The Ravens put 15 men on the field and the refs missed it

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December 15, 2020

Q: How many Baltimore Ravens does it take to force a Baker Mayfield incompletion?

Traditionally, NFL teams are allowed up to 11 players on the field at any one time. More players than that would be confusing to the audience and unfair to their custom-following opposition. Attempting to play with 12 or more on the field incurs a five-yard penalty, which may or may not be one of Mike Vrabel’s weird hobbies.

Taking a too-many-men penalty is not hugely uncommon. According to the aptly named NFL Penalty Tracker, so far in 2020 we’ve had 38 of them. What happened to the Ravens and the Browns, however, is far less common: 15 Ravens were on the field simultaneously.

The Ravens have 15 players on the field against the Browns offense.

The box score, alas, fails to completely capture this weirdness:

5 Yard Penalty
(:11) (Shotgun) B.Mayfield pass incomplete deep left to R.Higgins. Cleveland challenged the too many players on field ruling, and the play was REVERSED. (Shotgun) B.Mayfield pass incomplete deep left to R.Higgins. PENALTY on BAL, Defensive Too Many Men on Field, 5 yards, enforced at BAL 42 – No Play.

There are a couple of things to note here. Firstly, the NFL rulebook mostly concerns itself with minor too-many-men infractions. Instances of more than 12 players on the field are rare, and in fact until very recently the penalty was called “Defensive 12 On-field.” Its current title is “Defensive Too Many Men on Field,” and this appears, like everything else, to be the fault of the Buffalo Bills.

In December 2017, the Bills, like the Ravens, and, I think, otherwise uniquely in NFL history, were caught with 15 men on the field:

The Bills are caught with 15 players on the field against the New England Patriots

Unfortunately, the referees then had to announce to everyone that the flag they threw was for the Bills having 12 on the field. This probably made them feel pretty silly*, as though they were incapable of counting beyond a dozen, and lo and behold, the name of the penalty was changed for the next season.

*Maybe not as silly as the Bills, who somehow managed to allow Tom Brady to run a four-yard sneak for the first down despite outnumbering the Patriots by four.

Personally I think it’s very funny that the Ravens are, somehow, not the first NFL team to have 15 players on the field at once. In fact, the Bills play might be even more egregious, since they had 13 players in formation and two headed to the sidelines against Baltimore’s 12 and 3. At any rate, these are both impressive violations of the rules. Since it’s a 5-yard penalty no matter what, however, why not stuff as many players as possible out there. 15? Pfft. Try 50 next time (please do not do this, Mike).

The second impressively strange thing about this play is that the referees completely failed to notice the fact that 15 Baltimore players were on the field at the same time. This was the last play of the third quarter in a pretty close game (the Ravens were up 34-20 at this point), and you’d think they’d have been paying more attention. But nope. It took a coach’s challenge from the Browns to overturn the unkindness and get them to make the right call.

While missing one extra player may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose four takes on the appearance of outright negligence. But, I’ll say this in the referees’ defense: I’ve spent much of my last couple of weeks homeschooling a four-year-old, and have learned that counting is hard! It’s especially hard when you’re both on the clock and confronted with an unusual situation. Nobody in their right mind would be looking for the Ravens to have 15 defensive players on the field at once. Granted, they ought to have been looking for ‘more than 11’, but our brains tend to cope badly with the unexpected. It’s an embarrassing mistake, but, hey, we’ve all goofed, and I, for one, plan to goof again.

Speaking of brains and counting, one interesting thing about the way we count is that it appears to be totally different for very small numbers and everything else. We appear to be able to recognize some quantities — up to four or five — instantaneously, in a process called ‘subitizing,’ while counting numbers larger than that requires active focus and attention. They’re totally different mental mechanisms.

Another interesting counting fact comes from the animal kingdom. In On the Senses, Instincts, and Intelligence of Animals, Sir John Lubbock recollects the following story of bird intelligence:

In this example, a landowner had been quite bothered by a crow that had chosen to nest in his watch-house. He had planned to shoot it. The bird, however, would fly away and wait until the landowner had left to return to its nest inside the watch-house, given that no-one would be inside to shoot it. In order to deceive the bird, the landowner had two people enter the watch-house and one leave. The crow, however, was not deceived by the plot, even when three men had entered and two had left. It wasn’t until five men had entered the tower and four had left that the bird did eventually fly back inside the watch-house. The crow thus showed a certain numerical ability to count up until four but not five [emphasis mine].

In other words, corvids can count and remember small numbers. But they definitely can’t count to 15 (and it seems unlikely that they even have a concept for 15). Perhaps the Ravens wanted to honor their namesakes?

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