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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4 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. 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.

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