Meta: MOAR weird football rules

Submitted by Hardware Sushi on October 24th, 2011 at 6:17 PM

Note: Really long for the board; too tedious and hypothetical for a diary. Also, not sure about Meta but here goes:

On Saturday, Minnesota was trying to stop Nebraska on 4th and short early in the game. On the 4th down play, Nebraska pitched the ball backward to a running back who proceeded to butterfinger the ball out of bounds foward past the line of scrimmage and 1st down marker. He never had possession. Nebraska maintained possession and received a first down.

You can watch the play here. (It's the best replay I can find yet)

The ruling was based on the following from the NCAA Football rules:

Rule 7-2-4a: Backwards Pass (Page 72) - When a backward pass goes out of bounds between the goal lines, the ball belongs to the passing team at the out-of-bounds spot.

Makes sense. Except the very next rule states....

Rule 7-2-4b-1 and 2: Fumble (Page 72)- When a fumble goes out of bounds between the goal lines:
  1. In advance of the spot of the fumble, the ball belongs to the fumbling team at the spot of the fumble (Rule 3-3-2-e-2).
  2. Behind the spot of the fumble, the ball belongs to the fumbling team at the out-of-bounds spot.

OK, makes sense individually, as well. So how does one define if that backward pass is a fumble?...

Rule 2-2-3b: Loose Balls (tehehe page 35) - All players are eligible to touch, catch or recover a ball that is loose from a fumble (Exceptions: Rules 7-2-2-a-2 and 8-3-2-d-5) or a backward pass.

To recap: a Backwards Pass is a Loose Ball when incomplete but a Fumble if completed and fumbled or recovered and fumbled, but can be recovered by the other team in either case, except when it goes out of bounds, in which case the spot of the ball depends on the ruling of fumble or backwards pass. That is capital D Dumb.

My question (and yes, it sounds ridiculous): What keeps a coach from designing a fourth-down play that utilizes a gentle backward pass, the sideline, and an accurately placed bump (re: inconspicuous kick or punch) of the loose 'backward pass' upfield?

This play makes the most sense on the offensive half of the field. You make the kick out of bounds ahead of the first-down markers and it's a first down. If the kick is bad and errs inbounds, you play punt return defense because you just blasted it 30 yards upfield. Just don't kick it totally sideways out of bounds. You gain the 4th-down conversion attempt while sacrificing minimal field position.

EDIT: Found it myself immediately after posting: 

Rule 9-4-1c (Page 93) states: No player shall bat other loose balls forward in the field of play or in any direction if the ball is in the end zone. PENALTY—10 yards and loss of down for fouls by Team A if the loss of down is not in conflict with other rules.

So, if I'm reading this (and the interpretations found here) correctly, the refs got it wrong because there isn't any mention of intent in the rules. 

If I'm wrong and intent matters, why has a coach not attemp to 'accidentally' kick the ball upfield? And better yet, why does this distinction matter between backward passes and fumbles?

Without the distinction, this is a non-issue.



October 24th, 2011 at 6:22 PM ^

can anything else possibly go wrong for the gophers this year? They invent new ways to allow first downs on defense can not get anymore worst for this team.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:25 PM ^

It all comes down to the "Fumble."  It was not a fumble, it was a muff.

So here are the relevant rules:
(1) A fumble is when a player with possession loses possession (without intentionally doing so by passing, punting, etc.).
(2) A muff is when a player touches the ball in an attempt to receive a kick, punt or backwards pass, but never establishes possession.
(3) A backwards pass is a pass that first touches the ground or a player behind the point where it is released.
(4) A muff does not change the status of the ball (e.g., a backwards pass does not stop being a backwards pass when muffed).
(5) A backwards pass that goes out of bounds is marked at the spot where it goes out of bounds.
(6) A fumble that goes out of bounds forward of the spot of the fumble is marked where it was fumbled, not where it goes out of bounds.

So the refs ruled correctly:  it was a backwards pass that was muffed (NOT batted and NOT fumbled) by the receiver, and so it is the passing team's ball at the out-of-bounds spot.  Look at Rule 2, Section 11, Articles 1 to 3 to see the respective definitions of Fumble, Muff and Batting.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:43 PM ^

Unfortunately, the only difference between a muff and a bat is intent.  It's the ref's job to decide whether the player tried to catch the ball and missed, or if he intentionally failed to catch the ball in order to deflect it forward.

Rule 2-11-3:  "Batting the ball is intentionally striking it or intentionally changing its direction with the hand(s) or arm(s).  When in question, the ball is accidentally touched rather than batted..."

So the only thing that prevents a team from doing what you suggest is exactly what you say--the muff has to seem unintentional.  I guess if a team did it repeatedly, the refs would eventually be on to them.



October 24th, 2011 at 6:51 PM ^

Hard to envision intentionally "muffing" a backward pass with the intent of having it go forward and out of bounds for a first down.  It would have to pass too much of the field, and too many defenders, to be a reasonable risk.  However I suppose someone could try it under desperate circumstances.



October 24th, 2011 at 7:35 PM ^

dated a girl who had "HB pitch muff".  It was not a pretty sight.  I told her she should do something about it.  She said it was unintentional..... Needless to say, I was the bravest man in the world that night, my friends....

Mr. Robot

October 24th, 2011 at 6:26 PM ^

The theoretical 1-point score. If the team attempting an extra point try after a tochdown somehow manages to suffer a safety on the extra point attempt, the defending team would get 1 point, thereby making the score 6-1.

Its the most absurd and probably unlikely thing to ever happen, especially in the NFL since it would have to happen without the defense ever possessing the ball, but it would be awesome if it ever happened unintentionally (or at all, really).


October 24th, 2011 at 7:17 PM ^

I think there is room in the rule for Team A to kick the PAT, Team B to block it and return it most of the way, Team A to strip the ball, then Team A recover it in the endzone to give Team B only 1pt instead of 2. It's still unlikely, but it's probably a hell of a lot more likely than the ball ending up back there without Team B ever getting possession of it.

Mr. Robot

October 24th, 2011 at 7:53 PM ^

That can happen in college and high school because you are allowed to return the attempt the other way for two after a block/fumble/int on the scoring team. In the NFL though, the attempt is called dead if the defense comes into possession of the ball, so the offense would have to somehow manage to get it back that far on their own.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:28 PM ^

That's all there is to it. Whether by accident or not, a team should not be able to gain yardage by where the ball happens to go out of bounds arbitrarily. And the fact that the enforced rule would be completely different if the Nebraska player had caught it (establishing possession) and fumbled it immediately after past the 1st down marker is all you need to know why the rule is dumb. What's to stop teams from practising "accidentally" missing a backwards pass so it goes forward? 

I can't fathom why they'd change the fumble rule without looking at the rule directly above it. And I don't know why a backwards pass loose ball should be treated differently than a fumbled loose ball in the rulebook.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:48 PM ^

What's to stop teams from practising "accidentally" missing a backwards pass so it goes forward?

A: That's batting and illegal.  Do you really think a player can make it look like an accident while still controlling the ball enough so that it goes out of bounds and not to the other team?

Batting a Loose Ball
ARTICLE 1. a. While a pass is in flight, any player eligible to touch the ball
may bat it in any direction (Exception: Rule 9-4-2).
b. Any player may block a scrimmage kick in the field of play or the end
c. No player shall bat other loose balls forward in the field of play or in any
direction if the ball is in the end zone (Rule 2-2-3-a) (Exception: Rule
6-3-11) (A.R. 6-3-11-I, A.R. 9-4-1-I-XI and A.R. 10-2-2-II).
PENALTY—15 yards and loss of down if the loss of down is not in
conflict with other rules [S31 and S9] [Exception: No loss
of down if the foul occurs when a legal scrimmage kick is
beyond the neutral zone].
Batting a Backward Pass
ARTICLE 2. A backward pass in flight shall not be batted forward by the
passing team.
PENALTY—15 yards [S31].
Batting Ball in Possession


B: What are the odds that you accidentally fumble a ball previously moving backwards forwards past the line of scrimmage, let alone forward at all? So rare that this is the first time any of us have ever seen in.

C: A coach would have to be insane to practice this absurdly risky play. Odds that you fumble the ball to the other team are much, much more likely than completing the play without penalty.

D: The rule is as it is to penalize the offense for losing control of the ball. A fumble forward hurts the offense: spotted at point of fumble. A loose backwards pass is spotted out of bounds because where else would it be spotted? Where the QB released it? That's quite the reward for the offense for screwing up. This is also much more frequent of an occurence and makes perfect sense to me. Plus, it doesn't reward a defense who may have caused that backwards pass to become loose.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:54 PM ^

I'm not arguing that Nebraska didn't weirdly benefit from the rule.  They did.  My argument is that the rulebook is written in a way that tries to cover the most likely situation and reward/penalize teams properly.  It cannot feasibly cover every situation (though does a good job coming close).  My point is it was a very rare circumstance that happened to favor one team in a quirky way but in 99.999% of situations the rule works "properly" and rewards/penalizes the correct team.



October 25th, 2011 at 1:23 PM ^

But if there's a clarification with fumbling (you can lose yardage if the ball is fumbled out of bounds, but you cannot gain goes to spot of fumble), then the same thing should be true about a backwards pass. Even though they're technically different things, to a casual observer a muffed backwards pass looks the exact same thing like a fumble does. If one allows for the advancement of the ball in an out-of-bounds scenario and the other doesn't, then that's where potential problems arise. Like I said, had the nebraska player established possession but fumbled it forwadrs OOB, the resulting appropriately-applied would have been completely different. And that doesn't make sense, hence why I think the rule should be reworded to be more consistent with the fumble rule.

I wasn't serious about the "teams practising accidentally muffing it" part. But that doesn't make the rule any better.

In your words, the rule is written so that it penalizes the team that it happens to. And the opposite happened to Nebraska. It's a simple fix to me...either it goes to the spot it went out of bounds if it goes behind the intended target, or it goes to the spot where the intended target muffed it. However it's reworded, the bottom line is you shouldn't be able to gain yardage past the LOS by muffing the ball like that out of bounds on a backwards pass.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:58 PM ^

I'm not arguing that Nebraska didn't weirdly benefit from the rule.  They did.  My argument is that the rulebook is written in a way that tries to cover the most likely situation and reward/penalize teams properly.  It cannot feasibly cover every situation (though does a good job coming close).  My point is it was a very rare circumstance that happened to favor one team in a quirky way but in 99.999% of situations the rule works "properly" and rewards/penalizes the correct team.



October 24th, 2011 at 7:24 PM ^

A backward pass should be considered a fumble if it is not caught. That would cover all of the situations much better than having to rewrite two rules everytime they want to change something related to fumbling/backward passes. If a backward pass touches the receiver, but is not caught, it should count as a fumble on the receiver. If it never touches a receiver, then it should be a fumble on the QB. From there, all fumble rules apply.


October 24th, 2011 at 8:40 PM ^

I don't think you or I can make a statement like "A backward pass should just be ruled a fumble" without knowing in complete thouroughness the rulebook.  If it was that easy, the rulemakers would have done that.  I'm sure that change would have many unwanted consequences.

Enjoy Life

October 25th, 2011 at 1:40 PM ^

The snap is considered a backward pass and not a fumble. If it was to be re-defined, then all the rules pertaining to a fumble (e.g. fumble cannot be advanced on 4th down by anyone other than the fumbler, etc.) would apply and this would be far worse than the one bizarre circumstance sited.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:37 PM ^

Growing up I was told that the fact that you can't bat or fumble a ball forward goes back to the Raiders, who apparently once "fumbled" their way to a touchdown. 

Note:  This is not meant as a comment on what Alton said. I believe he's correct, though I couldn't help but feel for Minnesota when watching that play live.  The rule should be changed IMO. 

EDIT:  Not exactly the best souce, but here is a description of the Raider play: 


October 24th, 2011 at 6:44 PM ^

it was like 35 yards of kicking, pushing, rolling around with like 7 different people all helping the ball down the field. Well gotta love the Raiders and RIP Al Davis for making half the new rules in the NFL cause they cheated and found ways to get around thew old rules.


October 24th, 2011 at 6:56 PM ^

I wondered how a play like this would be ruled. As a kid I was reading a book about odd sports rules and this was mentioned. Always thought it would be interesting to try if you had to convert a third or fourth and short. Of course they key is if it is called a penalty for intentionally batting it forwards.


October 25th, 2011 at 12:28 AM ^

Here's better video of the backward pass fumblerooski thanks to mocksession.

And I pretty much agree with what a few others have said.  The rule has a very weird result in this one case but 99% of the time the ball would go sideways or backwards.  By spotting the ball where it went out of bounds you are almost always punishing the offense for their mistake which is good.

There could be rule modifications like, "where the ball goes out of bounds or where the muff occurred whichever is farther back" but that just makes everything more complicated.  Does anybody think that football rules need more complications?


October 25th, 2011 at 1:23 AM ^

I have a question, especially for referees/rule geeks out there: In situations like these, the refs can't possibly have the whole book memorized, right? Do they get to consult a rulebook on the sidelines, or even a "rules expert" ref who is a part of the officiating crew? How do they always know the right interpretation, even on seemingly obscure applications? Or is it really not that difficult to memorize a few basic rules that cover all situations?