For all the scorn heaped on NFL players, coaches, executives and owners, no one who works in football takes more heat than the officials.
Every game every official works, they're accused by someone of being fans of both teams, taking money from gangsters, acting on behalf of the NFL to make sure the "right" team wins or being mentally or physically handicapped.
Yet the 120-page Official Playing Rules and Casebook of the National Football League contains an incredible number of rules, sections, articles, clauses, exceptions and inclusions. There are also dozens of "accepted rulings," real-world interpretations that may clarify—or muddle—any of the above.
You think it's easy to do the job that officials do? You think you know the rules of the game?
Well, let's see how you do on this quiz of 10 of the NFL's most obtuse, arcane rules. We'll even make it easy on you and make it multiple choice. NFL officials have to take quizzes like this all the time to prove they haven't forgotten any of the legal quirks and twists in NFL law.
You only need to take one short one.
Note: All examples in this quiz are hypothetical.
Mark your answers in the polls, and check the answer key at the bottom. No cheating!
1. What must the referee do?
The Arizona Cardinals, visiting the Washington Redskins, send their captains out for the opening coin toss.
The referee asks the Cardinals to select "heads" or "tails." The Cardinals captains decide they'd rather call it in the air.
The referee tells the Cardinals they must choose before the toss, but the Cardinals refuse.
What must the referee do?
2. What happens to the game clock?
The Atlanta Falcons have the ball with 1:37 left before halftime.
Trying to get within field-goal range before time runs out, quarterback Matt Ryan drops back to pass. Before he can get off his intended pass, he is sacked.
What happens to the game clock?
3. How may the officials interpret this play?
After a snap and handoff, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson carries the ball through the Baltimore Ravens defensive line and into the open field.
Rookie safety Matt Elam, the last defender Johnson has not passed, is caught off-balance by a Johnson cut. As Johnson runs by, Elam kicks his leg out at the ball Johnson is carrying.
The kick connects, Johnson loses possession and Elam recovers the ball for the Ravens at the Baltimore 27-yard line.
How may the officials interpret this play?
4. What happens now?
With just three seconds left in the fourth quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are forced to punt from deep in their own territory.
Protecting a two-point lead, Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen kicks for maximum hang time, hoping to prevent a long return by Bills returner Leodis McKelvin.
McKelvin, though, signals for a fair catch while the ball is in the air and catches it at the Tampa Bay 47-yard line. The game clock reads 00:00—time has expired.
What happens now?
5. How must the officials rule this play?
With just under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Carolina Panthers are driving for a score.
Already sitting on a three-point lead over the St. Louis Rams, quarterback Cam Newton throws for the back of the end zone, trying to put the Rams away for good.
Instead, Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan intercepts the pass in the end zone and attempts to run it out.
Before Finnegan crosses the goal line, though, he attempts a long lateral to teammate James Laurinaitis, who is just beyond the goal line. Panthers receiver Domenik Hixon intercepts the lateral and crosses the goal line with the ball.
The field judge throws a penalty flag into the end zone for Finnegan's illegal forward pass.
How must the officials rule this play?
6. What happens now?
During the regular season, the Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks play to a 21-21 tie after four quarters.
Seattle wins the overtime coin toss and elects to receive.
The Seahawks run nearly all 15 minutes off the clock as they drive all the way to the Chicago 1-yard line. They unsuccessfully try to punch it into the end zone, and time expires before the Bears get an overtime possession.
What happens now?
7. Who is responsible for keeping the official game time?
Who is responsible for keeping the official game time?
8. What happens?
The Cincinnati Bengals begin the opening drive of their game against the San Francisco 49ers after the opening kickoff sails out of the back of the end zone.
From his own 20-yard line, quarterback Andy Dalton unleashes a deep ball down the sideline intended for receiver A.J. Green.
Green is interfered with by cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha at the San Francisco 40-yard line, and the field judge throws a penalty flag.
While arguing the pass was uncatchable and no foul should have been called, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis bumps into the referee, who assesses an unsportsmanlike conduct foul and disqualifies (ejects) Willis.
Dalton, a Bengals captain, informs the referee they decline Willis' penalty and disqualification and accept the longer pass interference penalty.
9. How is this play scored?
The Cleveland Browns, down 34-27 to the San Diego Chargers in the fourth quarter, drive for and score a touchdown. With the score now 34-33, kicker Shayne Graham lines up for the potential game-tying kick.
However, holder Jason Campbell is unable to handle the snap, and the ball bounces toward the sideline with both teams in pursuit.
San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o bats the ball away from Campbell, and it bounces out of the back of the Chargers end zone.
How is this play scored?
10. With no suitable alternatives, could the referees call for a ball from the stands?
It was a dark and stormy night at EverBank Field.
The natural grass was soaking wet, mud had caked on everything and the hometown Jacksonville Jaguars had long since exhausted their supply of dry, clean footballs. So had the visiting New York Jets, who had only brought a few.
As the Jets lined up to take what would be their final drive, center Nick Mangold requested a fresh ball, as was his right.
With no suitable alternatives, could the referees call for a ball from the stands?
Imagine having to make these calls in an instant, surrounded by over 100 angry behemoths who don't like you, in a room full of 65,000 angry loonies who don't like you, while an audience of millions watches everything you do with a jaundiced eye.
If you're lucky, only a small percentage of them will accuse you of being an idiot, a cheat, a degenerate thief or a fan of the other team. If not...well, let's not think about that.
Well, how did you do? Share your results in the comments!
Question 1: 3
See: Rule 4, Section 2, Article 2.
Refusal to comply with the rules of the coin toss is a foul and grants the other team the choice to receive or choose ends at the start of the first half, second half and overtime.
Question 2: 1
See: Rule 4, Section 4 and Accepted Ruling 4.7.
The clock stops on a sack until the ball is re-set, but the play clock starts when the ref signals for time to stop. But the exception is that in the last two minutes of the half, the clock does not stop. It's just a normal play.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misstated that Answer No. 2 is correct. That would only be true outside of the final two minutes of a half.
Question 3: Both 2 and 3
Two is per Rule 12, Section 4, Article 3. Per 12-4-3, though, an illegal kick can be ruled a palpably unfair act.
Per 12-3-3, a palpably unfair act can result in player disqualification, and the referee and crew may assess a penalty of whatever distance they judge fair, including awarding a score.
Question 4: 1
Per Rule 11, Section 4, Article 3, a team that fields a punt with a fair catch may immediately make a fair catch kick from the yard line of the fair catch, with the holder placing the the ball directly on that yard line (no snap), and the kicker getting a free run-up as on a kickoff.
The team defending a fair catch kick must line up at least 10 yards back past the line of scrimmage. This is allowed even if time expires before the fair catch is made (see Rule 10, Section 2, Article 4).
The fair catch kick was last attempted by the Green Bay Packers against the Detroit Lions in 2008, and the 69-yard try fell just short.
Question 5: 1
See: Rule 11, Section 5, Article 1.
A foul committed in the end zone does result in a safety, but if a player intercepts a ball in his own end zone and then completes an illegal forward pass while still in the end zone, the ball remains alive.
If the illegal forward pass is instead intercepted, the ball still remains alive, and the second interceptor may advance the ball and score.
Question 6: 3
See: Rule 16, Section 1, Article 3.
In the regular season, if the entire overtime period elapses without a score, the game ends in a tie—regardless of whether both teams have had a possession.
In the playoffs, a second overtime period would commence (and as many after that as were necessary to determine a victor).
Question 7: 2
See: Rule 15, Article 5.
Unlike other sports, such as soccer, where an on-field official is responsible for keeping time, the publicly displayed scoreboard time is the official time. That said, one of the responsibilities of the line judge is to be the manual timekeeper.
In case the scoreboard becomes inoperative, the line judge keeps the official time.
The line judge is also responsible for notifying the referee of certain important time intervals, and the referee may consult the line judge for his manual time estimate.
A field captain of either team may ask a line judge for a time-remaining estimate up to three times per half.
Question 8: 3
See: Rule 14, Section 6 and Accepted Ruling 14.62.
A disqualification can't be declined. However, penalty distance can be declined (such as when a punting team takes an intentional delay of game to give their punter more room).
In this case, the Bengals accept both penalties but only the distance of one.
Question 9: 2
See: Rule 11, Section 3, Article 2 and Accepted Ruling 11.4.
Ordinarily, this results in a safety. When this happens after a touchdown, the attempting team is awarded one point.
Question 10: 1
See: Rule 2, Section 2.
It's the home team's responsibility to furnish usable balls, but if their supply runs out, the visiting team can be asked for some of theirs.
In the case of poor field conditions, a center can request a fresh ball. If neither team can supply one, the officials may use the "best available ball."
By rule, this must be reported to the commissioner.