Mike Pereira explains why idea of a ‘free play’ is a myth in the NFL

Mike Pereira: Atlanta gets it right where other NFL stadiums get it wrong

Mike Pereira, an NFL rules analyst for Fox Sports, explains how the Atlanta Falcons give families a break, conscious of the fact the team's new stadium was publicly funded.
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Mike Pereira, an NFL rules analyst for Fox Sports, explains how the Atlanta Falcons give families a break, conscious of the fact the team's new stadium was publicly funded.

Each week throughout the NFL season, Mike Pereira, the league’s former vice president of officiating, will answer readers’ questions about officiating and league rules.

To put your questions up to Pereira’s review, email them to and include your name and location in the submission.

Q: It strikes me as strange that an offside penalty essentially gives the opposing offense the unlimited upside of a “free play.” While some other penalties do this in effect, the offside penalty feels different because it changes behavior and the offense is immediately able to act upon it. It feels like an awfully severe penalty against a defense for simply jumping offside. Why not just a whistle and 5 yards?

– John Tener, Winston-Salem, N.C.

A: This is an interesting question and one that I am often asked.

I think it is the terminology of “free play” that bothers people. I would ask you, John, didn’t your parents tell you to be wary when someone offers you something free? My parents often told me, “Nothing in life is free.”

Well, I think the same holds true here. Suppose the offense was lined up in an illegal formation. The penalties would offset. Same would hold true if the offense gets called for holding or offensive pass interference.

Let’s take it a step further and say the offense gets called for a chop block or any other personal foul. Then the offense would get penalized 15 yards for their personal foul and the defensive offside would get disregarded by rule.

So, in reality, nothing in life is really free, either on or off the field.

Q: I believe penalties are caused by one of two issues. Either the offender is beaten by a better player or the play is a bad design by the coaches. I think either problem is created when the number of elite players is exceeded by the number of players needed to fill all of the positions. What are your thoughts?

– Rob Kearney, Rancho Cordova

A: You win the Deepest Question of the Year Award.

I think the biggest causes of penalties are lack of concentration and discipline. Consider the fact that up to 70 percent of all penalties are false starts, offside, delay of game, etc. These are penalties that are clearly avoidable. If we could get rid of these, we would have a smoother game.

There is certainly merit in your comment that fouls are caused by one player being better than his opponent. That applies to pretty much all phases of the game. Sunday, in Atlanta, Adrian Clayborn overpowered Dallas left tackle Chaz Green and gouged the Cowboys with six sacks. Green was the backup left tackle, but it demonstrates how one player can dominate another player.

Dallas, by the way, was called for six offensive holding penalties in that game. That could be called being “overmatched.”

So, here is my final answer: I think penalties are caused by lapses in: 1) concentration; 2) discipline; 3) technique; and 4) talent.

Q: Last week, I was watching a college game between the Akron Zips and Miami (Ohio) RedHawks. At one point, the quarterback for Miami went back to pass, found no receivers open and took off running. After a few yards he went into a feet-first slide. The officiating question became, where do you mark the ball? This was critical as it was third down and his slide was at the line to gain. I’ve always thought it was where the ball was when the QB’s butt, arm or any part of his legs touched the ground. After viewing the replay, the referee announced that they marked it “where the quarterback started his slide.” Where do you mark the ball in this situation, and is it different in college versus the pros?

– Steve Vaczovsky, Stockton

A: There is nothing better than a question involving the Akron Zips and the Miami RedHawks from a guy from Stockton.

This is a new rule in college and it is a bit tricky. The rule basically states that the runner – it doesn’t have to be the quarterback – is down as soon as he starts to break down into a feet-first slide. He is essentially down when his butt starts to drop toward the ground.

A couple of reasons were given for this change. First, it didn’t seem right that a runner could slide feet first, avoiding contact, and get additional yardage from the spot where he started to break down to where he first touched the ground with any body part other than his hand or foot.

The second reason is player safety. By ending the play when the runner breaks down, defenders get further notice to lay off.

The NFL rule is different, but the idea is the same. In the NFL, you lose the additional yardage from where the slide starts to where it ends. In college, you lose the yardage from where you break down to where you first touch the ground.

It likely works out to be pretty much the same distance in either case.

Mike Pereira is a rules analyst for Fox Sports who lives in Sacramento.

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