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1978: Holy Roller play revises rules

A deliberate desperation fumble lead to a revision of the rulebook.



Sept. 10, 1978

Raiders at Chargers

Quarterback Ken Stabler deliberately (according to his own admission and to those who have eyes) fumbled the ball forward, and carnival-like antics by the Oakland Raiders propelled the ball towards an end-zone recovery. The game-winning touchdown over the San Diego Chargers counted as the clock expired. The play has become known as the “Holy Roller.”

The venerable Jerry Markbreit was the referee. “Every once in a while, I see the play on television. And I cringe every time I see it.” Had Markbreit had a better view on the play, it would have been ruled an incomplete forward pass as an intentional fumble.

The next offseason, advancing a fumble was made illegal at certain times where the fumble could be a viable desperation play. The rules restrict the following situations:

After the 2:00 warning

  • Any player who fumbles the ball is the only member of his team allowed to advance the ball after recovering the fumble.
  • If a teammate recovers the fumble, the play is dead immediately.
  • If the defense recovers the fumble, they may advance it.
  • If the defense fumbles before the play is over, they are now bound by these same restrictions, but any offensive player may recover and advance.
  • On a point-after-touchdown attempt, the restrictions of the 2-minute fumble apply to all fumbles on the same play, regardless of the time on the clock.

On 4th down

  • On fourth down at any time in the game, an offensive player who fumbles the ball is the only member of his team allowed to advance the ball after recovering the fumble.
  • If the defense gains possession, all restrictions are off for the rest of the play, since the down is irrelevant at that point
  • Similarly, when there is a punt or field-goal kick that goes beyond the line of scrimmage on fourth down, there are no restrictions for either team for the rest of the play.
  • On fourth downs after the 2-minute warning, the 2-minute rule applies.


  • When a fumble is recovered by a restricted player, it is immediately a dead ball. Officials must whistle the play dead and any fouls occurring after are dead-ball fouls. Any continuation of the play is disregarded, although the customary replay rules apply to the fumble recovery that caused the dead-ball ruling.
  • In all cases, if a player regains possession of his own fumble, the play continues until otherwise ruled dead.
  • When there is a restricted recovery, that team gets the ball at either the spot of the fumble or the recovery, whichever is further back. If that spot is in a team’s own end zone, it is a safety. On the offense’s recovery, the clock starts when the ball is spotted, unless it is stopped for another reason (penalty, timeout, double change of possession, etc.)
  • Fumbles at any point of the game that are not restricted by the above (outside of 2:00, not 4th down) may be recovered by any player and advanced, and can even score a touchdown.
  • A forward fumble at any point of the game that goes out of bounds …
    • … in the field of play — ball is returned to the fumble spot, and the clock winds as soon as the ball returns to the field.
    • … in their own end zone or originating from their end zone — safety (without a complication of a change of possession occurring in the end zone).
    • … in their opponent’s end zone — touchback, and possession is surrendered to the opponent.

This post has been updated from the original to provide a working video link and to explain the revised rules in detail.

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)