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Did officials help Patriots avoid a penalty on Jets' last-second field goal?
Posted On : Friday,October17,2014 07:00:42 AM
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Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.05.45 AM

One year after the New England Patriots were burned by a penalty on a potential game-winning field goal by the New York Jets, it appears the team was spared another by a helpful (possibly too-helpful) official in a 27-25 win on Thursday night.

The odd moment was first noted by Dom Cosetino of On Nick Folk’s potential 58-yard game-winner, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower lined up in a standing position directly in front of long snapper Tanner Purdum. This would have been in violation of the NFL’s Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 on defensive team formations on kicks from scrimmage. The rulebook states: “When Team A presents a punt, field-goal, or Try Kick formation, a Team B player, who is within one yard of the line of scrimmage, must have his entire body outside the snapper’s shoulder pads at the snap.” Such a violation would have brought a five-yard penalty.

But instead of waiting for the snap and throwing a flag, one official tapped Hightower, seemingly signaling the linebacker to move out of the illegal formation, which he quickly did.

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Here’s how it looked live.

Folk, of course, would have this field goal blocked by Chris Jones, the same man who was called for a pushing penalty on a Folk missed field goal last season. The 2013 penalty gave Folk another chance to hit a game-winner, which he did. Should the same thing have happened on Thursday? Should the official have kept this information to himself, let Hightower line up illegally and then throw a flag, which would have given Folk a 53-yard attempt for the win?

It’s guesswork and speculation until the NFL releases a statement, which hadn’t happened as of 8:30 a.m. ET on Friday. (See update below.) Officials often take a proactive stance during games. They don’t allow fights, for instance, choosing instead to break up a scrum rather than wait to see what happens. A formation penalty isn’t a fight, but if there was some regard for player safety on kicks, this could be a common move. Some rules experts on Twitter say that very thing.

But should it be? The onus needs to be on the player to line up properly and, if he’s not, he should have to seek out the official’s advice. It’s like when wide receivers check with officials before offensive snaps to make sure there are the proper amount of men on the line of scrimmage. That’s fine. But would an official shove a receiver onto the right spot on the line of scrimmage on his own volition? Of course not. So why should officials shove a defender out of the wrong one?

Update: The NFL says that this is, indeed, a common practice.

“It is a standard officiating procedure that occurs regularly,” league spokesman Greg Aiello told USA TODAY Sports in an email Friday morning. “That rule was put in place for player safety reasons, another good reason to help avoid violations in advance.”

Tom Pelissaro of USA TODAY Sports notes that the “precise officiating mechanic” of officials alerting players on kicks was discussed in a weekly video sent to teams by Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating.

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