Jerry Markbreit's answers

What does illegal man downfield mean? -- Paul Szeliski, Chicago

There is a foul for a man illegally downfield on both punt plays and pass plays. On pass plays, only eligible receivers may advance beyond the line of scrimmage before the pass is thrown. When an ineligible lineman goes more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage prior to the pass, he has committed a foul, which carries a 5-yard penalty from the previous line of scrimmage. On punt plays, only the widest positioned player of the kicking team is allowed to advance beyond the line of scrimmage prior to the ball being kicked. All other players are given the same one-yard cushion before a foul is called.

How would the following be ruled: A ballcarrier is running with the ball, trips and falls without being touched by an opponent and holds the ball out, which hits the ground as he does and the ball pops out. The play isn't over because the ballcarrier wasn't down by contact, but it can't be a fumble, because the ground cannot cause a fumble. Am I correct in my assumptions? -- Mike Tammaro, Aurora, Ill.

On your play, the loose ball is, in fact, a fumble. The ground cannot cause a fumble when the player in possession is down by contact from an opponent. When a runner goes down on his own, the ground can cause a fumble, and the ball continues in play.

Prior to the start of an NFL game, are there infractions that the NFL will watch for and can penalize for, such as the Warren Sapp incidents of "strolling" through the opposing team's warmups? I know the NFL has now asked Warren to stop this behavior, but prior to this, was there any official rule? Or do officials even look for this? Thanks -- Wayne Voss, Wadsworth, Ill.

Fifty minutes prior to the kickoff of all NFL games, the officialsposition themselves on the field, watching for any such infraction. If one is detected, it is reported to the league office, and appropriate action is taken at a later date. There are no infractions that occur prior to a game that can be penalized at the start of a game. These infractions generally draw a substantial fine imposed by the league office.

Pass interference penalties more than any other can determine the outcome of a game. I totally support the NFL officiating as the best among all sports. Nonetheless the interference call is too subjective for my tastes. Many replays have shown nothing, or at worst incidental contact. Would you support replay authorization of this currently disallowed review? If not, why not? -- Mark Malfese, Northville, Mich.

The replay system, as it exists today, cannot get involved with passinterference or, for that matter, with any other foul with the exception of 12 men on the field or illegal touching of a forward pass. If the replay rules were changed to get involved with fouls, as you suggest, every close play would be challenged and the games would be extended way past an acceptable time limit. Pass interference is the toughest call in the game. Fifty percent of the viewers generally do not agree with the call. That's what makes football so wonderful and interesting.

Jerry, as a follow-up to a question you answered last week: Let's say a pass is completed over the middle and the receiver is tackled with 2:05 remaining in the first half. The clock runs and the 2-minute warning is reached. If the defensive team believes the pass should have been ruled incomplete, can they challenge the play since it ended with 2:05 left, or do they have to rely on the booth to challenge the play once the 2-minute warning has been reached? -- Mike Berkowitz, Marquette, Mich.

The two-minute warning is not established until the referee stops the clock and announces on the microphone that "This is the two-minute warning." If a play went off at 2:01 of the second quarter and did not end until 1:50, the two-minute warning would be announced with less than two minutes remaining. In your play, the coach can challenge the incompletion because the two-minute warning had not been established.

At the end of the Bears-Chargers game, Thomas ran the ball for what was originally called a touchdown. There was a facemask penalty on the call, which the Bears declined. The refs announced the penalty, that it was declined, and called it a touchdown. Since it was inside of two minutes, the refs upstairs decided to review the play to see if the ball crossed the plane before Thomas' knee was down. It was determined that it was a touchdown. My question is this: If Thomas had been ruled down before crossing the line and the touchdown was reversed, what would have happened to the facemask call? Could the Bears, after declining it on the assumption that the score was good, then accept it and get the play over again? -- Chris Ryder, Hobart, Ind.

If replay had ruled Thomas down, short of the goal line, the Bearscould have accepted the facemask penalty, even though they had originally declined it. I did not see the play, but if the foul was for a major facemask, which carries a 15-yard penalty, the penalty would have been enforced on the kickoff if the touchdown was good. A 5-yard facemask would not have been carried over to the kickoff.

Jerry, what is the rule regarding holding a player to prevent him from obtaining a loose ball? During the opening kickoff of the Eagles-Falcons game in Week 9, the ball was fumbled by the Falcons' Allen Rossum. Then the Eagles' Sheldon Brown held Rossum while fellow Eagle Sean Morey recovered the ball. Brown never appeared to be making an attempt to recover the ball. I thought a player could only push, pull, or hold an opponent while trying to recover a loose ball himself, not for a teammate to recover the ball. -- Christopher Wulff, Sterling, Va.

You are correct that a player can only push, pull, or hold an opponent while trying to get at a ballcarrier or recover a loose ball. Under NFL rules, a player cannot hold an opponent, thereby allowing a teammate to recover the ball. I did not see the play in question, but the officials are very alert to plays that involve loose balls, and I am sure that in the opinion of the covering officials, there was no apparent foul.

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