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Loose-ball loopholes remain in rulebook



In last weekend’s wild card playoffs, two instances of lost fumbles revealed a gap in the NFL rulebook that will likely be under review by the NFL’s Competition Committee in the offseason. The rules, as everyone understood them, were supposedly revised to close a loophole

In the Lions-Saints game (video), referee Tony Corrente correctly ruled that Saints quarterback Drew Brees fumbled the ball while line judge Darryll Lewis ruled it an incomplete pass. Lewis blew his whistle, and in the continuing action of the play, the Lions recovered the loose ball. Corrente announced:

The ruling on the field is a fumble and recovery by Detroit.

By that ruling, the Lions were not entitled to advance the ball. It seemed equitable under the circumstances, but it was wrong according to the rulebook. We will explain shortly.

In the Steelers-Broncos game (video), Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a backwards pass that struck the ground. Referee Ron Winter correctly ruled this to be a loose ball under the rules. Line judge Gary Arthur ruled it an incomplete forward pass, which then shut the play down, including a recovery by the Broncos.

Winter was correct that there was no remedy for the Broncos. When they tried to challenge the play, Winter allowed the Broncos to take the challenge back.

In both cases, the offense, by rule, is to retain possession for an “inadvertent whistle.” The offense even had the option of replaying the down; an option that seems to have not been offered to the Steelers (and, by extension of not allowing them to retain possession, the Saints, too).

However, the Lions could have gotten the ball, if they challenged through replay only. Because of the recovery in the continuing action, a Lions recovery can be granted under the video rule, but not on the field. From the NFL Rulebook, Rule 15, Section 9:

The Replay System will cover the following play situations only:…

(c) Other reviewable plays:…

(3) Ruling of incomplete pass when the recovery of a passer’s fumble by an opponent or a teammate
occurs in the action following the fumble. …

Note 1: If the ruling of down by contact or incomplete pass is changed, the ball belongs to the recovering player at the spot of the recovery of the fumble, and any advance is nullified.

Note 2: If the Referee does not have indisputable visual evidence as to which player recovered the loose ball, the ruling on the field will stand.

The Broncos cannot, because the rulebook is clear to state “fumble or backward pass” when it applies; it only rules on “fumble.” This was deliberately written into the rulebook this way when the change was made.

That said, the spirit of the ruling ought to be the same. First, a referee should be able to make a ruling on the field that he can make in replay. Also, a fumble and a backward pass should be equivalent for this particular rule. By allowing a recovery following the whistle, the rules should allow similar plays to be handled similarly, without nuanced distinctions of how the ball became loose in the first place. (Note, also, that the rule ignores recoveries of a muffed punt, for example.)

This will likely be on the Competition Committee’s agenda for potentially revising the rules. We will make a note of it.

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)

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