The NFL has a rule worse than the catch rule and there is a simple way to fix it

  • In Week 15, the Oakland Raiders became the latest team to fall on the wrong side of the worst rule in the NFL, losing possession after Derek Carr fumbled the ball out of the end zone during the team’s final drive of the game.
  • The rule is one of many that deserves re-examining, but is a much easier problem to fix than the ever-evolving question of “What is a catch?”
  • Moving the ball back to the 20 without changing possession after a ball is fumbled out of the end zone would provide a happy medium compared to the play’s current extreme repercussions.

Week 15 once again saw a game ruined by a rule that has been running rampant over the course of this season and has an easy fix to it, should the NFL choose to act.

No, we’re not talking about the catch rule. We’re talking about the fumble-out-of-the-end-zone rule.

The Oakland Raiders were the most recent victims of this rule on Sunday night. Driving in the red zone to tie or win the game with just seconds remaining in regulation, quarterback Derek Carr scrambled for a first down, but rather than slide to safety and set up for another play, he dove for the pylon.

With Carr’s arm outstretched, he was hit, knocking the ball loose from his grip, into the end zone, and out of bounds. The result of the play? A turnover and a touchback, giving the Cowboys the ball at the 20-yard line.

While the Raiders are the freshest memory we have of this particular sequence, it’s been an ongoing storyline of the 2017 NFL season. In Week 10, Bears’ head coach John Fox threw the challenge flag after running back Benny Cunningham was called short of the end zone after diving for the line. The original call was overturned, but rather than the Bears scoring a touchdown, the referees determined that Cunningham had lost control of the ball. Fox’s challenge actually lost his team possession.

Additionally, a similar ruling was made on a controversially overturned touchdown when the Jets and Patriots met back in Week 6. Jets’ players were quick to offer criticism of the decision after that play, with wide receiver Jermaine Kearse saying, “I’m pretty sure everybody is going to look back and say that was a B.S. call.”

The rule draws ire from football fans because the loss of possession feels like an extreme punishment for the team attempting to score. The NFL should be encouraging teams to try to score, not punishing them for stretching out in an attempt to make an exciting play.

Unlike the catch rule, there is a simple solution.

According to Section 38 of the NFL rulebook, a touchback occurs when “the ball is dead on or behind the goal line a team is defending, provided that the impetus comes from an opponent, and that it is not a touchdown or an incomplete pass.”

It feels like this rule was written with special teams in mind, where a dead ball behind the goal line is common. Then one day a team fumbled out of the end zone and the enforcers of NFL rules just kind of had to roll with it, not having planned for such a contingency.

The play was so rare that many didn’t even know the particulars of the rule coming into the season, but now that this sequence of events has become an seemingly-inescapable part of our football-viewing lives, it’s a problem to be solved. Thankfully, it can be solved easily.

The solution: When a team fumbles the ball out of bounds, they retain possession with a fresh set of downs, and with the ball moved back to the 20-yard line. It’s an inverted touchback – the ball still returns to the 20, but without a change of possession. This provides a degree of punishment for the possessing team, while not over-rewarding the defense after a fluke play.

Think of it like cornhole. When playing to 21, you have to get to 21 exactly – if you go over, you drop back down to 15. It’s a significant punishment that encourages smart play, but doesn’t completely alter the course of the game by giving all of your bags to your opponents.

Let’s examine how such a scenario would have played out on Monday night between the Raiders and Cowboys. Derek Carr fumbled out of the end zone, and the Raiders would have been sent back to the 20 with 31 seconds left and one timeout remaining.

While scoring the game-winning touchdown would be more difficult than it would have been from the three-yard-line had Carr simply slid and maintained possession, it still would have been possible. Additionally, if the Cowboys’ defense held, a field goal to force overtime would still be makeable, but not nearly the chip shot it once was from inside the five. The Cowboys even could have sacked Carr to move the Raiders out of field goal range!

Moving from the goal line back to the 20 drops a team’s point expectancy by roughly two or three points, but doesn’t drop it all the way down to zero like a change of possession would have. It punishes the possessing team for being reckless with the ball, without completely shifting the balance of a game due an odd bounce or some replay that shows a single frame of bobbled possession.

Jesse James' touchdown was later ruled incomplete, giving the Patriots a chance to come back against the Steelers.

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Jesse James’ touchdown was later ruled incomplete, giving the Patriots a chance to come back against the Steelers.
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Joe Sargent/Getty Images

This particular pet peeve is hardly the only thing in the NFL rulebook that needs fixing – on Sunday football fans across the country were once again questioning their understanding of what a catch is, and were utterly confused as a referee used a piece of paper to determine a measurement.

But while rules surrounding catches and placements will be a source of controversy as long as football exists, this one specific rule can be fixed, and with relative ease. So please NFL, consider this modest proposal – don’t dissuade your star athletes from diving at the pylon cam.