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How NFL coaches are outsmarting the rule book more often than ever

The NFL’s rule book is complex—sometimes too complex—but the league’s best coaches have learned how to play its loopholes to their advantage.

On a fourth-down play in the closing seconds of Seattle’s 31–25 Week 9 win against Buffalo, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor escaped from the pocket to his left, looking for a game-tying score. Richard Sherman, defending receiver Walter Powell on the opposite side of the end zone, leveled Powell right in front of an official before the ball was thrown. The contact was clearly made after five yards, and many believed Sherman should have been penalized for illegal contact.

In response to a Deadspin tweet insinuating that he should have been flagged, Sherman shot back,​ “that’s what happens when the Qb scrambles..... check the rule book.”

Sherman is right.

Rule 8, Section 4, Article 7—“...if the quarterback leaves the pocket area with the ball in his possession, the restrictions on illegal contact and an illegal cut block both end.”

The official 2016 NFL rule book is 88 pages long, which doesn’t seem like much at first. But think of the rule book like that daunting novel assigned in school where the physical pages are longer, the type is smaller and skimming is impractical.

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It comes with a preface that includes a reminder that the term “illegal” in the rule book does not connote illegality under any public law. It lays out, in detail down to a fourth of an inch, the proper width of lines on the field. That all happens before you get to the official first page.

In the NFL rule book, there are secrets waiting to be mined. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is widely hailed as a rule book master. He knows what’s allowed, what’s pushing the envelope and what obscure rule he can use to his advantage that the other coach never even considered.

“It’s a lot for the officials to understand. It’s a lot for the coaches to understand. And it’s a lot for the players to understand,” Belichick told reporters last year. “But in the end we try to look at the rule book as a useful tool, something that can benefit us if we know what we have to work with, how to make the best of a situation based on the way rules are written and try to maximize our opportunities there.”

But in this NFL season, there have been a handful of other teams that have found one sentence or dependent clause in the rule book and used it to their advantage. With the Packers, Seahawks and, most recently, the Broncos, players are making athletic plays that benefit their teams only after reading every. single. word.

The first, and possibly best, example came in Week 3’s game between the Lions and Packers. Late in the first quarter, the Lions kicked off to the Packers leading 7–3. Sam Martin’s kick bounced in front of the goal line, then past the goal line and took a hop backward to the 3.

Ty Montgomery performed a half-circle around the ball as the Lions’ gunners closed in. Montgomery stood on the out-of-bounds white and reached out with his right arm to corral the ball while never establishing himself in bounds.

Officially, the kick was out of bounds and Green Bay got the ball at the 40 rather than being backed up at its own end zone.

Rule 3, Section 21, Article 3, Item 2—“a loose ball is out of bounds when it touches a boundary line or anything that is on or outside such line, including a player.”

Rule 6, Section 2, Article 3—When a kick goes out of bounds, “the receiving team may elect to take possession of the ball 25 yards from the spot of the kick,” which would place it at the 40-yard line.

That wasn’t the first time Mike McCarthy had a player do it, either. In 2012, Randall Cobb did something similar to get the ball out to the 40. Clearly McCarthy knows his rules.

It was the best manipulation of the rule book since Belichick fooled the Ravens and most of the NFL world in a 2014 AFC divisional round game. Down 28–14 in the fourth quarter, Belichick sent out four offensive linemen and six players who would normally be eligible receivers, though teams are only permitted five. Running back Shane Vereen indicated to officials he was an ineligible receiver and ran backward at the snap. Meanwhile, Michael Hoomanawanui, lined up at what’s normally the left tackle spot, sped forward and caught a 14-yard pass from Tom Brady to get the first down. The Patriots scored on that drive and eventually won 35–31 en route to their fourth Super Bowl title.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh complained that his team didn’t have enough time to digest everything that was happening, but the officials disagreed. In the off-season, the rule was adjusted, and wouldn’t you know, Harbaugh employed a similar play for a touchdown in Week 2 of the following season.

“Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out,” Brady said after the playoff game. “We obviously knew what we were doing, and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us.”

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The most recent athletic manipulation of the rule book that has been weaponized is leaping over the long snapper on placekicks. Seattle’s Kam Chancellor has proven to be the best at it, but no leap has produced a more game-changing result than the one that sparked Week 11’s controversial finish in New Orleans.

With the Saints preparing to take a one-point lead in the closing seconds of a tie game, Denver’s Justin Simmons jumped over the Saints’ snapper to block the extra point try. The Broncos scooped up the ball and took it back for a two-point score that resulted in the difference in the game. The play is barely legal, but that’s all it needs to be.

Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(s)—“running forward and leaping in an obvious attempt to block” a kick “and landing on players” would result in a 15-yard penalty.

But Simmons jumped over the snapper without landing on him, which made the play legal.

“It’s something you work on all the time,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said after the game. “It’s risky to do because if you touch someone, it’s a penalty. There’s certain situations in games where you say it’s worth the risk, and that was one of them.”

Some of these rules have unintended consequences. The most notable of those rules has been the change to touchbacks after kickoffs, which moved the ball from the 20 to the 25 in hopes of cutting out some of the dangerous kick returns that involve high-speed collisions. Instead, some coaches have instructed their kickers to kick to or shy of the goal line to force a run back in hopes of pinning opponents inside the 25.

In an interview with SI as part of its Football in America series, commissioner Roger Goodell said he was working closely with football operations senior advisor Tom Coughlin to examine some of these rules and their effects.

“How do we look at these different things that we might want the competition committee to consider after the season’s over?” Goodell said. “Techniques that we see developing that we might want to take out of the game. And you look for the unintended consequences, which is a big part of it. So when you make a rule change, it’s going to cause another change.”

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According to SI’s Greg Bedard, some of those changes have already taken place. After 49ers coach Chip Kelly instructed his defense to hold the Saints’ eligible receivers late in the first half of their game two weeks ago to prevent a touchdown, the league acted to put a stop to such a play, which ultimately resulted in a New Orleans field goal. If those blatantly strategic holds happen more than once in a game, officials have been instructed to call a 15-yard penalty for a “palpably unfair act” (that phrase is all over the rule book) and put time back on the clock.

Does the NFL want to eliminate all the rule manipulations, though? Surely, the league’s out-of-bounds kickoff rule could not have been created to reward teams the ball at the 40 when it was kicked in bounds at the goal line, but Green Bay and McCarthy found a way around that. In fact, Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, praised the Packers for the play in a video after the game.

“This is a really smart move. I wish you could have been in here in Art McNally GameDay Central when it happened,” Blandino, who declined to comment on this story through a spokesman, said on the video. “We were all really excited, and that tells you where our priorities are. When you watch the play, it’s such a heads-up play by the Green Bay returner.”

Seattle coach Pete Carroll has coached in games where at least three obscure rules have poked their heads up in recent years. He has overseen leaps over the line by Chancellor and Bobby Wagner to block field goals, he was the benefactor of a missed illegal batting call last season and, two weeks ago, he saw Sherman legally lay out Powell.

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“You have to do it legally,” Carroll told a local Seattle radio station. “You can’t take a cheap shot on a guy. [Sherman] did it exactly right. It just happened to be a very physical shot. But you have a chance to eliminate receivers. That’s what you’re trying to get done in that situation—to plaster them.”

This is another loophole the NFL could look to close. Sherman and Powell were on the opposite side of the field from the play, but what if they had been on the side to which Taylor was rolling? Presumably, the play still would have been legal. And what does that say to other mobile quarterbacks like league MVP Cam Newton, two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger or even Seattle’s own Russell Wilson? Can their receivers be legally eliminated from plays when they frequently leave the pocket area?

NFL coaches will continue to comb through the 88-page rule book looking for loopholes to exploit, and the NFL will have to decide how much it will tolerate its rules being manipulated.

By the way, it’s no coincidence that every coach but one mentioned in this piece has at least one Super Bowl title to his name.