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Was Tim Tebow’s game-winning touchdown illegal?

Chris Chase
Shutdown Corner

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Only six players are set on the line of scrimmage. (NFL.com)

A review of the Denver Broncos' pre-snap formation on the game-winning touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas suggests that the play could have been ruled illegal.

Only six Denver Broncos players were lined up on the line of scrimmage before the snap. NFL rules say that a team must have seven or more players on the line for a snap to be legal. As the picture above shows, tight end Dante Rosario was well behind his teammates.

The formation eventually caught the eye of current Fox analyst and former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira. He dismissed any suggestion that the play should have been whistled dead. "Watch on any Sunday," he tweeted. "This is a good formation compared to many. They are not technical with this."

In other words, the "seven men on the line" is a rule on the books but one that doesn't require a tape measure and straight edge to determine if every player is precisely on the line of scrimmage. If seven guys are close to line and set, Pereira implies, then the formation is fine. The seven Broncos were close to the line and set, so there was nothing to call.

[Related: Pittsburgh mayor salutes Tim Tebow to settle bet]

This seems to go against all other NFL rule enforcements, which always say that the letter of the law is far more important than the spirit of it. Still, when Pereira speaks, it's wise to listen.

That being said, I went back and looked at tape from every touchdown scored during wild-card weekend and didn't see a single formation in which the scoring team wasn't set with at least seven guys on the line of scrimmage. In this comprehensive highlight package of Bengals-Texans, there's only one play (at the 4:10 mark) that has a similar sloppy formation. This neither confirms nor contradicts Pereira's point, it only shows that "illegal" sets aren't exactly a pox on the NFL.

Should Tebow's touchdown have counted? Absolutely. It isn't a penalty if you don't get caught.

Update: NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the formation was legal. "This is a legal formation," he told NFL.com. "This should not have been flagged." It's not exactly an in-depth rules explanation, but it's definitive.

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