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CallsCardinals quick grab on punt coverage saves huge Lions return

Cardinals quick grab on punt coverage saves huge Lions return

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Week 11: Lions at Cardinals (video)

An unusual set of circumstances collided on an Arizona punt, and, depending on the ruling, it is a spectacular play for one team and a missed opportunity for the other.

With the punt headed for the end zone, Cardinals special teamer Justin Bethel grabs the ball before it goes into the end zone and tosses it back into the field of play. If Bethel carries it into the end zone, this is obviously a touchback. With the ball still bouncing around, Lions punt returner Jeremy Ross picks up the ball and runs 46 yards into Cardinals territory.

As it was initially ruled, the Cardinals have a first-touch at the 1-yard line, which gives the Lions a virtual free pass. No matter what happens (with a minor exception) for the rest of the play, the Lions are entitled to no worse than that spot determined as the Cardinals’ “first-touch violation.” It is not a foul, but in some respects it acts as one. If Ross fumbles the ball — and as long as the Lions don’t commit a penalty with the fumble — the Lions are still entitled to the ball at the 1, because they have a choice between the dead-ball spot or the spot of the first-touch violation. This was a very adept play by Ross. However, the Cardinals astutely challenged the play, and were able to wipe out Ross’s entire return. Both teams were showing deep rules knowledge on the play.

If Bethel’s touching of the ball is ruled instead as having possession, then the ball is dead right on the spot. Since a punt and a pass are both considered a loose ball, then to secure possession of a punt, it follows the same process as there is for a catch. The three elements necessary are (1) firm control of the ball, (2) two feet on the ground (or other body part the except hands) in bounds, and (3) the ability to make an act common to the game. These elements happened in quick succession, but, Bethel heaved the ball back into the field of play with two feet down; the irony is that the act of surrendering possession is what completes the establishment of possession. Since it is a voluntary act, Bethel performed an act common to the game. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is enough to complete the process, and replay ruled that Bethel had possession.

Now that we have established possession by the Cardinals inside the 1-yard line, we refer to Rule 9-3-2:

When the kickers catch or recover a kick beyond the line of scrimmage, the ball is dead at the spot of recovery, even if a member of the receiving team has first touched the ball.

So, if Bethel batted the ball backwards, it is a different story, because he did not have possession, and the runback is allowed. Also, if Bethel grabbed the ball in the air and did not get two feet down, he also does not establish possession. Possession is the key, and it is treated no different than a traditional downed punt. It is also the same principle that, when the kicking team recovers a muffed punt, the play is also dead, because the kicking team is the first to establish possession.

With that rule, Bethel had to drop the ball, because the ball is dead only if he does not subsequently bring the ball into the end zone. The exception listed as Item 3 under the above rule:

If a player of the kicking team … recovers a scrimmage kick… and carries the ball across the goal line, or touches the goal line with any part of his
body while in possession of the ball, the ball is dead, and the result of the play is a touchback.

Armed with these rules, you should be able to ace our punt coverage quiz from last year. Good luck. It is very hard, and no one has gotten 100% correct — yet.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

9 thoughts on “Cardinals quick grab on punt coverage saves huge Lions return

  1. Yes, this call was highly marginal, since it seems to me that it order to possess the ball it should be like a pass completion and the defender should clearly possess and control the ball at the completion of the play. But the first down call with about 30 seconds left in the game was much more troubling. From every angle I saw, it was pretty clear that the ball was past the first down marker when it went out of bounds. It is telling that the NFL chose to silence Mike Pereira’s comments in the replay of this call on their site. It’s also telling that you’ve chosen not to consider it here. This extremely questionable call cost the Lions any chance to tie the game.

  2. If the rules for a catch apply, and the receiver went to the ground, why do the process of the catch to the ground not apply?

  3. He did not have complete control of it so should have been considered a batted ball, play should have been confirmed or at least play stands as called. Never mind had Arizona fell on the ball they would have spotted the ball right there and never would have overturned that spotting of the ball. Gimme what their smoking at the NFL command central.

  4. So, you say that possession in this case “it follows the same process as there is for a catch.” If that is true, then why do I see some many receivers catch the ball with two hands, both feet hit the ground, and then immediately drop the ball, which is then ruled INCOMPLETE. The NFL is trying to rationalize a bias by splitting hairs like they did in this case. It is obvious that the NFL has dictated to the officials that the Cardinals are to go to their own Super Bowl. There is no other explanation possible for the incorrect replay of the 3rd down spot in the 2nd quarter, the missed holding call on the Cardinals 1st TD, the extremely ticky-tack defensive holding call in the 1st quarter, followed by an even more egregious offensive pass interference call in the same quarter. The fact that the Lions were flagged 10 times in the 1st half to none for the Cardinals is more evidence of an overt bias.

  5. Since a punt and a pass are both considered a loose ball, then to secure possession of a punt, it follows the same process as there is for a catch…..These elements happened in quick succession, but, Bethel heaved the ball back into the field of play with two feet down; the irony is that the act of surrendering possession is what completes the establishment of possession. Since it is a voluntary act, Bethel performed an act common to the game.

    just how stupid do you think the average NFL fan is? someone actually had the balls to say that was a catch? please out the POS who said bottom line thats possession and the ball is placed at the 1 yd line. I want to know exactly who owned that, was it Boger or Blandino who put their stamp on it? NFL (National Fraud League) what a shame.

  6. If possession was established at the one yard line, why was the play not blown dead in this case or hundreds like it? If Jeremy Ross had not entered the picture, we know that the ball would have probably been down somewhere near the five yard line or wherever one of the Cardinal players finally controlled the ball. Actually the ball would be taken to the furthest point upfield that it had traveled to after first being touched. So if the ball is batted back to the 10, and then batted again back to the 1 where it is finally controlled, then Lions take over at the 10. That is what normally happens, or rather what always has happened…until this unfortunate episode. There is no way the Lions get pinned at the one. Am I missing something? I cannot understand why the Lions coach was not livid over this and the other blatantly unfair calls in this game.

  7. Wasn’t the “football move” actually a fumble? I mean if he had possession and the play was not whistled dead (because lets face facts he the defender would have fallen into the endzone to “complete the play” as his “football move”) then he fumbled by throwing the ball.

    But then, none of this matters as the NFL has had they say and we will get no further explanations.

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