The worst rule in football, as Ravens fans currently know, applies when a player approaches the goal line, fumbles, and no one recovers it before the ball crosses into the end zone and goes out of bounds, resulting in a touchback for the other team. The good news for Ravens fans and fans of any other team that could be screwed by the worst rule in football in the future is that the league will be discussing whether to change it.
The bad news is that it’s previously been a topic for the league, and that it has never been changed.
“This has been discussed in the past,” NFL senior V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino said in his weekly media officiating video. “It will continue to be discussed [and] compared to the fumble forward out of bounds in the field of play where the offense maintains possession. That has been part of the discussion. But again the Competition Committee has not felt compelled to change this rule. And I’m sure they’ll discuss it again and we’ll see where they land after the season.”
Blandino also explained the reason for the rule, which has been on the books for years.
“Because the goal line is involved — and this is a consistent application of the impetus rule,” Blandino said. “Impetus is the force that puts the ball into an end zone. 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.”
Blandino admits that the outcome could be viewed as draconian, in relation to the reality that a fumble by the offense that doesn’t roll out of bounds remains in the possession of the offense. Still, he seems to believe that the result is fair, given the impetus rule.
“Now that may seem like an egregious penalty but again, think about it, they put the ball into their opponent’s end zone,” Blandino said. “If it’s not fourth down or inside two minutes, if they recover it, it’s a score. So that’s potentially a big play, so the penalty for not recovering it . . . has to be big as well. That’s why it’s a touchback. That’s consistent with other loose balls that go into an opponent’s end zone. Kicks, punts, fumbles, backward passes.”
Blandino noted that, prior to 1934, an incomplete pass that crossed the goal line resulted in a touchback, too. That’s a ludicrous outcome; the fact that it ever was a rule demonstrates the traditional importance that applies to the end zone.
“You’re responsible for putting the ball into your opponent’s end zone, you’re responsible for recovering it,” Blandino said. “If you don’t and it goes out of bounds or the defense recovers, they’ve defended their goal line, and they get a touchback.”
If the defense recovers, obviously they deserve possession. The lingering sense of unfairness in this context comes from the reality that if the ball had gone out of bounds at any point in the 100 yards between the end zones, the ball would have remained in the possession of the offense. Once it breaks the plane of the opponent’s end zone and goes out of bounds, possession goes to the defense, at its own 20.
So at least there’s a reason for the rule. It makes it no less unfair, but at least there’s a reason.