A turnover in the red zone can be damaging to an offense. All of the hard work exerted on the drive comes to an abrupt halt as the defense takes over. When the goal line and end zone come into play on a change of possession, the officials must be on their toes to make sure the proper team is awarded possession, and at the correct spot. If an interception or fumble recovery is made by the defense in the end zone, and the defender does not attempt to advance the ball into the field of play, the ruling is, very simply, a touchback. However, if the spot of the change of possession is in the field of play, and the ball is declared dead in the end zone, a touchback ruling is ruled out. So, what would the ruling be? Well, the answer to that question has changed multiple times in the past 65 years.
In the 1953 season, two safeties were scored when defenders intercepted passes in the field of play, and carried the ball into the end zone outside of their control. In Week 3, Giants defensive back Buford Long gave two points to Washington after intercepting quarterback Don Doll in the field of play and uncontrollably bringing the ball into the end zone, and in Week 9, Steelers defensive back Ray Mathews did the same after picking off Browns quarterback Warren Lahr.
Ultimately, two years later, prior to the 1955 season, a rule change was implemented to prevent a cheap safety by allowing the officials to consider a defender’s intercepting momentum. Under this new rule exception, if an interception was made at or inside the defense’s 5-yard line, and the defender’s intercepting momentum carried him into the end zone, the ball would be awarded to the defense at the spot of the interception. This is how the play is judged currently at the high school football level. If the interception was made on the defense’s 6-yard line, that one yard difference would lead to a safety. That was the standard for 30 years with no issue, but in 1985, that one yard difference in the rule gave a team two points, and many people involved were not happy with the ruling.
In Week 5, 1985, Jets quarterback Ken O’Brien was intercepted by Bengals defensive back Louis Breeden at the Bengals’ 6-yard line, where Breeden carried the ball into the end zone and was subsequently tackled. Field judge Dick Dolack instantly ruled a safety on the play, awarding two points to the Jets. This signal was likely not seen by the broadcast crew at the time, as color commentator (and former Bengals tight end) Bob Trumpy began to pontificate about the result of the play, and that the Bengals would be awarded the ball at the spot of the interception.
While Trumpy did correctly distinguish that different rulings were necessary inside versus outside of the 5-yard line, his attributions of those rulings were repeatedly, very incorrect. In fact, a touchback is never the correct ruling when ruling intercepting momentum, as the ball is placed at the spot of the interception if the interception is made inside the 5-yard line, and it is a safety at any point outside of the 5-yard line. This was a correct call by Dolack and the rest of referee Ben Dreith’s crew. Following the aftermath of the play, the 5-yard zone of momentum was removed from the rulebook for the 1986 season, allowing for an unlimited exception in the event that the intercepting momentum truly carried a defender into the end zone after making an interception in the field of play.
This rule exception covering intercepting momentum did have a slight flaw: the exception only covered interceptions. This meant that if a defender recovered a fumble, or a receiving team player gains possession of any kick, in the field of play and slid into his own end zone, that player would have to exit the end zone with the ball to avoid a safety. This flaw in the rule came into the forefront in the 2000 season not once, but twice.
In Week 3, 2000, Falcons running back Jamal Anderson fumbled after a 42 yard run, leading to a recovery by Panthers cornerback Doug Evans at the 3-yard line, followed by Evans rolling into and out of the end zone. Field judge Tom Sifferman originally ruled the play a touchback, but after discussion with the rest of referee Larry Nemmers and his crew, the play was correctly ruled a safety.
Thirteen weeks later, on a nationally-televised matchup between the Raiders and Seahawks on a rainy Seattle afternoon, momentum on a fumble came into a larger spotlight. Late in the game, Seahawks running back Ricky Watters broke off a long run before fumbling at the Raiders’ 23-yard line. The ball bounced toward the goal line, where it was recovered by Raiders defensive back Marquez Pope at the 2-yard line, and he slid forward into the end zone where he was touched down.
The Week 3 play was definitely relayed to the officials through weekly training tapes, so it was very likely that referee Bernie Kukar and his crew were hyperaware of the rule, the exception, and how to apply them. After a conference, Kukar ruled a safety, awarding two points to the Seahawks. Following the free kick, Seattle scored the game winning touchdown, highlighting the safety call even more strongly than it already was.
In the 2001 offseason, the momentum exception was modified to include fumbles and all kicks in addition to interceptions. This is how the rule stands today, and it is read as follows, as Rule 11-5-1-Ex.2:
It is not a safety if a defensive player, in the field of play, intercepts a pass or catches or recovers a fumble, backward pass, scrimmage kick, free kick, or fair catch kick, and his original momentum carries him into his end zone where the ball is declared dead in his team’s possession. The ball belongs to the defensive team at the spot where the player’s foot or other body part touched the ground to establish possession. If that spot is in the end zone, the result of the play is a touchback, even if the ball is not on, above, or beyond the goal line.
Not long after the change to the rule, the momentum exception came back into the spotlight, not on a fumble or interception, but on a game’s opening kickoff. On Sunday Night Football during Week 10 of the 2004 season, the Bills traveled to New England to face their AFC East division rivals, the Patriots. On kicker Adam Vinatieri’s opening kickoff, defender and return specialist Terrence McGee caught the ball on his own one-yard line while on the run, and carried the ball into the end zone, where he took a knee. Immediately, head linesman (down judge) Ed Camp threw his beanbag at the one-yard line, to make the spot at which possession was made. Referee Tom White and the rest of his crew spotted the ball at the one-yard line, as they ruled that McGee gained possession in the field of play and his momentum carried him into the end zone, where the ball was declared dead. Bills head coach Mike Mularkey challenged the ruling on the field, stating that McGee never fully had possession until he was in the end zone.
Mularkey won the challenge. White, along with replay official Al Hynes, determined that McGee never established himself with possession in the field of play, since McGee only had one foot down in the field of play, and his second foot came down on the goal line. While this was correctly ruled as a touchback not governed by the momentum exception, it did cause a 6-minute discussion about the rule in order to make sure it was properly applied.
It is still in the officials’ judgment to determine whether a defender is brought into the end zone by his original momentum, or if the defender carries the ball into the end zone under his own power. Back judge Perry Paganelli and side judge Tom Hill were able to make this call in 2009 when Rams defensive back James Butler intercepted a pass in the end zone, carried it out into the field of play, and brought it back into the end zone under his own power.
The momentum exception to the safety rule may seem complicated, and in fact, most commentators tend to get tripped up while trying to explain it to fans watching at home. However, it has been more simple to explain in the past 20 seasons than ever before: if a defender or receiving team player gains possession of a pass or loose ball anywhere in the field of play, and his momentum carries him into the end zone, the defense will be awarded the ball at the spot of the change of possession. This way, a cheap safety will not impact the score or outcome of the game.