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Sometimes a safety is just a safety



ne punt fumble

AFC Divisional Playoff: Colts at Patriots

When the snap sails over the punter’s head and out the back of the end zone, all of us have the same first reaction:  safety.  However this season we saw many instances of bizarre rulings, rare rule applications, and rule misapplications, so now more than ever we are beginning to think outside the box on plays that we used to think were simple.

This was the case during the divisional playoff game between the Colts and the Patriots. With 2:28 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Patriots punter Ryan Allen came in to punt when the Patriots were facing 4th and 7 at their own 44 yard line.  The snap sailed over the punter’s head and landed at the 5-yard line.  Allen picked up the ball, only to lose it again and after bouncing off a Colts player, the ball rolled out the back of the end zone.  A host of possible rulings for this play began to be tossed around online and on the air, exacerbated by the fact that referee Pete Morelli did not announce the ruling on the field for what seemed an eternity of discussing the play with the crew. However, the ruling of a safety is the right one in this case.  Let’s take a look at some alternate rulings that were proposed and see why they do not apply here.

  • Forward pass.  Some suggest that Allen was trying to make a forward pass to Tavon Wilson after he scooped up the ball inside the 5-yard line.  Wilson was an eligible receiver on this play, but Allen’s arm did not make a forward throwing motion before it was knocked out of his hand while the Colts Kelvin Sheppard was tacking him.
  • Illegal bat.  After Sheppard knocked the ball loose, Jeris Pendleton of the Colts batted the ball toward the back of the end zone.  In order for the bat to be illegal the bat must be intentional, not made in an effort to recover a loose ball, which was the case here.  The illegal bat rule is in place so teams cannot advance a fumble by batting it forward (toward the first-down line, for example) instead of recovering it.  It is not in place to regulate or complicate fumble recovery attempts.
  • Touchback.  Even though a member of the Colts touched it, and even though that player batted the ball into the end zone, it is not a touchback.  This is because the fumble by the Patriots put the ball into the end zone. (Even though the Colts redirected it into the end zone, it was the fact that the Patriots lost possession that made it possible to go into the end zone.) Had the Colts recovered the ball in the field of play and then fumbled it again out the back of the end zone, then the Patriots would receive the ball as a touchback. (This also applies if the fumble comes to rest or nearly at rest on the field and the Colts propel the ball into the end zone while trying to recover. In this isolated case, because all of the fumbling momentum is gone, any new momentum on the ball determines safety vs. touchback.)

As far as the replay official is concerned, the only reviewable aspect of the play would be whether or not Allen attempted a forward pass.  Had a flag been thrown for an illegal bat or if a touchback had been ruled on the field, those aspects would not have been reviewable.

In an NFL season filled with wild plays and wild rulings it is easy to look for the unexpected rulings, but the simple ruling is often the one that applies.  As retiring CBS commentator Dan Dierdorf said during this play, “It’s gotta be a safety — there’s just no question about it”.  And he was right.

David Root has joined Football Zebras as a contributing writer during the playoffs. This is the first of what we hope are many posts from him. Welcome, David.

Image: Matt Bowen/Indianapolis Colts