About the Force Out Rule in the NFL

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When the National Football League voted to eliminate the “force out” rule in 2008, the change simplified what constitutes a catch by requiring a receiver or interceptor to have both feet in bounds while having control of the football when it is caught. Before the rule change, the referee had to judge whether the catch would have been made if the receiver or defender had not been pushed out of bounds before controlling the pass.

Referees Like the Rule

  • Referees like the rule change because it took an often controversial judgment call out of their hands. Before the rule, referees had to determine whether or not a receiver had control of the football and had to judge whether a receiver would have been able to get both feet in bounds had he not been shoved out of bounds before the catch was complete. Tough call. The rule change removes a very questionable variable for a referee to determine.

The Defense Likes the Rule

  • The rule gives defenders a weapon they didn't have before the rule change. Before, they primarily had to attack the ball, wary of colliding with the receiver for fear of an interference penalty. Now, defenders can attack both ball and receiver, as long as they don't interfere with the receiver before he touches the ball. If a receiver touches the ball with one foot in bounds, the defender can push him out of bounds and it is not considered a catch.

Receivers Don't Like the Rule

  • Before the rule change, the sideline on fade and out patterns were the friends of receivers, enabling them to make best use of their athleticism to keep both feet in bounds while securing the football on a pass. Under the new rule, as soon as a potential receiver touches the ball near the sideline, he can be shoved out of bounds negating the catch and denying the receiver the opportunity to get a second foot in bounds to complete the catch. Titans receiver Brandon Jones spoke for many receivers by saying that the change “shrinks the field” for receivers, particularly on fade routes so popular in the end zone.

Coaches' Reactions Ambivalent

  • Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy felt the rule change may affect play-calling in certain circumstances but favored the removal of subjective calls on the part of referees. “I like the rule. I think it will be much easier to officiate consistently.” He wasn't alone in a sampling of coaches. Gary Kubiak, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio all echoed his sentiments to varying degrees. Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee that recommended the rule change said, “We went back and looked at dozens (of plays) that were not ruled force outs, half of them were and half of them weren't. It's a hard play to officiate. So we just eliminated it. You either get the feet in or you don't.”

The Net Effect

  • The new rule eliminates a lot of controversy, as Fisher points out. It also will slightly change pass routes to the sidelines, as coaches like Kubiak maintain. Fans aren't strongly clamoring either for or against the rule change. If anybody besides referees are strong proponents, its defensive backs. Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson put it this way: "A lot of things have gone against us as DBs (defensive backs) in the past. To get one of these rules on our side is a good thing. If he's in the air, I'm ...pushing him out, I'm doing everything I can."

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