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Mob rule: USFL and XFL revise touchback rule on fumbles to give the ball back to the offense

The XFL and the USFL are modifying the touchback rule on end zone fumbles.

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For decades, it was just the rule. The most prominent example of the rule was Super Bowl XXVII. Cowboys defensive end Leon Lett was about to return a Bills fumble for a touchdown and set a high-score record in a Super Bowl. Bills receiver Don Beebe sprinted after Lett, forcing a fumble of the premature celebration, and causing the ball to roll into the end zone before going out of bounds.

The rule is that this is a touchback, giving the ball back to the Bills at their own 20. While disappointing to the Cowboys faithful that they missed out on a record, there weren’t calls for a rule change. Lett did not score, he was responsible for putting the loose ball into the end zone, and there didn’t seem to be anything unjust about the rule.

Within the last decade, a groundswell has accused the NFL of having an arcane and unfair rule. (“Worst rule ever” tends to dominate our Twitter feed any time there is such a turnover.) The fact that the rule has existed at all levels of football for a century does not lower the temperature of the debate. The NFL’s Competition Committee has not had any serious conversations about modifying the rule.

The two spring leagues, the XFL and the USFL, have carved out a special rule for their 2023 seasons. It states that if a ball carrier fumbles the ball into the end zone and goes out of bounds, or if the ball is fumbled into the pylon, there is no change of possession and the ball reverts back to the spot of the fumble. This would be consistent with the rule of forward fumbles out of bounds in the field of play. A defensive recovery in the end zone would still be a turnover to the defense. However, under this rule, the defense has a limited envelope to gain possession of the ball that penetrated its end zone, because if the ball is touched by any player who is also touching the end line, the ball will return to the fumbling team.

This is what the mob wants. It’s a perceived slight to a player who reaches for the end zone and loses control just before the goal line. But it breaks the basic principle of the end zone: any time the ball is dead in the end zone, it is a touchdown, a safety, or a touchback. Any other loose ball, such as a kick or a pass that is caught, that goes into the end zone would fall into those categories. It also breaks the basic objective of the game: penetrate the opponent’s goal with possession and prevent your opponent from penetrating your goal with possession. The defense can successfully defend the goal, but then the offense gets another shot.

Here is the relevant excerpt from the XFL rulebook:

Many proponents of this rule change point out that there is already an exception to the touchdown/safety/touchback construct when a player intercepts the ball and his momentum carries him into the end zone where the play is dead. This exception exists to avoid punishing the defense with a safety for making a good play. It also doesn’t just award the touchback, so the dead-ball spot is moved out of the end zone as a compromise.

This new rule essentially does the same thing by reverting the dead-ball spot, but it rewards the offense for making a bad play. While it is consistent with any other forward fumble out of bounds in the field of play, a fumble that goes out of the offense’s end zone is still a safety, even if going forward.

The XFL and USFL fumble rule will encourage ball carriers reaching for the end zone to jeopardize possession of the ball, knowing there is a fallback. In fact, I am sure the coaches have already added a play or two to their playbooks that specifically exploits the rule, knowing a major risk barrier has been removed.

And, with the spring leagues working as a laboratory for innovation, perhaps the NFL will consider repealing the wOrSt RuLe eVaR!!!!~!!1 from their rulebook.

Image: Designed by Ben Austro / Dallas Cowboys photo

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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