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On 10 January 2015 in the NFL playoffs, the Patriots lined up in a weird formation in which Shane Vereen, a running back, reported ineligible. Vereen was "covered" by a receiver on his team, meaning there was someone else on the line of scrimmage closer to the sideline than Vereen--see image below; Vereen is circled in yellow. So Vereen was effectively one of the five offensive linemen, although he was lined up a good ways from the other four. My question is, for the purposes of intentional grounding, etc., is the tackle box considered to extend all the way to Vereen? Does it matter that Gronk, not lined up on the line of scrimmage is between Vereen and the other linemen?

Formation with Vereen covered

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This is a more complex question than I initially thought, and most of that stems from some weird wording in the NFL rules. The provision that allows the QB to throw the ball away once he's outside the tackle position refers specifically to that - "the tackle position." (Rule 8, Section 2, Article 1, Item 1.) However, the tackle position is never fully defined. What is defined is the tackle box (Rule 3, Section 35) and the pocket area (Rule 3, Section 25). The pocket area refers to the "normal tackle position," which is a little subjective, but I think we can agree that Vereen is not in the normal tackle position in the above picture, but rather that the lineman second from the right of the center is in the normal tackle position.

The rules make reference to the tackle box when talking about unsportsmanlike conduct penalties (horse collar tackle, illegal chop blocks, illegal hits on defenseless players) but not in the rules on intentional grounding. The pocket area is referred to in the intentional grounding rule, even if not specifically in the section that concerns your situation. So I would say that we use the definition of the pocket, and not that of the tackle box, to determine whether or not intentional grounding has been committed; this takes us back to the "normal tackle position." (For what it's worth, the tackle box extends from "tackle to tackle" and I think you'd be hard pressed to define Vereen as the right tackle here, considering there is a traditional right guard and tackle on the line as well.)

To further my case, it seems most of the talk about this play has referred to the Pats having 4 offensive lineman, and not counting Vereen as one of them. (A couple different tweets and people refer to that in this SB Nation article on it.)

Ultimately, there definitely is some ambiguity here, and I think there's some leeway for the referee to decide for himself, but looking at what I see here, I'd say that if Brady makes it outside of the traditional tackle box but is still inside of Vereen's position, he wouldn't get called for grounding.

All the rules I referenced in here come from this edition of the rules on the NFL website. (Warning: that is a rather large PDF).

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This is more of a comment but a long one so it won't fit.**

@tarchibald has a good answer. I will offer a few other points with my coaching and refereeing background.

  • the formation the Patriots used is a deviation of a common single wing variation often used in pee-wee football (albeit with a running back instead of doubles left). The "outside tackle" forms a weapon for crackback blocks and screen blocks. Teams that don't adjust over would have their 8 hole ate up. There is nothing new to these formations or genius. One thing that I must commend Belichek on is his openness to take high school and pee-wee tactics and apply them to the NFL.
  • in high school football the box would extend to Vereen's position on the play. I have seen this specific example in an addendum notesheet. Basically we would not let a team pulling a "trick play" have even more of a benefit. So they would have their grounding box widened however they would not get away with illegal "space" blocks just because they widened it. So in this example for high school and college the offense would have a few negatives to deal with (although non would come up during a normal play hopefully).
  • Why I say that is - what if the lineman had 2 yard splits? Back in the 90s it was a common high school tactic for a smaller team to split the hell out of a bigger team. The tackle box would almost be 1/3 of the width of the field. The NFL has really never had that issue since their offensive lineman can't cope with that space due to their size but a 180 pound high school tackle sure can.
  • Gronk's position on the field is of no consequence. He would be treated as any other back/receiver.
  • I am not sure why Vereen had to report as an ineligible receiver. I believe this is true and there is a rule in the NFL that covers this but I couldn't find it - but I can explicitly remember watching games (not recently) where a player reported as ineligible. In high school and college games we would never care if number 44 lined up as guard.
  • The counter to the tackle box extending to Vereen - is that the NFL has created several blocking rules which are trickling down to high school for the purpose of player safety. This includes blocking below the waist, crackbacks, clipping emphasis. These are all legal in the tackle box and I don't see Vereen being able to block the outside linebacker in the back of the legs. Which in high school/college as I said before we would not let the offense benefit from formation. In the NFL this doesn't seem to be clear at all.
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I've always thought it was a highly subjective rule also. Seems like there should be a hitch (dash line) in between the hash marks and the numbers (and on that line) to show where they'd have to be considered outside the pocket regardless of where your linemen are. To me, that would just make better sense – it's like a ref always deciding where the invisible 3-point line is in basketball. Create a physical line and take a huge portion of the guessing out. However, the NFL rules are constantly changing and have been since its conception. Since the above play was used, they've changed several rules; such as, there has to be one eligible receiver in the backfield in the pocket.

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    Welcome to Sports SE, please add references to your answer and checking How do I write a good answer? will help. – Ram Chandra Giri Aug 30 '17 at 2:13
  • Oh no, officials might have to apply subjective judgement. However will the sport cope? ... the same way that cricket, rugby, hockey, lacrosse and myriad others have done for decades. – Nij Aug 30 '17 at 7:47

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