This is #24 in a series covering football's original 61 rules adopted by the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1876. Normally, we review one rule each Friday but are reviewing this week’s rule on Thursday to allow another Tidbit to be published tomorrow.
Some elements of the original onside and offside rules remain in football today, but they eliminated the last vestige of Rule 24 from football more than one century ago. Nevertheless, the rule played a part in the early game, so it merits examination.
Rule 24: A player being off side is put on side when the ball has been kicked by, or has touched the dress or person of, any player of the opposite side, or when one of his own side has run in front of him, either with the ball or having kicked it when behind him.
Previous rules told us that players had to remain behind a teammate possessing the ball to be onside. As a result, offside players could not legally participate in the play, though that changed as football accepted interference or blocking. But Rule 24 tells us three ways offside players can return to being onside:
They return to being onside when an opponent touches the ball, regardless of where our player is relative to the opponent.
Players return to being onside when a teammate that possesses the ball advances and becomes closer to the opponent's goal than the previously offside player.
An offside player goes back onside when a teammate is behind him, kicks the ball downfield, and then passes the previously offside player.
Of the three, the last method of becoming onside again is the most difficult for modern football fans to understand. Still, as mentioned previously, this element was the basis for the quarterback kick and onside kick from scrimmage tactics that were part of football from the 1890s to 1922. An earlier article, The Surprising Origins of the Roughing the Punter Penalty, provides a full explanation of these tactics, but a brief description follows.
From football's beginning, punts were recoverable by kicking team members if those players were behind the punter at the time of the kick. Teammates in front of the punter and, therefore, offside returned to being onside when the punter passed them running downfield. Penn's coach, George Woodruff, took advantage of those rules to develop his "guards back formation" in 1892. Football did not yet require a specific number of players to be on the line of scrimmage at the snap. Woodruff's guards back formation facilitated mass and momentum plays and positioned more players behind the quarterback when he quick-kicked the ball. The players behind the punter could run downfield to recover the punt, as could those the punter passed while running downfield. That led defenses to physically obstruct the punter to prevent him from running downfield, a tactic known as "roughing" the punter.
In an attempt to open up the game, the 1906 rule changes allowed every player on the punting team to recover the punt regardless of their position relative to the punter. Considered by many to be a more critical rule change than legalizing the forward pass, the rule makers eliminated the onside kick from scrimmage in 1923.
For previous stories in the series, click the link for each rule: Intro | #1 Drop Kick | #2 Place Kick | #3 Punt | #4 Goal Posts | #5 Goal | #6 Goal ≠ Punt | #7: Scoring | #8: Dead Ball | #9: Touchdown | #10: Tackle | #11: Scrimmage | #12: Ball Handling | #13 Dead Ball | #14: Scrimmage Ball Handling | #15 Run In | #16: Goal Line | #17: Boundary Lines | #18: Crying “Down” | #19: Maul In | #20 Maul in Pax | #21: Touch-in Goal | #22: Onside | #23 Offside
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