The Kansas City Chiefs’ divisional round playoff victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday nearly ended differently, in part because of the NFL’s end zone fumble rule.
With 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were inches away from increasing their lead to 10 when receiver Mecole Hardman fumbled the ball into the end zone.
The ball rolled out of bounds since the Bills’ defense was unable to recover it, but Buffalo still gained possession of the ball after the play because of the end zone fumble rule.
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2024
The turnover didn’t have the significant impact on the game that was initially expected. The Chiefs won 27-24 and punched their ticket to their sixth consecutive AFC Championship.
What is the end zone fumble rule?
The NFL rule states that “if a ball is fumbled in the field of play, and goes forward into the opponent’s end zone and over the end line or sideline, a touchback is awarded to the defensive team.”
If the ball went out of bounds before crossing the goal line, the Chiefs would have retained possession at the spot it went out of bounds, according to the rule.
CBS Sports’ rules analyst Gene Steratore took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to explain why the referees made the right call.
“If a player fumbles the ball through the end zone, the result of the play is a touchback. In (Kansas City-Buffalo), when contact occurs to the receiver, the ball starts to move signaling loss of control. This is a good overturn via replay to a fumble, resulting in a change of possession and touchback,” he wrote.
Will the end zone fumble rule change?
On Sunday, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported there’s “momentum behind” changing the end zone fumble rule in the offseason.
“Good chance the touchback rule for fumbling through the end zone will be changed this offseason. Momentum behind NFL correcting it. Penalty considered by many to be too harsh,” he wrote on X during the game.
Fowler isn’t the first to report serious interest in changing the rule.
In December, CBS Sports’ lead NFL insider Jonathan Jones reported that the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations said the league “will consider and discuss amending the touchback rule regarding fumbling through the end zone” in the offseason.
Why hasn’t the NFL changed the touchback end zone fumble rule before?
The biggest snag in changing the rule appears to be finding a suitable alternative to awarding a touchback to the defense.
The league hasn’t considered making a change since the conclusion of the 2017 season, when there were eight offensive end zone fumbles in the regular season, CBS Sports reported.
The competition committee decided then that “After much consideration and review of video, the Committee did not believe a rule change was necessary, believing that it is an exciting play that rewards the defense for an offensive error,” per a committee report CBS Sports obtained.
What did Andy Reid say about the end zone fumble rule?
During his post-game press conference, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was asked if he liked the NFL’s rule. Instead of criticizing it, Reid focused his answer on the play’s execution.
“(Hardman’s) had so many big plays for us over time and on that play,” he said. “But you can’t reach out. He was trying so you give him the effort but we know you can’t do that down there because of that reason. You gotta protect that football. He’ll be better for that.”