Bears head coach John Fox did something dumb Sunday. Chicago running back Benny Cunningham caught a short pass in the second quarter of his team’s matchup with the Packers, scampered 23 yards with the ball, and then dove headfirst toward the pylon before being ruled out of bounds at the 2-yard line. Fox quickly decided to challenge, thinking that Cunningham had crossed the plane of the goal line and thus made it into the end zone. This was a questionable move: Why would Fox waste one of his challenges when Chicago had first-and-goal and needed to gain only a few feet?
As it turns out, the challenge didn’t just fail to help the Bears—it actively hurt them. Officials soon realized that Cunningham had fumbled the ball before crossing the goal line, and that the ball had then crossed into the end zone and out of bounds. By rule, a fumble that goes out of bounds through a defensive team’s end zone is a touchback, and the defensive team gets the ball. Fox had turned a great scoring opportunity into a turnover. When he understood what happened, this was the look on his face:
Fox’s error was only the second-most prominent fumble turned touchback of the year. In a Week 6 matchup between the Jets and Patriots, New York tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught a pass and dove into the end zone for what initially appeared to be a 4-yard score. Upon review, however, referees saw that he briefly lost control of the ball midair and ruled that Seferian-Jenkins never regained control before landing out of bounds. (The catch rule. The dreaded catch rule.) In the field of play, he wouldn’t have needed to regain control of the ball. In the end zone he had to, though, because if the ball goes out of bounds through the end zone without anyone controlling it, it becomes a touchback. Almost everyone agreed that this play looked like a touchdown, but officials said it wasn’t. The Patriots got the ball and won by seven, leaving Jets fans to think about the points that Seferian-Jenkins could have scored.
If you can, try to separate the stupidity of Fox’s decision and the NFL’s catch rule from the problems with the rules pertaining to the Bermuda Triangle–esque corner of the field where the sideline meets the goal line, where the normal laws of football no longer seem to apply. An offensive player can’t fumble in the end zone—that’s impossible, if he possesses the ball in the end zone for even a millisecond, he has scored a touchdown. If a player fumbles while in the field of play and the ball goes out of bounds in between the goal lines, the ball is returned to the spot of the fumble (or the spot where it went out of bounds, if it traveled backward) and the fumbling team maintains possession. But if a player fumbles in the field of play and the ball crosses the goal line before going out of bounds, this constitutes a turnover, and the opposing team gets the ball at its own 20-yard line.
This is absurdly punitive. Ravens coach John Harbaugh called it “a crazy rule” in 2016; Yahoo has labeled it the worst rule in football; Pro Football Talk has called it the “most unfair rule in the game”; Fox Sports has called it “the dumbest rule in the NFL”; and NFL.com has called it “the league’s worst, most nonsensical rule.” This scenario happens fairly frequently: The Titans had a fumble turned touchback Sunday, while the Cardinals and Rams each had one in Week 5. An unclaimed ball tumbling out of the end zone has been ruled a touchback for as long as the sport has existed.
Former NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino said the league has previously looked into altering the rule, but never felt compelled to change it. Maybe that was because it lacked any good ideas on how to treat fumbles that go out of bounds through the end zone. So here’s a breakdown of the current rule, along with five possible solutions that could work much better.
The Current Method
How it works: We just talked about this! Jeez.
The pros: The goal line’s importance is central to football as we know it. The notion that a team is maximally rewarded for maintaining possession while getting the ball across the plane and that a team is given nothing for failing to do so is part of what makes this sport great.
The cons: Turning an unrecovered goal-line fumble into a touchback represents a massive shift—in terms of expected point value, it’s more valuable than scoring a touchdown. Think about it: If a team scores a touchdown, it gets six points and a PAT, but then lines up to kick off and give possession to its opponent. On a fumble turned touchback, the same team benefits from the point swing—its opponent’s drive could have ended in seven points, but instead ended in zero—and from the possession swing.
And to reap such a colossal reward, the defending team on these plays does not even have to gain possession of the ball. Everywhere else in the field, a defense has to recover a fumble to take full advantage of it. Yet in the end zone—the most valuable part of the field—it only has to make half a play?
I mean, think about this clip from the 2015 season:
What Seahawks defender K.J. Wright did here was illegal—you’re not allowed to bat the ball like he did—but it hints at a larger point. Clearly, defensive players realize it’s wiser to just escort the ball out of the end zone than it is to attempt to recover it. The current system makes a fumble out of the end zone one the best outcome a defense can hope for. That’s weird.
The Rule We Use Everywhere Else on the Field
How it would work: If a player fumbles the ball out of the end zone, his team would get the ball back at the spot where it was fumbled. Remember, a player cannot fumble after he’s in the end zone; at that point, he would’ve already scored a touchdown.
The pros: It’s a lot easier for everyone to keep track of the rules when we don’t have separate sets of them to be applied to different parts of the field.
The cons: Everything should be more critical near the goal line—including ball security. We see players hurl their bodies toward the end zone in hopes of getting the ball across the plane. By adopting this rule change, the league would eliminate a major punishment for losing the ball on one of these leaps. The fumbling team would get the ball right back, a few feet away from scoring a touchdown.
The Plain Turnover
How it would work: The fumbling team would not regain possession at the spot of the fumble; instead, the opposing team would get the ball at that spot. (Side note: A plain turnover with no filling would be disgusting.)
The pros: The fumbling team would still be punished for its mistake, but the team that gets the football would be put in a precarious position. Most of these fumbles happen near the 1-yard line or so, and the expected point value of a drive starting on a team’s own 1-yard line is negative. Any play could result in a safety; any turnover could turn into six points for the opponent; and a punt from the shadow of a team’s own goalposts is likely to give an opponent prime field position.
The cons: No teams wants to start a possession on its own 6-inch line. This might be too harsh to the team that didn’t fumble.
The Reverse Touchback
How it would work: After a player fumbles out of the end zone, the ball would be moved back to the 20-yard line as it is now. In this case, though, the fumbling team would keep possession.
The pros: The team that fumbles would lose field position as a result of its error. This solution feels more sensible than the current rule: It’d punish the fumbling team, but it wouldn’t award possession to an opposing team that didn’t recover that fumble.
The cons: The 20-yard line might be too close to discourage players from being reckless with the ball near the goal line. Why not move the starting field position back to the 30, 35, or 50?
How it would work: In Canadian football, there’s something called a single, which is a point awarded to a team in any of these three scenarios: (1) a team misses a field goal and the ball goes out of bounds through the end zone; (2) a team punts the ball and it goes out of bounds through the end zone; (3) a team kicks the ball off and tackles a player on the receiving team in his own end zone. This can also be called a rouge, depending on whether you feel like being all French about it. The single led to the greatest play in the history of Canadian football—or, to be honest, football of any kind—when two teams got into a punt battle in an attempt to score (or prevent) a game-winning rouge in a 30-30 contest:
But that video doesn’t apply here. Fumbles that go out of bounds through the end zone do not count for points in Canadian football, so we’re taking an excellent idea and adapting it. In this solution, the NFL rule would stay basically the same—the fumbling team would lose possession, the opposing team would get the ball at its own 20-yard line—except the fumbling team would get one point for the ball going out of bounds through the end zone.
The pros: The rouge would both reward the fumbling team for getting the ball to the opposing goal line and punish it for its failure—after all, it would still be better for a team to hold onto the ball and kick a field goal (worth three points) than score a rouge (one point). This would also allow for the long-sought-after 1-0 score, currently impossible under American football rules. The introduction of occasional rouges would lead to funkier scores in general, which would lead to more two-point conversion attempts and more complicated late-game decision-making. And why do we watch football if not to watch coaches struggle with late-game decision-making?
The cons: The problem with the current rule isn’t that the fumbling team ends up with zero points; it’s that the fumbling team is robbed of the opportunity to score points whatsoever. It would feel weird for teams to be rewarded specifically for plays on which they failed—can you imagine a team registering a go-ahead point in a tie game by losing a fumble?
The Make-It, Take-It Solution
How it would work: The fumbling team would be given one untimed down from the spot at which the ball was lost. If that team could get the ball into the end zone on the untimed play, it would win the right to continue its drive from the spot at which the ball was fumbled. If the fumbling team was unable to score, though, the other team would get possession at the 20-yard line. This would be like a two-point conversion attempt, except what’s at stake would be possession instead of points.
The pros: You know what’s good? Football. Turning an out-of-bounds fumble into a touchback is not football—it’s an automatic rules reflex. This solution would add a pivotal football play to these situations, and pivotal football plays are good. My favorite part about this option is that it’d give a team agency over how strictly it’d be punished for its failure. If a team can score twice—once to win possession, once for real—it deserves those points.
This is how things are settled in playground basketball. Anybody can criticize a rule or officiating decision. Then the matter is put in the player’s hands, because no one can accuse the ball of dishonesty. The ball and Shakira’s hips: the two things on this planet that don’t lie.
The cons: Personally, this is my favorite option. (I invented it, so I’m biased.) But really, any of the above suggestions seem like a fairer solution to the fumble-turned-touchback issue than the rule that’s currently in place. Football can be great with innovation—in fact, it’s been improved by many innovations over the years. The NFL shouldn’t stop evolving now.