Tag Archives: rule changes

Return of the tackle-eligible play

There’ll probably be some discussion this Super Bowl Week — that is, when people tire of Deflategate — about the tackle-eligible play. Bill Belichick’s Patriots ran it twice for touchdowns in Super Bowls 38 and 39, and they used it again in the AFC title game, when Tom Brady flipped a 16-yard TD pass to an uncovered Nate Solder. The sequence went like this:

First, the Patriots lined up in an unbalanced line — four men to the right of center, two to the left. This made the 6-8, 320-pound Solder (77) the left end, because Brandon LaFell (bottom of the photo) positioned himself a yard behind the line as a flanker.

Solder lined up

After the snap, Solder briefly blocked and then drifted into the flat, catching Brady’s throw at the Indianapolis 13. No Colt was near him.

Solder catch at 13

A few giant steps later, he launched himself across the goal line to increase New England’s lead to 24-7.

Solder scores

One of the things that’s interesting about this play is that the NFL actually outlawed it in 1951. According to The Associated Press, it had become “a nightmare to officials because various clubs tried illegal variations which loosed tackles, centers and guards for pass receptions.”

The year before, Eagles coach Greasy Neale went nuts after the Cardinals ran one such variation against his team. The pass, in this instance, went to “an ineligible guard for about 30 yards,” AP reported. “And while the Eagles argued with the officials, Cardinal[s] coach Curly Lambeau lifted the guard from the lineup and covered him with a blanket on the bench. The officials couldn’t even find the player on the field who the Eagles contended caught the pass. The gain stood.”

The season before that, the Bears, goofing around in their season finale, ran five tackle-eligible plays against the Cardinals in a 52-21 win. Afterward, Cards coach Buddy Parker said, “The tackle eligible is a cheating play. It should be ruled out of football. I’m not saying this because we lost, but it’s my firm conviction it violates the spirit of football. I’m not blaming the Bears for using it. Other teams do. But there is no defense for it, and it is a difficult play for the officials to call.”

At the January 1951 league meetings in Chicago, the owners decided to get rid of “the old bugaboo tackle-eligible play,” as AP called it. But in recent decades it has worked its way back into the playbook — as long as the tackle reports as an eligible receiver, as Solder did. This alerts the officials, who then alert the defense. It’s still a trick play, it’s just not as tricky — or maybe shady — as it used to be.

In the old days, teams lined up in all kinds of bizarre formations to create Surprise Eligible Receivers. Check out this alignment the Giants sprang on the Bears in 1934, one that made the center, Hall of Famer Mel Hein, eligible:

Giants center eligible play

Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune described it thusly:

The Giants shifted to a spread formation. Such a formation, with three eligible pass receivers [to] the right, always causes the defense to spread to meet a pass with secondary consideration for a run or plunge. The end men on the line of scrimmage and the backs are eligible to receive passes. Seven men must be on the offensive scrimmage line when the ball is passed by the center.

The Bears immediately dropped into a six-man defensive line and shifted three men to cover the Giants’ eligible receivers on the right side of the Giant[s] formation. Naturally, most of the fans watched these men, thinking a pass would be thrown to one of them. There was a Giant[s] end to the left of center Hein. Then, without warning, this end shifted one yard back from the line of scrimmage. This change made him a “back,” and to meet the rule specifying seven men on the line of scrimmage, a back shifted up to the line [indicated by the dotted line position].

As soon as one second had elapsed after this shift, another rule requirement, Hein passed the ball back between his legs to quarterback Harry Newman, directly behind him. Newman then handed the ball back to Hein, between Hein’s legs, and Hein ran with it, making 13 yards before he was downed by the Bears’ secondary.

When Newman handed the ball back to Hein it was a forward pass. Hein, the end man, was eligible to receive this pass and after receiving it to run.

George Musso, the Bears’ right tackle, had lined up approximately even with the Giants’ end, who later shifted into the backfield. Hein ran inside of Musso. The play was so unexpected that most of the Bears did not see the pass.

Maybe we’ll see a play like that in the Super Bowl. After all, the Patriots and Seahawks have shown plenty of creativity this season. Or maybe we’ll see a “Find the Ball!” play like the one the Bears ran against the Lions later in ’34. An artist’s rendering of it:

Bears trick play in 1934 vs. Lions

Now that would be fun.

The NFL’s all-time worst rules

Now it’s the Process Rule that has NFL fans in Mob Mode. Not so long ago it was the Tuck Rule, which was burned at the stake — before a cheering crowd — in 2013.

I won’t attempt to explain the Process Rule, or the league’s rationale for it, because, well, who can understand it? It’s what you’d get if Jibberish had a one-night stand with Claptrap. (I considered Mumbo Jumbo as the second partner, but I thought it would be funnier if “clap” were part of the equation.)

Naturally, the NFL says it correctly enforced this misbegotten rule on the pass to Dez Bryant late in the Packers-Cowboys game. I say: Whatever floats your boat, Roger. I also say — in a futile attempt to calm the masses — there have been far, far worse rules in pro football than the Process Rule (or even the Tuck Rule, which Mike Shanahan called “the worst rule in the history of the game”).

The NFL, after all, has had some real doozies over the decades, especially in the early years. Here, for your entertainment, are 5 Rules That Were Even More Ridiculous Than The Process Rule (for my money, at least):

● If a pass into the end zone — on any down — falls incomplete, it’s a touchback.

There would have been a lot more pressure on Santonio Holmes in the '20s.

If this pass had been incomplete in the ’20s . . .

In the ’20s, before pro football’s founding fathers opened up the game, there were a number of rules that discriminated against passing. This was probably the most egregious. Imagine if Santonio Holmes had dropped that second-and-6 throw in the back-right corner in the last minute of Super Bowl 43. Under the old rule, the Steelers would have lost possession and the Cardinals would have walked away with the Lombardi Trophy.

● The ball carrier can get up after being after being knocked to the ground and try to gain additional yardage as long as his forward progress hasn’t been stopped.

The he-man NFL was trying to distinguish itself from the colleges with this rule, and occasionally a ball carrier would pick himself up and scramble for more yards. But the rule also fostered late hitting, piling on and other forms of carnage. The league finally got rid of it after the Bears brutalized Hugh McElhenny, the 49ers’ Hall of Fame running back, in 1954 and caused him to miss the second half of the season.

● The defense can hit the quarterback until the play is over, even if he’s gotten rid of the ball.

It wasn’t until 1938 that there was a roughing-the-passer penalty. Sammy Baugh: “Coaches told their players, ‘When the passer throws the ball, you put his ass on the ground.’ If you have to

One of the 1939 rule changes.

One of the 1938 rule changes.

chase him for 20 yards, put him on the ground.’ Hell, they’d chase me back 25 yards or so. I’d complete a short pass, and the receiver would be running all the way downfield, 75 yards away from me, and I’d still be fighting [defenders] off. It looked so damn silly.”

● If the ball carrier runs out of bounds — or is deposited there by the defense — the ball will be spotted one yard from the sideline.

Before hashmarks were added in 1933, the ball was spotted where the previous play ended. Needless to say, this could put the offense in a real bind. It usually had to waste a down to move the ball back to the middle of the field so it would have more room to operate.

● A player who leaves the game can’t come back in until the next quarter.

Welcome to single-platoon football. During the war years, though, when manpower was scarce, the NFL began to experiment with unlimited substitution. The league permanently adopted it in 1949, paving the way for the highly specialized game we enjoy today.

● Dishonorable mention: A team taking an intentional safety retains possession of the ball.

Talk about a lousy rule. In 1925 the Giants were leading the Providence Steam Roller 13-10 with time running out when they decided to hand Providence two points rather than punt from their end zone. Who can blame them? According to the rule in those days, they didn’t have to free kick from the 20-yard line and sweat out the final seconds. Instead, they were given a new set of downs at their 30. They proceeded to run three more plays, kill the clock and lock up a 13-12 win.

I could go on, but you get the idea. As Jim Mora (the Elder) would put it: Process Rule? You kiddin’ me? Process Rule? There have been much more terrible rules than that.

This pass to the Cowboys' Dez Bryant was ruled incomplete because . . . oh, forget it.

This pass to the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant was ruled incomplete because . . . oh, forget it.