurred before or during the loose ball. Dropping the bag on the appropriate yardline will yield a more accurate spot than trying to throw it to the exact spot.

The challenge occurs when the rolling prolate spheroid is muffed several times and a melee for recovery ensues. When that happens there are several opportunities for fouls to occur. Players of either team may push or pull in the back when trying to reach a loose ball in NFHS play, but may only push in the back above the waist under NCAA rules (NFHS 9-3-5b; NCAA 9-3-6 Exc. 3). Officials must be on the lookout for holding and other illegal grabbing. Also, in NCAA, pulling or pushing an opponent off a pile is a foul (9-2- 1a1-k).

Inadvertent Whistle

The errant toot is the officiating crew’s version of “fire.” There is no reason to panic. The referee must calmly determine when the whistle was blown, focusing on the status of the ball.

If the whistle was blown while a snap, legal forward pass or legal kick was in flight, the down is replayed and there are no options (NFHS 4-2-3a; NCAA 4-1-2b-3). If the whistle is blown while the ball is loose after a fumble or backward pass, the team last in possession can choose to replay the down or have the down count at the spot where possession was lost (NFHS 4-2-3b; NCAA 4-1-2b2).

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