The Monopoly “Pick a Chance Card” Effect of NFL Personal Fouls

Football penalty flags, particularly for “personal fouls,” have made a small but relevant portion of the game somewhat like Monopoly’s “chance” cards – where up to several times a game a card is picked and the unlucky team gets penalized 15 yards and a 1st down.

See the first play of this clip, beginning at second :03

For contrast, see second :35 of the video below for a good example of a clear personal foul that was not in the course of a well executed or necessary football play:

Since a personal foul not only often gives a team a first down where they might otherwise have had to punt, it also moves them 15 yards up the field. Near or past midfield it often leads to a score instead of a punt, and has changed the nature and outcome of many games.

Of course, the whole point is that personal fouls are not random “pick a chance” Monopoly cards: they’re for unnecessary roughness or other similar unsportsmanlike behavior that’s at least reasonably avoidable before the fact. But it’s this last phrase – reasonably avoidable before the fact – that’s tricky.

Anything on the field is avoidable before the fact if you simply stop playing. But the idea of playing is to play, so sometimes it’s not as easy as it may sound. Given basic reaction time, and the difficulty of just “turning off” an intent to finish off a play, there’s also an element of personal foul calling in the NFL that sometimes comes close to defying the basic laws of physics and kinesthetics. And it’s affecting the way players can and do play on the football field.

What happens in some instances is that given the specific way field movement unfolded, the action appeared to have been a penalty in that it was “unnecessary” for proper football play; but at the time of the “fouling” player’s action, the player couldn’t have known or otherwise stopped his body consistent with the rigorous professionalism, energy and all out play that good sport requires.

Let’s take two common examples, where after the fact a game announcer will even sometimes say “that was a stupid play, he should have known better than to hit him ‘out of bounds,’ or hit him ‘late,’ like that”; and where despite casual appearances, such pronouncements aren’t always accurate. We’ll detail the first, since it also covers the basic underlying issue laid out above for all instances of personal foul calling, then summarize the more popular well known second, in a paragraph.

Example A

Player A is angling hard toward the sidelines, with the ball. Player B, on defense, is in a bind. He can see where the playing field ends, but he’s also running full speed, trying to focus on potential blockers as well as the player with the ball, and trying to figure out what that player will do.

Player A appears to juke inward, then starts to hit the sideline hard, then…..what will he do? Player B knows A may go out of bounds on his own. Or he may not go out of bounds on his own. .

Here are three different generic outcome types that happen all of the time with this and similar common out of bounds situations, made apparent from analyzing reams of film:

First, player B slows or holds up because A is going out of bounds. (This can happen if B is already careening hard toward the sidelines, close to A, and if A continues out of bounds or is just about out of bounds already, and B ultimately drives through him, as proper tackling requires, it will be a hard hit that will seem to carry well beyond the out of bounds marker.)

This hesitation, potential hesitation, or near stoppage on player B’s part usually gives player A a little more room to tightrope the sideline.  And sometimes it gives A enough room to stay in bounds and gain a lot more yards.

The second, and most common occurrence in this sideline situation, is the “half-hearted arm shove”: Player A is running along the sidelines, or angling hard toward it and appears heading out of bounds, and the defensive player simply extends out an arm or two, and “pushes” player A.

In the process of ending (or trying to end) the play this way, player B’s team often loses yardage from what a well executed tackle – either spinning or driving upfield, or even straight sideway) – would have gained.  And sometimes player B misses the “tackle” all together; either because A cut at the last moment, or otherwise was able to withstand the push and maintain his feet in bounds while continuing to run down the sideline or cut back inside.

This near the sideline half-hearted arm shove is too prevalent in NFL football. It also looks lazy, presumptive, and unprofessional.  And sometimes it is, in that the defensive player is not only doing the minimum he needs to to make sure the play is over, but is doing less than he needs to make sure the play is over – either on hope or presumption that, since his opponent is so close being out of bounds, a small shove will do it.

It’s hard for me to understand how head NFL coaches tolerate this. Some years back when Jeff Fisher was still with the Titans, and a near the sideline finger push that probably wouldn’t have been sufficient in a game of two handed touch – in what would have been an easy tackle situation for many grandmothers no less – allowed an Oakland player to instead streak down the sidelines for several dozen more yards and a touchdown.

It’s happened repeatedly, but that one sticks out in memory because of the press conference afterwards:

After the game, Fisher, usually even keeled, and a pretty good head coach, spoke of the play. “He knows he has to wrap up in that situation.”

Fisher was being nice to his player, which is cool; and in a press conference he should be. Most successful head coaches are. But the problematic part may have been “in that situation,” particularly given Fisher’s emphasis on that phrase. Unless one is a phenomenal athlete, even for the NFL, and in a very unique situation where a “cut” tackle will almost always work (and for many players it sometimes doesn’t – which is also something which should cause steam to rise from a head coach’s ears but doesn’t seem to), apart from where a player has a clear bead on the ball and is trying to blow it out (increasingly discouraged due to head injury risks) in what situations does a player not have to wrap up.  

It sounds from the quote alone as if it may have been that Fisher was just very casually saying players always need to wrap up, but from the context and intonation, it appeared unlikely.

It should be noted that after Gregg Williams – whose defense in 2000 gave up the 3rd fewest points in the game since the league went to a 16 game schedule in 1978 – left Fisher’s Titans as defensive coordinator to join the Buffalo Bills as new head coach (for his only head coaching stint in the NFL), the Titans, who continued on as a fairly good team for a while, and under the defensive coordinatorship of Jim Schwartz, had become one of the worst tackling teams in the NFL.

Or, at least they were among the worst, if not the worst, tackling team in the NFL relative to the fact that they were otherwise a reasonably solid team. (It should also be noted that while Schwartz was originally vastly over rated as a head coach, during his stint there his Detroit Lions didn’t tackle too poorly, and as defensive coordinator again in 2014, for the Buffalo Bills he did a nice job, and tackling was solid.)

The sideline play Fisher was referring to against the Raiders seemed a bit lazy, and again, presumptive.  And there was little excuse for it. But another element of the game – which had nothing to do with laziness, poor play, or presumption –  also likely contributed.  And this element does so all of the time in these types of situations; in the process changing, and, some might argue, often slightly bastardizing, real football.

That element is the fear of an out of bounds “late hit” penalty.

After the fact it looks “easy” to make a late hit out of bounds call. For instance, “he was several years out of bounds!” we all exclaim, frustrated at the defensive player’s seeming “stupidity” in making the hit.

A famous one is the New York Jets first contest of the 2013 season, and then Rookie Geno Smith’s inaugural regular season game at QB, where Tampa Bay all but had the game won yet Smith managed a great last second comeback for the win, which probably couldn’t have happened but for a late out of bounds hit by linebacker Lavonte David, who was actually fined almost 8 grand by the NFL for the hit on top of the humiliation of probably having cost his team the game:

David didn’t need to push Geno, but he may not have been focused enough to stop the “reflex” push, and the “hit” itself was trivial though probably correctly called under the rules:

Sometimes, as with David’s otherwise trivial shove, a late hit out of bounds is clear and a silly play where even the most intense football players should have been fully aware of the situation and able to reasonably stop. But while David was clearly out of bounds and thus it was probably a correct penalty, he may not have been focused enough to stop the near “reflex action” movement of his arms. (It can also sometimes be a little hard to judge the out of bounds mark in real time while the game is on the line and the player is trying the ball carrier, not stare at his feet – even if here there should have been more awareness or control – particularly as the key thing in this situation was for David to keep Smith in bounds, and thus the clock running.)

It’s high school level, but here’s a perfect example of a real late hit out of bounds, and an interesting contrast to David’s light tap on Geno Smith’s back as they were both running hard.

The video just above is fairly clear, and thus a good illustration of a clear penalty. But often it’s not what it seems: Bodies don’t just stop movement on a dime. Nor does intent, which has to be based upon reaction and guesswork of what another player in the game will do. Players change direction. Sometimes rapidly. They juke, duke, bob and weave at the last moment – as they should, since eluding tackles is an enormous part of football.

The sideline marker is of course also clear; but players, again, are running at full tilt, and concerned about their opponents and fellow teammates at the same time.

Not knowing where a ball carrier will actually go at the last second, and running at full speed to make a tackle, good play invariably requires some tackling that carries out of bounds, and not just the “recognized” ones after the fact but some that look like “late hits” because after the fact viewers know exactly what the runner did, and what happened. But as the play was unfolding the defensive player did not, and can’t play 100% on the one hand, yet check his kinesthetics and all but suddenly stop his body instantaneously based upon how the ball carrier eventually travels, on the other.

Thus, consider the third type of sideline occurrence. The defensive player levels player A with a nice tackle, or tries to and then at the last moment pulls up just a little, but sends player A near to or – more comedically -sprawling into coaches and cameramen too reluctant or slow to simply back up.

Suppose in this situation that just as player B – who remember is often running at full speed and full force  – commits to the tackle, player A cuts hard knowing he has nowhere to run, and angles sharply out of bounds.

At this point B is almost committed to the tackle, depending on the exact situation: A player can’t instantaneously stop the body or forward movement. And it’s very hard to quickly adjust in split second time when, by the time it is clear what is going on, you are already flying over the sideline marker.

But what happens if Player A only fakes the sideline cut. Here, player B, aware that player A is about to go out of bounds and thus by the time the tackle is executed – with both bodies’ momentum hurtling out of bounds – he may be called for a late hit, holds up, slows up, or just extends out the arms to “finish off with a push.” And as a result, players A’s sudden, very last second cut – because B thought he was going out of bounds – turns into a nice additional gain or even a touchdown because player B thought he was going out of bounds and was at least partially afraid, even if somewhat subconsciously, of a hit out of bounds.

Well executed tackles normally don’t injure players. And to think that a tackle represents a risk that is unwarranted, when essentially the entire game of football is about running plays that normally end with a tackle, is a bit stretched. So if a player tackles someone and it winds up being a yard out of bounds (which with forward momentum and rotation can turn into many yards), rather than a yard in bounds or right at the sideline marker, there is no special “injury” risk.

Tackling is a central – maybe the central – part of football. So, even if the tackles look a little bad after the fact, penalizing players for close hits out of bounds when players are going full tilt out there – and for a good football game have to go full tilt – and things are not always what they look like on the field, may seem like it’s “helping player safety,” but in reality all it’s mainly doing is somewhat messing up sideline play and throwing another wild card of at times random, often judgmental, and sometimes unwarranted 15 yard penalty flags into the game.

Given that the distance between long field goal range on each end of the field (The 35 to the 35) is only 30 yards, and the penalty not only automatically gives half of a 30 yard distance, but an automatic 1st down as well, this sometimes “flag” wild card is significant. And the fear of them near the sideline, and the subconscious, even sometimes conscious, affect on play, may be even larger.

Example B

In part II of this piece we’ll look a bit more at the second, and often far more egregious, example of excessive personal foul calling; the one that often defies physics and maybe that basic energy law many of us rolled our eyes over back in physics class: F=MABut any defensive player going full tilt at a quarterback, who sees him start to throw (or is he?) and can’t fully hold up, and doesn’t even know if the quarterback is going to release the ball, pump, duck, spin – or stick his tongue out at him (maybe one of Ben Rothlisberger or Russell Wilson’s hidden moves?) – has lived a pretty relevant football version of it.

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