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Everything You Didn't Know You Wanted To Know About Illegal Touching

There was mass confusion in the Tennessee Titans game against the Houston Texans when illegal touching was called on a punt in the second half. A lot of the confusion was set off by the announcers on CBS not knowing the rules. Luckily for us at MCM, we have an in-house official. Here he has answers the question; Illegal Touching - What's Up With That?

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Writer's note: This post really got away from me. Sorry. I really wanted to explain it in depth and not just a one sentence comment.

And another: it appears that the NFL rule book calls it "first touching"  (like high school football) instead of "illegal touching." The concept is the same and Jeff Triplette gave an NCAA explanation!

So the Titans had a play occur in their game against the Texans that is actually a very common play that still managed to leave fans of both teams scratching their heads: an illegal touching on a punt. So let's see what the officials did right and what they missed on this particular play.

Disclaimer: I am not an NFL official, nor do I play one on TV. Nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Kicking plays, at all levels of football, are consistently the most difficult plays to officiate. Why is that? Because kick plays have the most complex rules and there are just fewer kick plays during the game. But to know what is going on on the field, first we should cover some definitions so we know what we are talking about.

The definition of "kick" - It's important to note that during a single play of a football game, the word "kick" can have two different meanings. A kick describes the play; It's either a free kick or a scrimmage kick (more on those in a sec). A kick is also the status of the ball. Once the ball has been kicked (stay with me here) the loose ball is referred to as a "kick" until it is possessed. This is important because while the ball is still a "kick," there are special rules regarding who may touch and/or advance the ball when and special penalty enforcement rules if a penalty occurs during the play. I put "until it is possessed" in bold because that is the distinction. Possession. Not just touching by either team (touching, not possessing, of a loose ball is referred to as a muff).

OK. There are two different kinds of kicks right? Free kicks and scrimmage kicks. All of the kicks during the game fall into one of those two categories.

Free kicks: free kicks are kickoffs. Both regular kickoffs and kickoffs following safeties. The distinction with free kicks is that they may be legally possessed by the kicking team (the kicking team is the team that kicks the ball...the receiving team is the "defense") once certain prerequisites have been met. Namely, the ball has to have traveled 10 yards and been grounded (in either order) OR have been touched by the receiving team. If one of those two scenarios occurs and the kicking team recovers the ball, they may keep it and put it into play 1st and 10. In neither case may the kicking team advance the ball if it is still a kick. This is why you have seen a kicking team member pick up an onside kick and start running and the officials blow the whistle. If the status of the ball is still a kick, the kicking team may possess it, but they may not advance it (if the prerequisites have been met). However, if the receiving team recovers the kick (possession) and then fumbles, well then the kicking team can run as far as they want if they pick it up.

Scrimmage kicks: scrimmage kicks are punts, field goals and extra point tries. Scrimmage kicks are different from free kicks in that once the kick crosses the line of scrimmage, the kicking team may not possess the ball unless it has been touched first by the receiving team. So if the kicking team runs down and jumps on a punt at the five (untouched by the receiving team), the ball will belong to the receiving team at that spot. Field goals are treated the same as punts (except for rules about where the ball comes back to if it is untouched or out of bounds)(you can line up in high school and college with a place kicker and attempt a field goal from your own 5 if you don't have a punter..not sure about the NFL in that regard).

Blah blah blah. So let's get to the point. Illegal touching.

Illegal touching (called first touching in high school..many of you may recognize that) is a violation, not a foul, in that there is no penalty prescribed for the committing of the illegal touching and it cannot combine with any other foul to create a double or multiple foul..meaning it can't offset if the receiving team does something wrong. This is why there is not a flag thrown for the illegal touching of a kick, only a beanbag (usually..sometimes it's so obvious it's not needed.)

When can illegal touching occur? Illegal touching can occur on a free kick if the kicking team is the first to touch the ball before it has traveled 10 yards or before it has been touched inside that 10 yards by the receiving team. Illegal touching will occur on a scrimmage kick (punt) if the kicking team is the first to touch the ball after it has crossed the LOS. It should be marked with a beanbag if the ball continues in play. Illegal touching of a kick has nothing to do with whether a player has gone out of bounds or not.

What does it mean? It means that once the kicking team has been the first to touch the kick (intentionally or not..the kicking team is responsible to know where they are in relation to the ball and the returner), then the receiving team can do anything they want...except foul...and always come back to the spot of illegal touching..or have the choice of spots of illegal touching if there are more than one. Even if the receiving team picks up the ball, runs 80 yards, fumbles and the kicking team returns it for a touchdown, the ball is going to come back to the spot of illegal touching and be the receiving team's ball 1st and 10. An accepted foul by either team cancels the spot of illegal touching, that is why the officials will continue to officiate the play as if the touching had not occured i.e. signal possession for the kicking team if the receiving team muffs or fumbles the ball after the illegal touch. If the illegal touch occurs after the ball has broken the plane of the goal line, the illegal touching spot will be the 20 yard line (touchback). That is why the kicking team tries to bat it back before it breaks the plane.

Another clarification before we get into the specific play from yesterday, forget illegal touching for a second. If the ball is punted and the kicking team runs down the field and jumps on it, the ball belongs to the receiving team. If the ball is punted and the receiver touches the ball and the kicking team jumps on it, the ball belongs to the kicking team. Remember though, the receiving team touching the ball does not change the's still a kick. That means the kicking team may possess it, but they may not advance it.

All that being said, you completely understand what happened yesterday right? Right.

OK, let's talk about the play.


Situation: Texans punting, Titans back to receive.

  • For reasons known only to himself and the football gods, Darius Reynaud does not attempt to field this kick. SHOCKING.
  • Attempting to keep the ball from entering the end zone, Texans #11 touches the ball and throws it back toward the field of play. Right here is where the illegal touch was committed. At this point, the receiving team (Titans) can "do no wrong" except commit a foul. The Titans can pick it up and run with it and even if they fumble, they can come back to the spot of illegal touching.
  • Now, this is where the play gets fuzzy. The #1 cornerback in the NFL happens to be running towards the goal line and reaches out for the football. Who knows why. But....he can still do no wrong here because the kicking team has already touched the football. So let's continue to break down the play both if he touched it and as if he did not:
  • If he touched it: his touching is legal as he is a member of the receiving team (by rule, it is not possible for the receiving team to touch the ball illegally). If the kicking team had not touched the ball prior, the receiving team's touching would turn off the illegal touching restriction and make it possible for the kicking team to recover and keep the ball. Touching by the kicking team after the ball has been touched by the receiving team is legal. This is why you see everybody scramble for the ball and the officials continue to officiate as if the illegal touching had not occurred...even going as far as signalling possession for the kicking team if they recover the ball. Remember: If a foul occurred and is accepted, the illegal touching spot is cancelled and who is in possession at the end of the down may be important for Post Scrimmage Kick penalty enforcement (that's a whole post by itself!)
    So what we have is an illegal touch by the kicking team----a legal touch by the receiving team----kick recovered by the kicking team. Since there were no fouls on the play, the officials would discuss it and bring the ball back to the original spot of the illegal touching: the 1 yard line. The kicking team cannot keep the ball even after the receiving team touched it because the kicking team committed illegal touching first. Easy enough!
  • If he did not touch it: Even if the kicking team players thought he did and scramble for the ball, every time a kicking team member touches the ball it is another spot of illegal touching. There can be 10 or 15 spots of illegal touching if the ball keeps bouncing up the field and the receiving team does not touch it. In this case, once the ball is dead, the receiving team would have the opportunity to put the ball in play 1st and 10 at any spot on the field that the kicking team touched the ball. Obviously they would take the most advantageous spot. It should also be noted that touching of a loose ball is if the officials only thought that Verner touched it when he in fact did not, Coach Munchak could have challenged the play and if Verner had not touched it, they would have moved the ball to the better spot of illegal touching, the 5. But 99 yard touchdown drives are awesomer than 95 yarders, right?

So you make the call. Did Verner touch the kick?


Let's recap:

  • Illegal touching is committed when a kicking team member merely touches the punt before a receiving team member touches it. It has nothing to do with him going out of bounds. The receiving team's touching is always legal.
  • The receiving team can then do no wrong...except foul
  • Illegal touching is not a foul. There is no flag thrown for it.
  • Illegal touching happens all. the. time. It's usually not a big deal because the receiving team member is not there to try to touch it as well.
  • In all actuality, #11 for the Texans may have actually caught the ball, meaning it would have dead right there.
  • I should also note that although I am not 100% sure of the NFL rule, NCAA and high school do not have a restriction on the receiving team going out of bounds as Verner does here. That is not a problem and has no effect on the outcome.
  • Also remember that there is an "illegal touching" foul, but it has to do with an ineligible receiver touching a forward pass. Don't get confused!
  • If you are still awake to finish reading this, I hope it helps you win a bet!
  • I hope I broke it down simple enough. Still have questions? Comment away!