The Fumble Touchback Rule is Inconsistent, Here is How to Fix It
Joe Thomas is one of the greatest football players of all-time. He will be a first ballot Hall of Famer. From all of his post-career work it seems like he happens to be a wonderfully smart, witty, and apparently kind human being. He also happens to have a take on the fumble touchback rule that makes little sense, although many agree with him. Here is his take on the fumble touchback rule, what many claim to be the worst rule in sports:
For years the counter to his argument relied on the risk/reward factor; the endzone is the sacred place of six points and therefore must be protected. But an epiphany struck when reading Thomas’ complaint last night. The rule is inconsistent; nowhere else on the field does an offensive player fumble the ball out of bounds and possession goes to the opposing team. This is the main crux of the argument against the fumble touchback rule. The epiphany; there is actually a fairly simple, yet radical, way to fix this rule… make it so that whenever somebody fumbles the ball out of bounds, it immediately goes to the other team.
Crazy right? But here is the thing; is it really that crazy? This rule levels the playing field between offense and defense. Plus, there is a perfect scenario that clearly proves the efficacy of the proposed rule. With the new changes to what constitutes a catch, it is so much easier to complete a catch and then fumble the ball, especially out of bounds. So change the out-of-bounds fumble rule entirely so that it is consistent and benefits the defense. Do away with a rule that takes a good defensive play (causing a fumble) and somehow allows the offense to come away unscathed (fumbling out of bounds).
For how unfair the current state of the rule is, we have to go back several weeks to when the New England Patriots hosted the Minnesota Vikings.
Late in the game, Kyle Rudolph caught the ball on the sideline and was ruled to have fumbled the ball out of bounds. In real time it did not really look like Rudolph made the catch. However, it held up on review. Therefore, Vikings ball and a new set of downs. If the play was made in the middle of the field, the initial call would have easily been an incompletion, and there is no way it would have been overturned to a fumble. No consistency. Merely because the play was made on the sideline. If you change the fumble rule to any ball fumbled out of bounds now belongs to the opponent, you will get more consistency on what is and is not a catch.
The Defense Should Get Rewarded For Forcing Fumbles
With the way the current rule is set up, there is a tremendous risk/reward factor when fumbling near the goal line. Thomas says it “significantly rewards the defense for (potentially) doing nothing at all.” The defense should be rewarded every time the ball gets fumbled out of bounds. Or, put in a different light; the offense should get penalized when they lose possession of the ball. You fumble? You better recover. This also takes care of the issue of offensive players fumbling the ball and then getting bailed out by simply knocking the ball out of bounds. You fumble? You need to recover the pigskin.
Thomas’ third point is probably the easiest to counter:
“3) it discourages offensive players from attempting athletic moves towards the goal line in an effort to score. Impressive athletic maneuvers should be encouraged and rewarded. This is what makes the game exciting…as a fan, I want to see athletic and awe-inspiring plays”
He has a great point. Fans want to see exciting and athletic plays. But at the same time, players should also be rewarded for playing smart football, i.e. protecting the ball. If there is no punishment for attempting these “impressive athletic maneuvers,” there should be no reward.
If you change the rule so that it is merely a fumble and the fumbling team still maintains possession, it defeats the purpose of teaching such valuable things as ball possession. Take care of the ball. If you cannot, you will be harmed. This also gives punters an added dimension; stick a point two yards to the sideline and force the returner to make a decision. Can you catch this and turn it into something positive? Or do you have to let it bounce and give the defense the advantage when it comes to field position?
The fumble touchback rule is currently perfect. However, as Joe Thomas succinctly points out, it is inconsistent with fumbling anywhere else on the field. The solution? Drastically penalize teams for fumbling the ball out of bounds. The defense pops one loose and you do not recover, you do not get the benefit of the out of bounds any longer. No longer can teams get saved by the boundaries. The time of batting the ball out of bounds on offense and getting a reprieve is over. No more quarterbacks scrambling and reaching out, gaining extra yards they did not earn without any repercussions. Protect. The. Ball. Joe Thomas is right; there is no consistency to the fumble touchback rule. But his solution is wrong. The answer is this; any fumble that goes out of bounds now belongs to the opposing team. Simple. Yet Radical. Welcome to Football in 2018.