On Thursday night, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston seemed to commit intentional grounding by launching a rainbow more than 15 yards down and at least five yards away from where his intended receiver was standing, in order to avoid a sack in the end zone. It wasn’t called by the officials, and it wasn’t mentioned at all during the broadcast.
As it turns out, the non-call was the right call. It still should have been mentioned during the broadcast, for reasons set forth below.
A little-known 2016 adjustment to the official NFL casebook, which contains approved applications of the official NFL rule book, contains an exception to the intentional grounding rule when a quarterback is in the pocket and about to be tackled. The quarterback can avoid the sack by throwing the ball out of bounds — and it can “sail” over the head of the receiver — as long the receiver is outside the numbers. If, however, the receiver is inside the numbers, a throw that “sailed over the head of the receiver” and landed out of bounds would result in a flag for intentional grounding. (A.R. 8.84.)
On Friday, former NFL V.P. of officiating Mike Pereira pointed out this caveat to the official grounding rule, which generally requires the ball to be thrown in the direction of and land in the vicinity of a receiver. Pereira explained that the officials had been applying this interpretation of the intentional grounding rule for years, long before the casebook was revised last year to reflect this exception.
However, Pereira characterized the outside-the-numbers exception as permitting the ball to be thrown out of bounds as long as the quarterback doesn’t “launch it into the stands.” The 2016 adjustment to the casebook, if applied literally, allows the quarterback to send a rocket right out of the stadium, as long as the intended receiver is outside the numbers.
And so it seems that more clarification is needed as to whether there is a limit to how far the ball can go when the quarterback has a receiver outside the numbers and opts to throw it over them mountains in order to avoid a sack. The casebook suggests there isn’t; Pereira suggests there is.
Meanwhile, it’s important that this exception to the grounding rule become more broadly communicated and understood. For plays designed to have a receiver flare outside the numbers just a few yards from the line of scrimmage, this exceptions could be nearly as important as the one that allows a quarterback outside the pocket to throw it away, as long as it passes the line of scrimmage.