Breaking the Plane: In the NFL, why does the goal-line extend vertically through space into infinity?

Like you, my friends grumble about the NFL “breaking the plane of the goal line” rule. And they are irritated that touchdowns are called when a ball in player possession touches the pylon.

Why doesn’t the ball-carrier have to get into the end-zone to score a touchdown, and possibly touch the ball to the ground in the end-zone?

Because that wouldn’t work. Here’s why.

In the NFL, it is crucial to know exactly when the ball is dead, when the football play is over, and where the ball ought to be spotted for the next play.

The rules say that the play is over when a runner with uncontested possession of the football is hit by an opposing player, and any part of the runner’s body – besides his feet or hands – touches the ground. At that moment, the ball is dead, and it is spotted right where (the referees believe) the ball was when the play ended.

Let’s say I have the ball on my own 33 yard line, and while running with the ball I am hit low by a defender and continue forward in the air. My knees hit at the 34 yard line, while the ball is in my arms at the 35 yard line. The ball is then spotted at the 35 yard line, not the 34 yard line (where my knees hit).

That’s the basic rule everywhere on the field. The ball is spotted where it was when the ball-carrier was determined to be down.

In order to stay consistent with this basic rule of football, you need to be able to declare a touchdown as soon as the ball crosses the plane of the goal line. Otherwise, how would you deal with this?

The runner has uncontested possession of the ball, is tripped up at the 1 yard line, his knees land at the one foot line while the ball is held in his arms one foot INTO the end-zone.

Where do you spot the ball for the next play? One foot INTO the end zone? Why bother? As soon as the Center snaps the ball (meaning possesses it) in the end-zone, that would be a touchdown.

What if it was a fourth-down play? Well, the down-and-distance would have been “fourth-and-goal.” The ball is now spotted BEYOND the goal-line (one foot into the end-zone). Is that a fresh set of downs for the offense?

Or would you spot the ball outside the end-zone? Meaning, would you abandon – in the end-zone – the rule you use everywhere else on the football field?

The “breaking the plane” rule avoids these absurdities on goal-line plays.

The pylons just make the vertical nature of the end-zone visible for all to see. The plane of the end-zone matters just as much as the turf of the end-zone. If you possess the ball, have not been ruled down, and you touch the pylon (those bright-orange physical manifestations of an abstract concept) then…TOUCHDOWN!

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13 Responses to Breaking the Plane: In the NFL, why does the goal-line extend vertically through space into infinity?

  1. Crist says:

    Can you score in a game by getting the ball over the goal line but being out of bounds if the ball crosses the plane out of bounds before your body touches down

    • rf6307 says:

      I am not sure I understand your question.

      According to NFL Rules, Section 2, Article 1 (b) a touchdown is scored “when a ball in possession of an airborne runner is on, above, or behind the plane of the goal line, and some part of the ball passed over or inside the pylon.”

      So if both runner and ball are in the air “out of bounds” – meaning the ball doesn’t go over or inside the pylon – then no touchdown.

      If the runner is in the air out of bounds and holds the ball out so that the ball passes over the pylon (and the runner has yet to make contact with the ground out of bounds) then, yeah, touchdown.

  2. mark Spelz says:

    However clever the rule makers want to explain it, “crossing the plane” is by definition not a “touch down”. I suggest that the ball must be actually (not virtually) touched down in the end zone. Do that or change the wording. The example given is ridiculous. You don’t need to spot the ball in the end zone at all. It is a touchdown. Regardless, I will continue to be a fan.

  3. John says:

    Okay, the white line has a non-zero width. So is the “plane of the goal line” the plane extending upward from the field side of that line, the end zone side of that line, or the middle of that line? I still don’t know what defines the “plane of the goal” line.

  4. George says:

    What if a runner carrying the ball touches a pylon with his right foot, but steps out of bounds past the goal line with his other foot? Does the ball have to be between the pylons for a touchdown. Or does the goal line extend infinitely in this case? I’m wondering because of the no-touchdown call for the Redskins v Packers today. The player was headed out of bounds, but one foot appeared to have touched the pylon before the other foot went out of bounds.

  5. Joseph Hein says:

    But the pylon is out of bounds. Hitting the pylon is not evidence that the plane was punctured.

    • rf6307 says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think you are on to something. The NFL rules around the pylon are inconsistent in the way you suggest.

      The pylon accurately marks the edge of the plane of the goal line, but seems to do so while the pylon sits on the wrong side of the out-of-bounds line. I have heard/read many explanations of this, and none make sense to me, yet.

      I think the answer is – the NFL says so. The rules clearly say that the pylons are not to be set up in-bounds, AND touching the pylon with the ball, or even passing the ball OVER the pylon – before touching down out-of-bounds, or being legally downed in-bounds – is a touchdown.

      I am not going to pretend that I follow the logic here. I think that it is a rule of convenience that predates instant replay. My best guess for now.

  6. Bill LaConte says:

    B. S. Then why is it called a TOUCDOWN?! Just another league policy to favor the offense. More points- more excitement- more butts in the seats. MONEY. Sports have become feminized! What would Vince Lombardi say if an opponent got stopped at the one foot line but reached the ball over the goal line but never got IN the freakin end zone? I’ll tell you what he would say: ” what the hell’s going on out there?”

  7. I want to know exactly when this rule of ‘breaking the plane’ of the goal line originated? I got into an argument over this with someone recently. Her said the rule has been in existence since the 1800’s??? I clearly disagree, because I remember watching games in the 70’s when a touchdown meant you had to get your whole BODY into the end zone. In the Ravens-Steelers game this season, Antonio Brown stuck his arm over the goal when he was a yard behind the goal line. Personally, I think this rule sucks, because it takes no great effort to score a TD if this is all one has to do. And anywhere else on the field, this rule is much different when trying to get a first down, where you have to get your whole BODY past the marker???

  8. Christopher York says:

    Cam newton stretched out with the ball to score and stretching like superman. The opposing player hit him toward out of bounce. But none of his bidy hit the out of bounce when the ball is over the line. Which should be a touchdown not placed at the 1 yard line…

  9. Gordon Cocke says:

    Nfl inconsistency, often see runners or receivers dive, with ball possession going out of bounds and while diving simply pass hand or leg/foot inside pylon and get rewarded with touchdown, but ball area was out of bounds and ball possession are never passed over pylon or inside pylon. But almost always touchdown is rewarded?

  10. Rickey Partridge says:

    Why does a receiver have to have both feet down in the end zone and retain possession even though he’s out of the end zone but a runner can simply stick the ball over the goal line without even touching the ground in the end zone. I feel that any player should have possession and be in the end zone. i saw a plaw where the ball crosses the goal line then knocked out that’s stupid that it’s still a touchdown.

  11. FG says:

    Why not just play flag football. No concussions , no busted noses and all your teeth intact.And no more acting like morons after a score.It use to be a sport now it’s a show.Go the NFL over paid .By the way why don’t we put lights on their helments so when thy score it looks like The neon cowboys.Not Dallas😉

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