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Cardinals quick grab on punt coverage saves huge Lions return




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 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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