Cowboys receiver Brice Butler’s NFL career may not last very long, but at least his name will be attached to an obscure rule, at least until the next time the rule is applied. It’s quite possible that the rule wasn’t applied correctly as to Butler.
NFL senior V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino explained in his weekly officiating video the quirk that saw the Cowboys penalized 15 yards after Butler entered and exited the huddle area without participating in a snap last Sunday against the Packers. Blandino said that the so-called (at least by me) Brice Butler Rule is aimed at preventing teams from deliberately fooling opponents by sending players on and off the field. Blandino admitted that the officials have discretion in this regard, when for example a team facing fourth and short initially decides to punt and then sends the offense back onto the field.
Blandino added that the rule has been on the books since the 1950s, and that it was last called in 2014 during a game between Washington and Dallas. (The NFL’s excellent Game Pass feature includes the Week Eight Washington at Dallas game, but neither the broadcast footage nor the coaches film show what Washington tight end Logan Paulsen did before the snap to draw a 15-yard penalty.)
Blandino’s explanation was reasonable, and it all makes sense. But it seems to conflict with the plain language of the rule book.
“The rule is pretty straightforward in terms of the way it reads,” Blandino said. “It says an offensive substitute who moves onto the field inside the numbers and leaves without participating in one play, that’s a foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. There’s a second part of the rule that talks about coming into the huddle and communicating with a teammate and then leaving, but really once a player’s inside the numbers and then leaves but doesn’t participate that’s going to be the foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.”
Here’s the full language of Rule 5, Section 2, Article 2:
“The following are applicable to any offensive substitute who is entering the game:
“(a) He must move onto the field of play or the end zone as far as the inside of the field numerals prior to the snap to be a legal substitution. If he does not, and is on the field of play or end zone at the time of a legal snap, he is an illegal substitute.
“(b) If he approaches the huddle and communicates with a teammate, he is required to participate in at least one play before being withdrawn. Violations of this rule may be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.”
The first part of the rule seems to apply only where the substitute tries to sneak onto the fringe of the field. Moreover, the foul under the first part of the rule arises only if the player “is on the field of play or end zone at the time of a legal snap.” Thus, because Butler’s foul had nothing to do with being on the field at the time of the snap, the first part of the rule simply doesn’t apply.
The second part of the rule becomes the focal point of the analysis. By its plain terms, a violation occurs only if the player “approaches the huddle and communicates with a teammate” but doesn’t participate in at least one play.
The video included with Blandino’s explanation doesn’t show Butler communicating with a teammate — unless slapping the hand of the player who was exiting as Butler was entering counts as communication. Instead, Butler enters the huddle area, immediately turns to the sideline, realizes he shouldn’t be in the game, and then leaves. (That fact that Blandino glossed over the second part of the rule seems to confirm that he doesn’t believe that there is evidence of “communication” with a teammate.)
The discretion to which Blandino referred is codified in a note to the rule that explains the overall intention “to prevent teams from using simulated substitutions to confuse an opponent.” The question of whether discretion should be exercised if relevant, however, only if the two key elements of the violation have occurred: (1) the player has approached the huddle; AND (2) the player has communicated with a teammate.” If the player approaches the huddle and doesn’t communicate with a teammate, there’s no reason to exercise discretion because a potential violation has not occurred.
So, based on the language of the rule, there was no foul absent proof that Butler communicated with a teammate once he arrived at the huddle. If there is no such evidence, it’s entirely possible that this is yet another example of a discrepancy between the rules as written and the rules as enforced.
If that’s the case, the rule needs to be rewritten to match the enforcement, or the enforcement needs to be changed to respect the language of the rule.