BY Terry Wood 06:00AM 03/09/2020

Long past time to fix the dumbest rule in football

Football’s break-the-plane rule for touchdowns is both aggravatingly lame and often immune to influence by replay. C’mon, NFL and XFL: Make it a TOUCHdown.

Chiefs RB Damien Williams’ controversial touchdown in the Super Bowl highlights the break-the-plane nonsense. / Business Insider via Fox TV

Whatever your opinion of the XFL’s quality of play, you’re probably at least intrigued by some of the new league’s novel rule tweaks, from stop-action kickoffs to booth-mandated replays to multiple-choice PATs.

Give the XFL credit for having the nerve to re-think the rulebook. I just wish the league would have gone one step further and addressed the most irritating, unsatisfying judgment call in all of football: The dreaded break-the-plane touchdown.

Is anyone else annoyed by the fact that the pivotal play in last month’s Super Bowl, the most important, most-watched game in the National Football League’s look-how-far-we’ve-come 100th season, was decided by guesswork?

Flashback, Feb. 2:

San Francisco leads 20-17; less than three minutes remain in the fourth quarter; the Chiefs face third-and-goal on the 49ers’ 5-yard line; Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes flips a short pass to RB Damien Williams; Williams dashes for a corner of the end zone; CB Richard Sherman shoulder-pops him. (click through to YouTube version.)

As Williams’ front right foot grazes the sideline, he waves the ball at the goal line and pylon. Momentum carries Williams out of bounds. He never touches the end zone.

OK viewers, as IBM commercials during NFL games in the 1980s demanded, you make the call.

Down judge Kent Payne, refereeing his third Super Bowl, was on the goal line, two steps from the pylon. Moments after all this high-speed commotion unfolded in front of him, without hesitation he raised both hands overhead, ruling a touchdown.

But because so many unusual things happened so fast, how did he know? Is it possible he wasn’t sure, but feeling the glare of a global spotlight, he figured he needed to make a call — any call — and do it quickly so he appeared decisive? Could he have been counting on instant replay to bail him out if he guessed wrong?

Can’t blame him. On close-call plays, that’s a smart officiating strategy. NFL refs seem to have adopted an unwritten policy of making a best-guess ruling on chaotic plays and turning to replay cameras to sort it out. Only on this occasion, with no camera squared up with the goal line, replay clarified nothing.

“That right foot comes out of bounds,” Fox analyst Troy Aikman said. “Where’s the ball before that happens? There’s just nothing really just straight down the (goal) line to know . . . if the tip of that ball . . . hits any part of that white line. I don’t know if there’s going to be anything there that they’re going to be able to overturn it.”

Former NFL official Mike Pereira, part of the Fox crew, concurred: “This doesn’t look to me to be clear enough to overturn.”

So the call stood, the Chiefs took the lead, and command of the game. Final: KC 31-20.

The point is this: The most valuable scoring play in football is the touchdown.

To earn those much-coveted six points, it seems only right that the ball and some part of the ball-possessing player should actually touch the end zone, not just give the ball an abracadabra wave through an ostensible geometrical “plane” that rises invisibly from the front edge of the goal line. That’s why, for a century, the six-point scoring play has been called a touchdown.

Breaking-the-plane touchdowns are cheap, unfulfilling and seemingly on the rise. They are the unspectacular aftermath of slow-grinding scrums of linemen that end when a ball carrier is judged, strictly by guesswork, to have advanced a few millimeters of the tip of the ball through the imaginary plane rising from the end zone’s perimeter.

Yet without chips in the ball or sensors on the field, a definitive judgment that a ball has broken said plane is sometimes impossible to make, even with a half-dozen television cameras capturing every frame while using super/ultra/monumentally slow-motion technology. Even so, image-conscious officials feel duty-bound to make swift, rectitudinous judgments. Yet too often they’re based solely on a hunch.

One such call was costly to the Seahawks in their NFC Divisional playoff loss at Green Bay in early January. On third-and-goal from the Seattle 1-yard line with 9:49 left in the second quarter, Green Bay’s Aaron Jones took a handoff, ran into the backside of left guard Elton Jenkins, then was wrestled down by Seattle DE Quinton Jefferson and LB Bobby Wagner. He landed on his back with the ball on his chest.

Jefferson and Wagner, too busy wrangling Jones to worry about a film crew’s line of vision, blocked the camera’s view of the ball. Had Jones broken the plane? Who knows?

After much review the call was upheld: Touchdown.

“I thought at first it was short,” Pereira said on that occasion. “But . . . I don’t think there’s anything that would allow you to overturn it.” The call earned Green Bay six points. Seattle lost by five, 28-23. Such is life in the Nebulous Football League.

So, if it’s a touchdown when the ball pierces the front plane of the end zone, what about the planes rising up on all sides of the end zone’s perimeter? Must a ball always be inside those planes while possessed and controlled by a player?

Think back to Week 5 when Seattle hosted the Rams on a Thursday night game. QB Russell Wilson lofted a pass to the back corner of the end zone that, improbably, WR Tyler Lockett caught on his tiptoes while the rest of his body, including his hands that somehow caught that ball, was leaning outside the rear and side planes of the end zone.

It was an incredible catch. Yet the ball was never within the end zone’s invisible vertical perimeter when Lockett somehow reeled it in and demonstrated possession. Should that have been ruled a score? The refs said yes, and I agree. Lockett’s toes were touching the end zone. It was a thrilling effort and an amazing display of both athleticism and concentration. That, sports fans, deserves six points.

Fans gripe that expanded usage of unnecessary roughness calls has made the game too fluffy for their tastes. If that’s your point of view, aren’t the mirage-like touchdowns credited to Williams and Jones (and who knows how many others?) equally galling to a football purist?

Players like to point out that football is a physical game, a man’s game. Fine. Then get some of your manly self and the ball into the end zone if you want to be handed a heaping helping of six points for your effort.

Maybe the worst moments in football are those farcical, jack-in-the-box lunges quarterbacks execute to momentarily thrust the ball through the imaginary plane until an angry linebacker justifiably pile-drives them four yards backward.

Gymnasts would call this move a punch front tuck. In football, it’s a Leap of Lunacy — and ball-carriers are not even required to stick the landing.

Honestly, these plays look like they were drawn up by Monty Python, straight out of the Ministry of Silly Walks. To award six points for such goofiness is insulting to anyone who cares about upholding logical athletic/competitive standards.

At best those are technical touchdowns, because the ball carrier touches nothing—he just briefly gouges the end zone’s air space with some fraction of the ball. Gak. Football doesn’t get any wimpier than that. That’s worth six points?

No, it’s not, and it never should be again.

Here’s a possible solution, one maybe the XFL (or even the NFL) can consider: If rule-makers still think a break-the-plane maneuver is actually a scoring play, let it continue to exist, but devalue it so it only counts, say, three points, not six. And no PAT attempt for you. Lame TDs don’t deserve one.

You want the big payout of a half-dozen points? All six of these, as ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt might say? Then some body part of the player advancing the ball must touch down in the end zone. That’s hitting pay dirt, as end zones were nicknamed long ago, back when facemasks and padding were minimal and touchdowns were touchdowns. This is a contact sport, right? Then require players to make some old-school contact with the end zone to put points on the board.

The minimum requirement for a full six points should be a player’s hand gripping the ball with the wrist hitting the goal line. I’m OK with letting refs make a wrist-is-in ruling. They have a better chance of seeing that clearly, either live or on replay, than an arbitrary blink of time as the ball floats, wraithlike, in the vicinity of an end zone’s invisible plane.

Think of the strategy challenges this would present. In the Super Bowl, would Andy Reid have been content to take a three-point plane-buster touchdown and a 20-20 tie with 2:44 to play? Or, with the ball now placed inside the one and facing fourth-and-goal, would he have had the guts to go for six? Wouldn’t that be more exciting and more rewarding than accepting the no-touch mystery touchdown awarded to Williams for his pylon flyover?

C’mon, it makes sense. Receivers are required to have both feet in bounds anywhere on the field in order to be credited with a catch. (The XFL is requiring only one, by the way.) That’s a significant athletic demand for sideline receptions, which are not that uncommon. For six points, football’s most highly valued moment, we need to see a player’s body, with the ball in his possession, make some type of contact with the end zone. It’s supposed to be a touchdown. The reward should equal the effort.

No more cheap scores. No more lame touchdowns. No more guesswork.

You want six points? Earn them.

Terry Wood is a regular freelance contributor to The Seattle Times, covering sports and outdoor recreation, and is the former lead blogger for REI. His bylines have appeared in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News and many other publications. He can be reached at @TerryWoodNW.


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YourThoughts

  • Effzee

    So then, if a pass recipient runs into the end zone, turns around, stretches to make a catch where the ball is at the two yard line, but he is dragging his toes inside the goal line, is that a touchdown?

    • art thiel

      There’s plenty of corruption that goes around the NFL, but I don’t think it reaches rules like this. Whether it’s a microchip or Terry’s revision, the TV and ticket revs are already in the vault. Fans aren’t going to abandon the game over inaccuracy of calls, although it is annoying. Terry’s point is improvement in clarity and efficiency by awarding a touchdown for touching down. The logic is almost poetic.

      • Effzee

        Agree. The wrist-is-in rule seems to make sense. You can’t have a QB sliding to get his foot across the line with the ball still in the field of play and call it a touchdown just because his foot “touched down” in the end zone. Its got to be some part of the ball *and* some part of the body.

    • Kirkland

      In the early days, football carried its forefather’s rugby try rule that you have to place the ball on the ground to score the touchdown. (I’ve seen old film of this.) I don’t know when football changed it to the current method.

      • art thiel

        Thanks for the comparative history. I don’t know when or why football changed to the invisible plane.

    • Easy fix for this scenario. Ball must break the plane AND player must be legally down in the end zone. Ergo, Lockett’s catch stands but your example doesn’t b/c ball never crosses. If the ball crosses the plane but the player never touches paydirt, no touchdown, ball out a 1 yd line. (this is the SB example used in the article).

      • art thiel

        Wilson’s pass did cross the goal line on the way to Lockett, right?

  • Sonics79

    So where would you spot the ball if the player broke the plane with the ball, but didn’t touch the endzone? At the 1″ line?
    And would the same apply for first downs? You have to down the ball past the line to gain?

    • Terry Wood

      Good questions.

      The objective of the game is to score points.Thus it’s fair, I believe, to expect scoring plays to meet higher standards than nonscroing plays.

      If a player breaks the goal line’s plane with the ball but makes no contact with the end zone, apply existing forward-progress rules (which, minus microchips and sensors, admittedly can be hazy) but stop short of awarding six points. In the Super Bowl/Damien Williams example, yes, the one-inch line would be a fair spot. Likewise the Aaron Jones example. Individual factors would determine the spot on any given play.

      When the goal line is not involved, such as a first-down attempt, continue to apply existing forward-progress rules. When a ball-carrier’s body part other than a foot or hand hits the ground (or he runs out of bounds), the location of the ball (as judged by an official or by replay) determines the spot. I would argue to not allow forward progress on those absurd leap-and-lunge maneuvers. It’s where the player makes contact with the ground while maintaining possession of the ball that should determine the spot.

      On the question of a receiver catching a ball with his toes just across the goal line but with his body leaning over the one- or two-yard-line — that’s not a touchdown. The modified goal-line rule I advocate would require the ball and some part of his body to be in the end zone beyond the goal line to result in a score. In this case, the ball is not across the goal line, and thus no score.

      Then why would the Tyler Lockett example be ruled a touchdown? Because his catch was made beyond the goal line while he dragged his toes inside the end zone. The goal line is the only edge of the end zone’s four sides that initiates a scoring play, and for the athleticism and excitement such an effort generates, Lockett’s catch is worthy of six points. In a similar spirit, sideline catches made with feet inbounds while a receiver leans out of bounds while securing the ball (seemingly defying gravity in the process) should be ruled legit receptions. Exceptional athletic efforts deserve to be rewarded. It’s why we watch the game.

  • jafabian

    What if a players helmet crosses the end zone line? Is it a touchdown? I’m sure Vinnie Testaverde would support that.

    • art thiel

      Yes, Vinnie would back it, and maybe Dennis Erickson would still be coaching the Seahawks.

  • Kristafarian

    How ’bout they put a little sensor in the ball,
    one that knows where the goaline is?

    This is 2020, is it not?

    Thanks for the Viewage, Art!
    (I was pulling for SF, but they
    lost this time, too. Sad.)

    • Kristafarian

      oh — looks like Effzee beat me to it.

      • Kristafarian

        um — looks like Art beat us both to it but Effzee tells us how it might work were there only a little Dedication to honest football.

    • art thiel

      Terry mentioned the microchip idea, which has been around for years. I’m sure a maker would donate the technology for the free pub. Some ideas just take longer for non-techy owners to accept.

      • Kristafarian

        Yes, Terry!
        My reading ‘comprenshion’ can be … spotty at times…
        Thanks Art!

    • Kirkland

      German soccer has a system similar to this. They place Hawk-Eye cameras — the ones tennis uses to see if a shot was out or in — on the goal line, and if the ball completely crosses the goal line, it shoots a signal to the referee’s watch that it’s a goal.

      The NHL used the infamous “FoxTrax” puck with a chip in it in the ’90s, they’re looking at similar technology again but for analytics and perhaps goal-line technology.

  • Husky73

    Going back 100 years, that’s why it was called a touch down.

  • Seattle Psycho

    They should just put cameras in the pylons. One on top and one on the side looking down the goal line. If after looking at those views you still can’t tell for certain the ball crossed, no TD no matter what the call on the field was.