Twelve Men On The Field? No Problem (For The Defense)

The game of football has a lot of rules that we love to argue about incessantly.  One of the most fun conversations is figuring out whether the penalty matches the crime.

Pass interference is always talked about.  It’s a spot foul against the defense, but only ten yards for the offense.  Is that fair?  Should we reward Joe Flacco for throwing the ball up for grabs six times a game and coming away with two 40-yard penalties?  Is that football?

Personally, I actually lean toward the current structure.  After all, if it’s only a 15-yard penalty like it is in college, what is to stop defensive backs from purposefully tackling guys when they get beat?  I like the rule the way it is.

But something happened in the Super Bowl on Sunday that got me thinking.  Is there another rule that is potentially much more crippling to the game than pass interference?


Twelve men on the field.

12-men-on-the-field-super-bowlImage source: Deadspin

12 Men On The Field at Super Bowl XLVI

Let me walk you through the situation.

In the final minute of the game on Sunday night, Tom Brady was frantically trying to lead the Pats on a late comeback drive.  After converting an incredible 4th and 16, the Pats hurried up to the line of scrimmage and spiked it.  After a short completion, they quickly ran another play and the Giants were late subbing some defenders off the field.  A flag was thrown, and the Patriots got a “free play.”  Brady ran around a little bit and threw a long bomb that went incomplete.  New England received a five yard gift from the officials.

Unfortunately for them, the damage was done.  Even though they got a “free play,” the clock kept running.  Even though the penalty stopped the clock, the incompletion would have done that anyway.

Basically, the Giants could have played the entire play with an extra guy on the field, and the WORST case scenario was that they would give up five yards of field position.

So let me ask this: Why shouldn’t the Giants have just played with 12 men on EVERY SINGLE PLAY of the drive?

Let’s say the Giants chose to come out with 4 linemen, 3 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs on every single play.  Don’t they have a much better chance of stopping the Patriots with that extra guy?  Couldn’t they double Wes Welker AND Aaron Hernandez?  Wouldn’t they have a great opportunity to bat the ball down, or better yet, intercept a pass and run all over the field eating up the clock?

So what, you have to give the ball back and give the Patriots five more yards because of the penalty.  But hasn’t the damage been done?

Suppose the Patriots still DO complete a 15-yard pass.  Ok, so they decline the penalty.  I still like my chances playing with 12 men.

Close The 12-Men Loophole

In other sports, playing with too many men results in SEVERE penalties.

In basketball, the team is charged with a technical foul.  The other team gets a free opportunity at points AND they get the ball.

In hockey, it draws a two-minute minor.  For the next two minutes of the game, your team has to play a man down.

In football?  You surrender five yards.  Nothing else.

UPDATE:  Apparently (thanks to a reader), the NFL rulebook does contain a very vague reference to this situation that falls under the “UNFAIR ACTS” section of the rulebook.  I have personally yet to find it, but according to @mrandrewhaer, if a team commits this more than 1x, it becomes a 15 yard penalty.  Sure, that’s a BETTER fix, but the problem still remains – the offensive team can never get that time back.

For most of the game, the penalty matches the crime.  Usually, a team is penalized because, in the Giants’ case, a defensive lineman is just a little slow hustling off the field.  The team isn’t purposefully playing with extra guys.

But there are PLENTY of instances where the penalty changes late in the half or game.

When an offensive team is penalized in the last two minutes, time is run off the clock.  That way, linemen can’t purposefully flinch and sacrifice five yards in order to stop the clock.  What a great adjustment to the circumstances of a game.

The same alteration needs to be done for the Twelve-Men penalty.  Keep the five-yard penalty, but give the other team a LEGITIMATE free play.  Reset the clock after the play to where it was when the play started.

I’m a die-hard, Brady-hating Colts’ fan.  And even I had to tell myself, “Wow, that wasn’t fair.”

Make the rule change, close the loophole, and let the game be played with integrity.

About Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.


  1. why stop at 12 men on the field why not 13 or 14 .

    • thedrtwitch says:

      Great point. The rules really don't address the issue.

      • I Hate Charlie Ward says:

        Don't believe the Palpably Unfair Act rule applies here. It's really for when something ridiculous happens not covered by the rules — e.g. a coach tackling a player whio is heading for a TD. The 12 man infraction has a penalty in place — 5 yds and down over.

        12 (or more) defenders on the field for the last minute can be a great strategy to ultimately force a one play Hail Mary situation for losing team. QB clocking the ball is the only effective response to this. But will the QB or coach be ready to utilize this strategy? Probably not. (This might also be good for preventing a punt block/return, no?)

        It is a rules loophole. If Coughlin did this intentionally, he is a genius.

  2. Actually, using 12-men would be a terrible strategy. When the offense realizes what's happening they could simply snap the ball and spike it (or take a knee). This would pick up 5-yards the first time, and 15-yards if defenses used 12 men on consecutive plays. It would take roughly one or two seconds per play, pick up free yardage, and stop the clock every time.

    Given the hypothetical situation described where a defense used 12 men on every play during the final drive – by spiking the ball, the offense could move the ball 50 yards in four plays, taking less than 8 seconds to do so. Plus, the game cannot end on a defensive penalty, so eventually the defense would have to go back to 11 men.

  3. Josh Tinley says:

    Buddy Ryan's Houston Oilers playbook had a 14-man play for situations where the opposing team was inside the 5, threatening to score a go-ahead touchdown with time running out. They kept taking penalties, but the penalties were half the distance to the goal, so the yardage they gave up was negligible. Meanwhile the clock ran down and the opposing team couldn't move the ball against 7 linebackers. Since the game can't end on a defensive penalty, Ryan's team still had to stop one goal-line play. But stopping one is a lot easier than stopping three or four.

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