15 yards for snowballs? Turns out, that’s not covered in the NFL rule book

Referee Bill Vinovich had a warning for Buffalo Bills fans Saturday night.

“We’ve just been informed that if a snowball hits someone, it’ll be a 15-yard penalty against Buffalo,” Vinovich announced to the crowd inside Highmark Stadium with 8:18 left in the second quarter of the game between the Bills and Miami Dolphins.

“This is nothing. I wish it was colder. More snow,” Allen said following the game. That sounds like a familiar phrase. Like it should be a T-shirt. Sure enough, it was on a T-shirt – worn by Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel for practice Wednesday.

There is only one problem: Nothing in the NFL rule book gives officials the ability to penalize the home team for such a reason.

“There is no rule that addresses penalties being assessed to a team based on their fans’ actions,” ESPN’s officiating analyst, John Parry, told The Buffalo News.

Vinovich’s announcement, it turns out, amounted to a scare tactic. While the snowballs didn’t stop raining from the stands – with the lake-effect machine set to “high” before the game, there was no shortage of ammunition in the seating areas when fans entered – perhaps it at least lessened the amount of them .

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Vinovich’s only option would have been to stop the game and ask the Bills’ stadium operations and security teams to get control before the game could resume. That is covered in the 2022 NFL rule book under Rule 17, titled “Emergencies, Unfair Acts,” Section 1, “Emergencies,” Article 2, “Field Control.”

It states: “If spectators enter the field and/or interfere with the progress of the game in such a manner that in the opinion of the Referee the game cannot continue, the Referee shall declare a timeout. In such a case, the Referee shall record the number of the down, distance to be gained, and the position of the ball on the field. The Referee shall also secure from the Line Judge the playing time remaining and record it. The Referee shall then order the home club through its management to have the field cleared, and when it is cleared and order restored and the safety of the spectators, players and officials is assured to the satisfaction of the Referee, the game must continue even if it is necessary to use lights.”

Rule 17-1-Article 1 “Non-player on field,” states: “If any non-player, including photographers, reporters, employees, police or spectators, enters the field of play or end zones, and in the judgment of an official said party or parties interfere with the Play, the Referee, after consulting the crew shall enforce any such penalty or score as the interference warrants.”

Translated, that means that if something extraordinary were to happen during a game – say, a snowball thrown from the stands hitting a ball carrier and causing him to fumble the ball – officials can void the fumble and add a number of yards that the run might have continued in their estimation. If the runner was in the open field and running unopposed to the end zone, officials could even award a touchdown.

Buckle up, because we’re about to dive even deeper into the rule book.

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Rule 12-Section 3-Article 4 is titled “Palpably Unfair Act,” and says, “A player or substitute shall not interfere with play by any act which is palpably unfair.”

So, if Jordan Poyer, for example, threw a snow ball at Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and knocked him down…well, that would be palpably unfair. Back to the rule book…

“Penalty: For a palpably unfair act: Offender may be disqualified. The Referee, after consulting the officiating crew, enforces any such distance penalty as they consider equitable and regardless of any other specified code penalty. The Referee may award a score.”

Rule 13 covers non-player conduct. Section 1-Article 7 covers a palpably unfair act by a non-player. It states “A non-player shall not commit any act which is palpably unfair.”

Now, we’ve hit the snowball sweet spot of the rule book. In italics, at the bottom of 13-1-7, is the following: “Note: Various actions involving a palpably unfair act may arise during a game. In such cases, the officials may award a distance penalty in accordance with 12-3-4, even when it does not involve disqualification of a player or substitute.”

Crews work to remove snow from the field ahead of Saturday night’s game at Highmark Stadium.

Harry Scull Jr.

So, to summarize – don’t worry, there won’t be a test – Vinovich did not have the authority to penalize the Bills for snowballs. In the unlikely event that a snowball did impact play, he could consult with his fellow officials and issue a ruling on the impacted play. One more time from the rule book, since who can get enough of that? Rule 19 covers officials. Section 1-Article 3 is titled “Referee’s Authority.”

It states: “The Referee is to have general oversight and control of the game. The Referee is the final authority for the score. If there is a disagreement between members of the crew regarding the number of down, any decision, or the application, enforcement, or interpretation of a rule, the Referee’s decision will be final. The Referee’s decisions upon all matters not specifically placed under the jurisdiction of other officials by rule are final.”

Oh, come on, this has never come up before and isn’t likely to again, you might be thinking to yourself. Not so fast, though.

With some help from the website quirkyresearch.com, let’s look back on a Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and 49ers on Nov. 11, 1985 – known as the “Snowball Game.” Near the end of the first half, the 49ers lined up for a 19-yard field goal. On the snap, a snowball from the crowd landed in front of holder Matt Cavanaugh, who was distracted enough to fumble the ball.

Referee Jim Tunney did not call for the down to be replayed. The next day, in an interview with the Associated Press, he explained, “We have no recourse in terms of a foul or to call it on the home team or the fans. There’s nothing in the rule book that allows us to do that.”

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From the website: “Tunney also explained to Art McNally, the head of NFL officials, that the snowball did not hit Cavanaugh or 49ers kicker Ray Wersching, and that Cavanaugh showed no change in concentration, not even flinching.” McNally added, “There is no provision in the rule book specifically for snowballs, or any objects, unless they strike the players. However, the referee is empowered to make any decision that is not specifically covered by the rules.”

Tex Schramm, who at the time was president of the Dallas Cowboys and head of the NFL’s competition committee, said after the game he believed the play should have been stopped.

“You can’t have something like that,” Schramm said. “Next time, it’ll be a beer bottle or a whiskey bottle.”

The 49ers lost the game 17-16 and finished the season 10-6, one game behind the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West.

“The way to stop (similar fan behavior) would be to replay the play,” San Francisco coach Bill Walsh said at the time. “Then there would be no more snowballs ever. By allowing it to affect a very important play and say their hands are tied – (the officials) are just inviting the riotous action of fans.”

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The local leader in snowfall was Eden, at 19.9 inches, according to National Weather Service data. Next came West Seneca at 19.5 inches, then Hamburg, at 18.5 inches.

The San Francisco Examiner even offered $500 for an interview with the snowball thrower. It’s worth noting that The Buffalo News has made no such offer following Saturday’s game.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen motioned for fans to stop throwing them on the field. In the end, the snowballs didn’t have any impact on the game and aren’t known to have caused any serious injuries.

“Yeah, that’s hard because we have such a passionate fanbase and I don’t want them to get a bad rap,” coach Sean McDermott said. “They’re so passionate. It’s kind of out of our control, right? I know Josh was kind of motioning to the fans, ‘Hey, knock it off,’ and I was trying to do my best, as well. The challenge is you’ve got fans from, they had a couple Dolphins fans in the crowd, too, so … I don’t know. I guess at the end of the day it looked like no one got hurt and the fans did a good job when we needed them to stop. They were good team players.”


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