The ‘worst rule in football’ isn’t wrong at all

·10 min read

Sometimes it’s OK to admit when you’re wrong.

For years, I’ve hated the infamous fumble-through-the-end-zone, lose-the-ball play. I’ve called it the worst rule in football, because man, it sure seems terrible. You get that close to the end zone, you make one mistake and you lose everything? That ain’t right!

So when the Cleveland BrownsRashard Higgins reached out toward the pylon in last weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs, only to fumble away the ball, possession and a good chunk of Cleveland’s hopes, I was the living version of that Leo DiCaprio-pointing-at-the-TV gif, all full of righteous rage. And I wasn’t alone.

Only this time, I didn’t take a flamethrower to my house. I did what we probably all should do in these situations: I consulted some NFL rules experts. And what I found was that the “worst rule in football” … isn’t so bad after all.

The very short version

It’s the offense’s job to get a live ball down the field and across the goal line. If the offense fails in that task, it loses the ball. End of story.

The very long version

If we’re going to spend another 1,500-plus words parsing out a situation that occurs only a handful of times a season, let’s begin by laying out the rule itself. The NFL’s official rulebook, Rule 8, Section 7, Article 3, Item 4, Subcategory 1 (yes, this is a true citation) states: “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.”

OK. That explains what happens when a player fumbles the ball into the end zone. It doesn’t explain why. Why does the offense have to lose the ball entirely? If a player fumbles out of bounds on the 1-inch line, the offense keeps the ball. But 1 foot further and the ball goes over to the other team? Does that make sense?

Yes, when you consider:

1) what exactly the end zone constitutes
2) the Impetus Rule
3) the concept of “in touch.”

The sacred end zone

The end zone, in football, is a quasi-mystical creation, infinitely high and, in rulebooks past, infinitely broad. Its quirks don’t always make sense — you score a touchdown if the ball just brushes the front of the end zone plane, but a receiver who catches the ball entirely within the end zone must get both feet down to also get a touchdown. A rusher who somehow landed feet-first in the end zone but with the ball outside of it would not get a touchdown, but a receiver with both feet in and the ball outside the back of the end zone would.

Let’s put that aside for a second while we focus on this particular rule. “It comes back to the core objective of the game, back to the 1870s,” says Ben Austro, editor-in-chief of the all-things-officiating website Football Zebras. “Defend the goal. Do not allow the offense to penetrate the goal with the ball.”

Whatever else is going on when a player fumbles the ball forward, we can all agree on this: the offense did not penetrate the goal with the ball. Rationalizations, philosophical arguments, poetic justifications … all of them are secondary to that fact.

Rashard Higgins' fumble out of the end zone during the Browns-Chiefs divisional playoff game on Sunday drew a lot of outrage over the touchback rule. (AP)
Rashard Higgins' fumble out of the end zone during the Browns-Chiefs divisional playoff game on Sunday drew a lot of outrage over the touchback rule. (AP)

The Impetus Rule

Because nothing is ever simple in football, there’s a philosophical-slash-legalistic construct known as the Impetus Rule. It’s the NFL rules version of you-break-it, you-bought-it, and it comes into play when the ball enters that mystical end zone.

“Impetus is the force that puts the ball into an end zone,” NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino said a few years back, speaking of this exact situation. “So if a team provides the impetus that puts a ball into their opponent’s end zone ... then they are responsible for it. They’re responsible for it. And if the ball gets out of bounds through the end zone then it is a touchback.”

In other words, if the offense burps up the ball into the end zone, it’s the responsibility of the offense — not the referees, not the rulebook and certainly not the defense — to get the ball back under control. If the offense can’t do that, too bad, so sad.

“Some say the NFL rule is too punitive, that the offense shouldn't lose possession in a situation like that,” says NFL historian Dan Daly. “But I kind of like the idea of the field being finite — and that when you fumble out of the end zone it's like it drops off the face of the earth. Gone forever. A fumble between the goal lines, that's different; you're still in the field of play. But they don't call it the end line for nothing.”

In touch: one end zone, three choices

John Turney of Pro Football Journal breaks down the rule with the precision of a lawyer: “It's been the rule for at least 130 years,” he says, “and it follows logically from the fact that when the ball is ‘in touch’ [i.e. live in the end zone], it has a very different status from when it's somewhere between the two goal lines.”

A ball “in touch” has three possible fates: touchdown, touchback or safety. That’s it.

Obviously a ball going forward into the opponent’s end zone wouldn’t be a safety, and there’s no reason whatsoever to grant a touchdown to someone fumbling the ball into the end zone. So what’s left? Exactly.

“If it’s a kick or punt, another situation where we have a loose ball in the end zone, we know that when it’s a dead ball, it’s a touchback,” Austro says. “But let’s make an exception for a fumble? No.”

The only exception to this rule involves momentum — if, for instance, a defender intercepts a pass at the goal line and falls backward, or a defender slides to grab a fumble and continues on into the end zone. Until relatively recently, that situation would be a safety against the team that recovered the ball, which seems far more unfair than the fumble-into-the-end-zone rule. But since the laws of physics trump even the laws of football, the NFL made an exception in that particular case. The defense now gets the ball at the spot of the recovery.

And hey, speaking of that poor defense …

Cut the defense a break

There’s a reason why Ryan Fitzpatrick has more career passing yards than Steve Young or Troy Aikman. The NFL’s rules have inexorably evolved to favor offense. It’s no surprise why as even a routine pass play fires up fans more than an impressive defensive stop. This offense-is-king philosophy has skewed our perception of the game, to the point where it now seems the offense is bathed in holy righteousness. A rule like this, which clearly favors the defense and heavily penalizes the offense, thus somehow seems … wrong.

Daly points out that the college rules give the defense the ball back at the spot of the fumble, which could have the effect of penalizing the defense even more than the offense.

“Imagine this scenario: Team A fumbles out of the end zone,” Daly says. “Team B gets the ball at the 1/2-yard line. A safety follows. Then a free kick gives Team A good field position, and it scores again — touchdown, field goal, whatever. Team A ends up with 5 or even 9 points. That's why the touchback makes sense, I think.”

Plus, the rules don’t make exceptions for offensive arrogance or stupidity. Extending the ball with one hand to go for the heroic touchdown is a case of risk-reward. “You know the rule, so when you’re near the goal line, do not put the ball in peril like that,” Austro says. “If you take the risk, that comes with reward, but also with that [potential] penalty. Don’t bail out a team who knows what the rule is.”

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, file photo, New York Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (88) loses his grip on the ball as he is tackled by New England Patriots' Malcolm Butler (21) and Duron Harmon (30) during the second half of an NFL football game, in East Rutherford, N.J. "I just think it's too risky to do something like that," Jets offensive coordinator John Morton said. "I always try to say, 'Just lower your head and finish with the ball through the end zone.' That's the best thing to do to protect it, otherwise you might fumble it through and now it's a touchback. What good does that do you? Then they have the ball and it could cost you, but it's hard. Guys are competing and they're trying to score, and it just happens. It just happens, but that's what we preach. Hold onto the ball and run into the end zone if you can with it." The Jets were hurt by the rule earlier in the season against New England when tight end Seferian-Jenkins had the ball knocked loose just short of the end zone and recovered it while out of bounds leading to a touchback.  (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File)
In this Oct. 15, 2017, file photo, Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (88) loses his grip on the ball as he is tackled by the Patriots' Malcolm Butler (21) and Duron Harmon. Seferian-Jenkins fumbled and recovered it while out of bounds leading to a touchback. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File)

Old-school rules, old-school chaos

As infuriating as the rule can be now, it’s worth noting that things could be — indeed, used to be — so much worse. Remember what I said about the quirks of the end zone? What are now merely quirks were once incomprehensible and monumental decrees.

For instance, prior to 1926, a ball on a punt or kickoff was considered “live” until it was downed by possession — whether or not the ball stayed in the end zone. What this meant in practice was that balls would be skittering through the backs of end zones, out into open fields or running tracks behind the end zone, and players from both teams would be chasing it down: the receiving team to down it, the kicking team to try to turn it into a cheap touchdown.

Imagine that kind of chaos now — a horde of Chiefs, say, chasing a kickoff up the ramp and into the concourse. Thrilling as that sounds, there’s a reason why rulemakers removed the “by possession” component and deemed any out-of-bounds ball in the end zone to be downed.

The NFL has amended its fumbling rules in other areas; you can’t pull a Kenny Stabler-esque fumble-rooski anymore. And for a short time, a fumble was even more catastrophic.

“For a brief period of time in the '50s there was a rule that said: If the ball is fumbled out of bounds, possession goes to the team that last touched it,” Daly says. “They realized it was a mistake and went back to the old rule — the one we still have — pretty quickly.”

The end zone was once more treacherous, too; there was a time in the ’20s when an incomplete pass in the end zone was a turnover. Since that tended to sharply diminish the passing game once teams got into the red zone, that rule ended up in the trash too. But the sanctity of the end zone persisted in other ways … which we noted above. (It’s OK if you don’t remember. It was awhile ago.)

End (at last) of story

So there you have it. Responsibility, philosophy, impetus … an awful lot of big words for a loose ball. Bottom line, though, this is a rare situation and not one that’s likely to be changed anytime soon.

“There were eight instances [in 2017], three the year before and three the year before that,” Falcons president Rich McKay, head of the NFL’s competition committee, said in 2018. “We did not believe it merited a proposal.” (The Falcons this week declined to comment on whether McKay has updated his thinking on this particular issue.)

“It comes back to the basic rules of, 100-yard field, 10-yard end zone, get the ball into the end zone. To say now that we’re going to throw in this exception, even though you didn’t get the ball those 100 yards … ” Austro says. “A lot of old rules do change, but this [rule] seems to be baked into the objective of the game.”

I’m convinced. Fumble into the end zone, lose the ball. End of story … until it happens to my team. Then I’ll call it the worst rule in football again.

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