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Explaining the free down the Chargers got after the Colts’ end-of-game punt

NFL: San Diego Chargers at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Indianapolis Colts defeated the San Diego Chargers 26-22 today, but even though it didn’t wind up affecting the outcome of the game there was a play at the very end that created a lot of confusion for people watching the game.

The Colts punted with just seconds left and with a four-point lead, hoping to just run out the remaining seconds on the punt play. After the Colts downed the punt and the clock hit zero and the coaches and players ran onto the field for the post-game handshakes, however, the officials had a lengthy conversation on the field before announcing that the Chargers would get one more untimed down due to an illegal touching violation on the Colts. The Chargers then tried the lateral play for a desperation score but it didn’t work out, resulting in a Colts win.

But what was that illegal touching violation about? It turns out that there’s a very little-known rule (if you say you knew about it you’re probably lying) that prevented the Colts from being the first team to touch the football in that situation. Comments from Chuck Pagano, Mike Pereira, and Football Zebras helps to understand the situation, however.

First, here’s what Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said after the game regarding the call and why it was made:

“You can’t go down, it’s a first-to-touch rule, they didn’t have a returner back. We did a great job of punting, Pat [McAfee] did a great job, he pooched the thing down there and got it to die down there. We’ve got to go down there and just surround the football. Don’t let them get to it number one and then number two you don’t touch it until they blow it dead. The referees will come in, they’ll blow it dead and then we can pick it up and hand it to an official.”

Second, here’s what FOX’s officiating expert and former NFL VP of officiating Mike Pereira had to say of the call on a Facebook Live video this afternoon:

“[I] always told coaches if you’re going to try to run out the clock on a kick, so if you’re going to punt and run out the clock as the Colts did, I told every special teams coach: don’t touch the ball if you’re the kicking team. Let it roll to a stop, get out of there and get away, and the game’s over. But if you do, so if you’re a punting team member that goes down and touches the kick, it’s a violation. It’s called a first touching violation. It’s not a foul, it’s a violation because you’re not eligible to recover, so your touching it first makes it a violation. And if you commit that violation, then you give the receiving team an opportunity to extend the period for one additional play, and that’s what happened. It’s pretty unusual, and I promise you the Colts won’t do that again, but I’ve got to give some credit to the officials, because it is very unusual for that to occur, but if you’re not eligible you can’t be the first to touch, it’s a violation, and if the clock has gone to zero you extend for one untimed down.”

And third, here’s what Football Zebras, who analyze officiating, had to add on their live blog this afternoon:

“When the kicking team touches a punt that has crossed the line of scrimmage before the receiving team has, it is considered a first-touch violation (technically, as written, an “illegal touch,” but we’ll go with first-touch violation to separate it from other illegal touches). This is what allows for a “free play” where the receiving team can subsequently pick up the ball, and be free to revert back to the touch spot. The first touch is not a foul, but it is a violation; it retains many of the properties of a penalty.

“A first-touch violation can extend any quarter, just a defensive penalty can. Therefore, the Chargers were allowed an untimed down.

“If the Colts let the ball come to rest and don’t touch it, the covering official will pause briefly and declare the ball dead. If the Colts had done this, the game is over, since there is no first-touch violation.”

So here’s the basics of this little-known (but correct) interpretation of the rule: the Colts couldn’t be the first team to touch the football because they were not eligible to recover the football, meaning that it would be an illegal touch. It’s not a penalty and doesn’t carry a yardage penalty, but it is a violation that would count the same way a defensive penalty would - extending the game for an untimed down if needed. So if a team opts to use a punt to try to run out the clock, they must be aware of this little rule. If the Colts had just surrounded the football to make sure that no Chargers returner got it, but then waited to touch the ball until the official blew the play dead, the game would have been over. The Colts just couldn’t touch the football right there because they weren’t eligible and they should have just waited for it to be blown dead. It ultimately didn’t wind up hurting the team and you can’t really blame any of the players for not realizing the rule, but it’s something that only comes into play in the rarest of occasions (since it’s only a violation and not a penalty). Today in Indianapolis, however, we saw it come up and we saw the refs get it right.

Got it? Good, but you now probably won’t need to know this rare rule again for quite a while.