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Football Zebras
2020 Rule ChangesClear recovery rule in replay adjusted to allow more reversals, but still leaves certain plays out

Clear recovery rule in replay adjusted to allow more reversals, but still leaves certain plays out

Fumbles present great challenges in replay because a swarm of bodies attempting to make a recovery immediately block out the best camera angles. Possession must also be clearly established, so it is important not to incorrectly award a player for momentary control of the loose ball. This has lead to many frustrating rulings where a play stands; even though a fumble can be clearly seen, the recovery cannot, so the fumbling team catches a break. However, there is a rules modification may allow more reversals to a fumble recovery.

The modification concerns a “preliminary ruling” of a fumble recovery. This could open a wide swath of the ruling, but the scope is actually narrower than it appears.

To explain it, the following scenario is provided for in the instant replay casebook, with Team A being the team that put the ball in play:

First-and-10 on 50. A2 takes a handoff and runs to the B42 where he loses the ball and several players from both teams attempt to recover it in a pile at the B42. The Referee ruled that B1 recovered the loose ball at the B42, but the Line Judge ruled that A2 was down by contact before the ball came loose. Replays show that A2 fumbled before he was down by contact. Team B challenges the play.

Ruling: Reviewable. B’s ball first-and-10 on B42, Team B is not charged with a timeout. When on-field officials make a preliminary ruling of which team recovered the ball, that preliminary ruling constitutes a clear recovery.

Last year, this would not be a reversal to a Team B recovery. Because the line judge and referee confer on the call and take the line judge’s determination, the referee’s call of the continuation of the play is disregarded. As long as a preliminary ruling is made prior to initiating a replay, that may be considered in the replay decision if the video evidence is otherwise inconclusive. In this particular case, replay would be able to slow down the video to see the ball popped out before being down, so they can just reverse to the referee’s initial determination.

If that second ruling is not available, and there is no clear recovery or out-of-bounds call on video, then there is no reversal, even if the fumble aspect can be seen. Keep in mind, a crew can allow a potential fumble to play out and then conference after the play to determine there was no fumble. In this case, the replay official would be able to revert back to the preliminary ruling when the officials allowed this to play out. (In such a case, only a recovery can be awarded, not a runback.)

A crucial element that is not covered by the new rule is if the officials have not treated the play as a potential fumble. As in the past, just because a player emerges from a pile with the ball, this is not considered a preliminary ruling under this new rule, unless the covering officials were initially handling the play as a fumble. When a fumble (or potential fumble) is not ruled, if players jump on the dead ball thinking it is loose, officials will not be removing players to determine possession and, in fact, will tell players to give up their pursuit of the ball. Therefore, the player that emerges from a non-fumble pile with the ball cannot be awarded possession in replay, because a player obeying an official’s instruction to surrender is disadvantaged.

There are other cases in a replay situation where a preliminary ruling can be available in a reversal, and for consistency, the referee should announce this case prior to entering the replay review. For example, a referee can announce, “There is no roughing the kicker because the ball was touched,” and if replay shows it was not touched, roughing the kicker can be ruled, only because it was initially declared. Similarly, an announcement that intentional grounding is not ruled because the pass was backward or ruled a fumble can be reversed to intentional grounding if replay shows a forward pass. For fumbles, the referee could say, “the ruling on the field is that the ball was dead before it became loose, however the defense did recover the ball in the dead-ball period.”

There are a few additional exceptions to a determination of a clear recovery that are important to keep in mind:

  • A new rule this season allows an incomplete pass to be reversed to a catch-fumble if no player picks up the loose ball. Previously the incomplete pass would stand unless it could be reversed to catch plus fumble plus recovery.
  • If a ball disappears into a pile of players from the same team, this will be deemed a clear recovery even though the actual recovery is not seen.
  • If replay determines there is a fumble prior to a touchdown, but a recovery cannot be ruled, then only the touchdown is reversed. In this case, the ball reverts back to the spot of the fumble.
  • If a runner is ruled down in the field of play, and replay determines there is a fumble into the offense’s end zone, the play is ruled a safety if the ball disappears into a pile. In this case, the defense has obviously scored, but without a clear determination, the default is to give them the minimum 2 points. The same would apply if there is potential sideline involvement in the end zone.

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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)

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