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.





* Are you  a current or retired coach who would want to create some analyses as other guest coaches have in the past?  The readers and I have learned so much from expertise offered, and we would love to talk with you about how you can help us all continue to learn at  E-Mail me…  


*You MUST watch the new video spoofing the interim USC coach by Glenn Hanna.  Too good!  (Click here


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Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt is a senior writer and managing editor emeritus for FishDuck. Follow him on Twitter @nathanroholt. Send questions/feedback/hatemail to

  • Duckfan

    I couldn’t agree more. Starting with the Cal game in 07′ is when I have loathed the “idea” behid this rule. My point I always make, besides the points made in this story are that a fumble cannot be advanced unless recovered. Say you fumble at the opponents 3yd line and it goes out at the 1. You get the ball at the 3. Cannot advance. Yet if you fumble at the 3 and it goes out in the end zone…touchback. Doesn’t this mean the ball is being advanced?! Hate this rule, it is the worst rule in all of sports.

    • Chile Duck

      Duckfan, This is exactly the same point I was making to anyone who would listen back when the ’07 Cal fumble happened. Anywhere else on the field, the ball is spotted at the point of the fumble… We all agree, simply the worst rule in college football. Can we use this well presented Fishduck post to begin a movement to get the rule changed?

      • elcid

        I’d say if you fumble the ball within the field of play and then subsequently goes out of bounds in the endzone then yes there should be no forwarding and no touchback. However if you fumble and it lands first into the endzone and then out it should be a touchback. Why? Because that’s the definition of a touchback. There’s No possession, the end zone is dead for the defensive team or the return team. And the other team then gets possession. If the offense losses it’s chance of possesing the ball into the end zone than the opposite of a touchdown should occur. On a kick that goes out of the endzone there are two things occurring no possession and the ball going out of the endzone so it’s a touch back. They are just following that rule on the fumble. It’s actually very logical and consistent.

  • Greg Poole

    Obviously, I’m not too worked up about the touchback rule this week. Here is a better shot. We own it if you would like to use it, please do.

  • Keith Dennis

    This essay could have sprung fully formed from my own head and I would have titled it “The Worst Rule in College Football.”

  • Jon Sousa

    I totally agree about the stupidity of this rule. When a fumble occurs and goes out of the end zone they should have the same rule as the no fumbling forward rule because that is exactly what it is – it is a fumble forward. The ball should be placed where the fumble occurred.

  • ryan

    Don’t like the rule either, it’s so frustrating, but I did get a decent explanation that makes sense if you approach it a little differently — When a team is advancing the ball and attempting to score in their opponents end zone, this is an absolute critical area of the field, ball security is crucial. This area is owned by your opponent, it’s their end zone and you get 6 points if you get into their end zone possessing the ball (or crossing the plane). So, if you lose the ball in your opponents end zone, you are effectively, giving the ball to your opponent, regardless that you were so close to scoring, you’ve turned the ball over in real estate that they own, in a sense it’s been “touched” by their team’s end zone before it goes out of bounds, so it’s their ball!

  • goducks58

    Agree wholeheartedly, Nathan. It’s a rule that doesn’t make sense, and the added fact that it has cost the Ducks on big stages makes it all the more painful.

  • Locutus

    Good job Nathan.. i have complained about this rule for years. Every year it costs a College or Pro team a game. Both College and Pro’s have a rules committees that meet every year. !!WHY CAN’T THEY CHANGE IT!! The offense should retain possession and the ball should be spotted at the point of the fumble. How hard is this….

  • Chris Charbonnier

    Spot on. Great topic for an article and really well written. Terrible, terrible rule. It is such an extreme punishment for a reasonable result of an action (diving for the pylon) encouraged by another rule. The rule needs to be changed; it defies all logic.

    I’ll never forget that Cal game in ’07. Single loudest game I’ve ever attended at Autzen stadium. Heartbreaking loss.

  • disqus_JmcFDecx6w

    I thought a ball fumbled forward that goes out of bounds is returned to the fumbling team at the spot the ball was fumbled. The exception is when the ball goes out of bounds in the opponent endzone, which makes no sense. I hate that rule.

  • gamedaytribe

    Thank you! 100% agree.

  • ducky101

    I actually like this rule…. it makes a person protect the ball around the endzone and can eliminate some of the wild dives toward the endzone…. risk/reward. You want to be risky with the ball at the endzone on a dive toward it, then you risk losing possession…. Dont mean to disagree, but I like it.

  • Ryan

    To me, the rule forces players to be careful with the ball at the goal line. This scenario doesn’t happen too often, because players understand that if they lose the ball on the one-yard line their team is at a disadvantage to get it back, so they usually protect the ball rather than reaching it out towards the pylon.
    Basically, the threat of the fumble more often than not going to the defense, eliminates players haphazardly reaching the ball out and causing more close TD/fumble calls and leaving less chance for officials to make a bad judgment call. Officials still must make a decision when the ball does come out, but it happens a lot less than if that rule were removed. Just a thought.

  • Bigkahouna

    This just happened to My son playing high school football. 33 seconds left, down by 4 we run from the 30 yard line and he gets hit at the 1 and fumbles. The ball goes out of the endzone and we lose. Ridiculous rule to penalize a team for gaining 30 yards with no possession change.

  • Proxie

    What is to stop the offense from simply kicking or roll the ball out of the back of the end zone? Or if I’m running past the ten, simply tossing it laterally out of the side if the end one or drop kicking it into the end one? Cone on people you have to control the ball in the scoring zone, if not you turn it over to the opposing offense.

  • Tony Pegler

    There is no penalty for simply touching the facemask, nor for grabbing, only if the facemask/helmet is twisted is it a foul in NCAA.
    Also the stupid rule as you say that a player must come off for a down if his helmet comes off – it’s to encourage coaches to make sure the players are wearing their equipment correctly. Its meant to be an inconvenience.
    Would you rather an equipment violation be a foul with a penalty instead ?

    If you think some rules are stupid you’d think the coaches would agree wouldn’t you ? No – 6 or the members of the rules committee are head coaches and the rest are AD’s. Not one official.