A strange-looking play occurred early in the second quarter of the Detroit Lions' game against the New York Jets on Sunday. As Jeremy Ross approached to receive a punt from Ryan Quigley, the ball suddenly deflected off of a Jets player's helmet and bounced all the way to the Lions 15-yard line, where the referees originally spotted the ball. However, after the commercial break, the Lions started with the ball at their own 31-yard line. So what exactly happened? There are a couple things to consider here.
1. The spotting of the ball
Under the rulebook, a punt is considered what the NFL refers to as a "scrimmage kick." Here are the rules about spotting a scrimmage kick:
"First touching" is when a player of the kicking team touches a scrimmage kick that is beyond the line of scrimmage before it has been touched by a player of the receiving team beyond the line. If the ball is first touched by a player of the kicking team, it remains in play. First touching is a violation, and the receivers shall have the option of taking possession of the ball at the spot of first touching, provided no penalty is accepted on the play, or at the spot where the ball is dead.
The "first touch" of the ball is clearly off of the Jets player's helmet, so the Lions were correctly spotted the ball there at the 31-yard line. An interesting wrinkle to this rule is that the Lions actually had the option to take the ball back at the 15-yard line. Obviously, this stipulation of the rule is for balls that are batted forward after a first touch, but I still find it interesting that the rulebook doesn't just simply state that the receiving team gets the ball at whichever spot is farther upfield. I can't imagine a reason why a team would ever choose to take the ball farther back.
2. Interference with a fair catch
The second issue of interference is a bit less clear. There are two ways in which the kicking team may interfere with the receiver: either directly contacting the receiver "before or simultaneous to his touching the ball" or interfering with the receiver's "right of way," which is described like this:
A receiver who is moving toward a kicked ball that is in flight has the right of way. If opponents obstruct his path to the ball, or cause a passive player of either team to obstruct his path, it is interference, even if there is no contact, or if he catches the ball in spite of the interference, and regardless of whether any signal was given.
In other words, if the kicking team contacts, or forces the receiver to avoid contact, before or simultaneous to catching the ball, there is a foul. So did either of those happen?
By looking at Ross' hands, you can clearly see the Jets player coming into contact with him before Ross has the opportunity to catch the ball. That is illegal.
However, there is an exemption to this rule, as Mike Pereira pointed out during the broadcast. Pereira explained that the Jets player was "coming off of a block, so he's basically absolved of [interference]." Is that what happened?
Indeed, the Jets player is directly coming off of a block, so I guess Mike Pereira was ri.....WAIT!
Let's not put so much faith in Pereira and take a gander at what the rulebook actually says:
Note: It is not a foul if a kicking team player is blocked into the receiver, or the contact is the result of a foul.
So, Pereira's claim that a player coming off of a block is absolved from blame is actually a gross generalization of the rule. It actually only states that a player blocked INTO the receiver is exempt. In the case above, the blocker (Corey Fuller) absolutely does NOT push the Jets player into Ross. Therefore, this should have been a penalty.