Wedge Rule: Simple Name, Complex Enforcement

The Wedge Rule's enforcement is one of the newest to look for this fall when a flag is tossed on a kick-off.

When I first started officiating 25 years ago, football as we know it today was still evolving from three yards and a cloud of dust to the more exciting Texas Tech style offensive aerial circuses of which we are seeing more and more.

The rules were also changing to promote the new air attack, and therefore several changes were required each year. Now though, the coaches, players and most of all the fans, are happy with the game; thus providing very few rule changes.

Two years ago the rules committee decided to publish a new rule book only every other year. The upcoming 2010 season will be the first off year of publication. Yet for safety of the players, some rules must be changed during that off year.

One of those changes is a hand-me-down from the NFL last year. Concussions and the resultant long term effects on the players is at the top of medical concerns at all levels of football. The NFL studies have shown 40% of the concussions sustained in that league occur in relation to the Kickoff and Wedge formation. They made the wedge illegal on kickoffs last year, but the results have not been published yet.

The NCAA rules committee found evidence that one in five injuries on kickoffs has a concussion as part of the injury. So an urgent rule change was inserted this first "off" year for player safety reasons. Here it is.

Definition: When I think of a wedge, it reminds me of the Canadian Geese flying formations heading South for the winter. However in football, the WEDGE means an attempt to block in such a manner as to concentrate the number of players blocking to players tackling and create a space, or wedge, to allow the runner to get by the tacklers. It does not describe the V-shaped formation.

Technically, the rules state a WEDGE is two or more players aligned shoulder to shoulder within two yards of each other. That formation was and is legal except on kick-offs. Now as of this year, the ILLEGAL WEDGE has entered the rules.

On a free kick, after the ball has been kicked (and thus a live ball foul) it is illegal for THREE or more members of the receiving team intentionally to form a wedge for the purpose of blocking for the ball carrier.

There does NOT have to be contact between opponents to be a foul, simply formation of the ILLEGAL wedge constitutes the foul.

Currently, the formation of a wedge of three or more players is not illegal from an obvious onside kick formation. Other changes may evolve as the season begins, such as out-of-bounds kicks, fair catch signals and other things negating the foul.

PENALTY: Formation of the illegal 3 or more player wedge, shoulder to shoulder within two yards of each other, on a kick-off play, results in a spot foul (the yard line where the wedge formed), 15 yards; or 15 yards where the subsequent dead ball belongs to the receiving team if this is behind the spot of the foul. That means the ball is dead nearer the receiving team's own goal than the spot of the foul.

If the kicking team ends up with the ball, (Fumble etc.) the penalty is 15 yards, previous spot, with the down repeated i.e. rekick.

A couple of examples may even more clarify the rule.

#1 While the ball is in the air after the kick-off from the 30 yd/line, or after it is caught, three receiving team players align at the 22 yd/line, shoulder to shoulder with no more than two yards between adjacent players. The receiving team runs the return to the 50 yd/line. A flag at the 22 yd/line (spot of the foul) causes enforcement of 1/2 the distance penalty to the 11 yd line. It's 1st and ten for the receiving team at the 11 yd/line.

#2 Same scenario, except the receiver has one knee on the ground at the 10 yd/line where he catches the ball. Thus the ball is dead at the spot of the catch. The wedge formed at the 22yd/line, outside the dead ball spot. Thus the penalty enforcement is from the dead ball spot, not the spot of the foul. Result: 1st and 10 from the 5 yd/line.

#3 Same scenario, except the kicking team wedge buster throws himself at the wedge players and hits illegally below the knees. Therefore the two fouls offset (wedge by receiving team, and blocking below the waist on a kick play by the kicking team). The resultant play is a rekick from the previous spot.

#4 Same scenario, except only TWO players form a wedge. No foul - the play is not illegal. There must be three or more players to make the wedge illegal.

Thus this year, this is the only major rule change the fan will notice. Others are in the works for 2011, when the new rule book is confirmed. Let's hope the purpose of this rule is accomplished ... lowering concussion rates of special team players on kick-offs.

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