The Dumbest Rule In Football

from Video

There wasn’t a single upset amongst the top twenty teams in college football last Saturday, with the only losses by teams in the top twenty (#15 Washington, #16 Northwestern) coming to teams ranked higher (#5 Stanford, #4 Ohio State).

The best chance for an upset came Saturday in the Georgia-Tennessee game.  Trailing late by a touchdown, the Bulldogs tied the game with five seconds remaining to force overtime.  The Volunteers got the ball first in overtime and began driving for, what appeared to be, an inevitable touchdown when Tennessee running back Pig Howard fumbled the ball reaching for the pylon.  The ball squirted out of his hands, went out the side of the end zone, resulting in a touchback that ended Tennessee’s chance to make a touchdown.

Georgia wouldn’t gain a single yard in overtime before kicking a 42-yard field goal to escape the upset.  What I am saying is Georgia managed to win despite not making a single positive play in overtime prior to the final kick.  The deciding play was Howard’s turnover, which was a highly scrutinized review by the officials before ruling a touchback on the fumble, an interpretation of the rule they made correctly.  But, the mistake that swung the outcome wasn’t made by the officials; it was made by those who wrote the rule.

I don’t claim to be an expert on football.  As a matter of fact, I am still in training and what I have learned from both analysts and coaches is that the disparity between those who are involved in the game and those who watch the game is more significant than fans would ever believe.  Still, making assumptions or criticisms about the game itself is something I try to avoid.

Often times, when someone is not an expert on something and tries to express an opinion on a particular subject matter to an expert, the expert will then explain why something is done a certain way.  Sometimes in a way that someone unfamiliar with the inner workings may not understand.  But the expert offers a reasonable explanation for why it is done that way.  I try to temper my opinions on how football should be played (I tend to anger football coaches whenever I profess my love for the A-11 offense), for I assume years and years of rules committees will have an explanation for why rules are the way they are.  Yet I find myself completely unable to understand why, where an offensive player fumbles the ball out of the end zone he is driving towards, the result ends up a touchback for the other team.  That has got to be the dumbest rule in football.

I simply, for the life of me, can’t think of anything dumber.  It is dumber than the rule where a player has to come off the field when they lose their helmet.  At least that has its roots in player safety.  It is dumber than the “tuck rule,” which the NFL finally eliminated earlier this year.  And it is dumber than the fact that a defensive player receives a penalty for even touching an offensive player’s facemask, while an offensive player can shove a defender in the face and call it ‘stiff-arming.’  It’s the dumbest rule mostly because there is no logic behind it.  And by just saying “that is the way it has always been done” doesn’t help.

There should never be a rule that rewards an opposing team for doing absolutely nothing.  If an offensive player fumbles the ball out of bounds on the one-yard line, his team retains possession on the one-yard line, and that is logical.  But if the ball goes out from inside the end zone, a mere three feet farther up the field, the other team gets the ball, and that makes no sense whatsoever.  So, if the ball goes out of bounds and the opposing team did not physically recover the ball, it shouldn’t be a turnover.  It is the only instance in the game where the defense gains possession without either taking it away from the offense, or having the offense voluntarily relinquish possession.

I recognize the inherent problem of spotting a ball that goes out of bounds in the end zone, but I haven’t heard a decent explanation of why the defense would gain possession in that circumstance.  Why wouldn’t the offensive team keep the ball on the one-yard line?  There is precedence for placement of the football based on activity in the end zone; which is the spot following a pass interference call in the end zone.  Why can’t they do this with a fumble out of the end zone?  Again, the defense did nothing to gain possession, why should they be rewarded?

The existing logic says that if a ball slips out of a player’s hands, a seven-point swing in the game is entirely dependent on where the ball bounces.  The way the rule is presently structured, if the defense gets backed up 99 yards and is unable to jump on a fumble, it is rewarded with possession as long as the ball goes out of bounds in the end zone and not the one-yard line.

It is not hard to determine the origin of my bias on this topic.  Two weeks ago, in the days leading up to the Cal game, the Pac-12 Networks took a break from running the 2000 Civil War on an endless loop (it just re-ran that game six times in the time it took you to read this sentence) to re-run Oregon’s 2007 matchup against Cal as part of the Pac-12’s ongoing series dedicated to “running as many old games where Oregon was on the wrong end of the score as possible.”

The end of that game was as sad as any in recent memory: The Ducks, trailing by seven, were driving when Oregon’s Cameron Colvin tried to reach for the pylon, but the ball slipped away before he could cross the goal line with it.  The officials appeared as baffled by the result as the fans were, waiting several seconds before making a call; as though they realized “wow, we have to end this game on the enforcement of this terrible rule.”  The touchback (penalty) secured the victory for Cal and, had Oregon remained healthy that year, that rule might have been the source of the only blemish on Oregon’s otherwise dominant 2007 season.

Two years later, the Ducks would appear in their first Rose Bowl in fifteen years, only to have its chance to take a lead, and further swing the momentum, squashed when a LaGarrette Blount-Jeremiah Masoli exchange was fumbled before going out of the end zone.  The result ended up giving the ball back to Ohio State.  Had the ball bounced out anywhere between the origin of the fumble and the goal line, Oregon would have retained possession.  Instead, it was a big momentum swing for Ohio State, who Oregon kept off the board for the reminder of the game.

The result of that rule was a crucial turning point in a pair of heartbreaking losses for Duck fans, mostly because of their anticlimactic outcome.  It is a rule that bails out a defense that is getting backed up, without ever forcing them to make a play.  Or even touch the ball.  Worst of all, the result always evokes the same “wait, what? That’s the outcome of that play?” reaction from those watching.  It’s a momentum killer that takes the air out of the stadium, yet has no reasonable explanation for being in existence.  It’s time to change that rule, restore some logic and by doing so make the conclusion of a game just a little more exciting and believable.

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