Last night on ESPN, plenty of former players acted as if the illegal bat rule had just popped up in the rule book without warning. But as former NFL official Gerry Austin insisted, it’s been there for decades.
And it’s been invoked multiple times this decade alone. It was used once in an October 2013 game between the Patriots and Dolphins. It also was used more than a month later in a game between the 49ers and, yes, the Seahawks.
The folks at NinersNation.com wrote an item about it at the time. The NFL’s excellent Game Rewind feature provides quick access to the video and coaches’ film from the Week 14 contest.
It happened at 2:02 in the first quarter, with former 49ers receiver Kassim Osgood blocking a punt from John Ryan at the Seattle eight. The ball went forward, toward the sideline. Seahawks safety Chris Maragos immediately tracked it down, reaching the football at the Seattle 17 and, just before it bounced out of bounds, slapping the ball down the field. It was touched by the 49ers and then went out of bounds at the Seattle 34, for a 17-yard bat.
In that case, the officials threw the flag. The glitch came from the enforcement; San Francisco’s options were to penalize the Seahawks half the distance from the Seattle 17 and face fourth down again or decline the penalty and take the ball at the 34 — 17 yards away from where Maragos applied the illegal bat.
The 49ers, starting at the 34 instead of the 17 or, perhaps, the 17 plus half the distance after the penalty was enforced, scored only a field goal on the drive.
So the Seahawks picked up 17 yards of field position thanks to a loophole about which Maragos seemed to be fully aware. Even if Maragos didn’t know he was doing something smart, the incident made the Seahawks aware of the illegal bat rule. Which means linebacker K.J. Wright hadn’t been coached to not bat the ball out of the end zone when the offense fumbles the ball into the end zone.
Which ultimately means the Seahawks have benefited twice from the rule in two years — once due to clunky enforcement of it, and once because the official who was looking right at the play decided not to throw the flag.