NFL Ends Tuck Rule, but Will They Still Drop the Ball on Quarterback Fumbles?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IMarch 21, 2013

Tuck Rule lasts 11 more seasons after No. 12 made it infamous. (Reuters)
Tuck Rule lasts 11 more seasons after No. 12 made it infamous. (Reuters)

The controversial Tuck Rule is no more after NFL owners voted 29-1 to remove it at Wednesday’s Annual Meeting in Phoenix. Pittsburgh voted to keep it while New England and Washington abstained from voting.

That’s fitting given the rule infamously built the foundation for a New England dynasty when Tom Brady’s fumble was overturned in the 2001 AFC divisional game against Oakland. Without the rule Oakland would have taken possession and run out the clock to win the game.  

Raiders’ fans may say it is 11 years too late, but this is a rule established in 1999 that never should have passed in the first place. From the (now outdated) NFL rule book it reads as:

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

In other words, it is okay for a quarterback to fumble as long as he does it a certain way.

Enough of that nonsense. If it looks like a fumble, chances are it was one. That is how the NFL needs to move toward with these calls. All turnovers are automatically reviewed now, so they can always go back for verification.  

While abolishing the Tuck Rule should correct more plays, the NFL is hardly out of the woods on the topic. As noted from the NFL.com story linked above, if a quarterback loses control while the ball is going forward, then it is still going to be ruled an incomplete pass.

The major officiating epidemic in the NFL—until the “Crown Rule” takes over this season—is figuring out what a catch is these days. But right behind that is getting these quarterback fumbles correct on a consistent basis.

Tuck Rule Has Clouded Judgment of QB Fumbles

Not long after the Brady play, any nontraditional fumble by a quarterback started a debate about the Tuck Rule, even when it was not applicable.

Now the NFL is doing just fine with other types of quarterback fumbles, such as aborted snaps, botched handoffs to the running back and anything in the open field as a runner. Those plays are not the problem.

Things get hazy when the quarterback is attempting to throw a forward pass. The Tuck Rule is supposed to apply to plays when the quarterback briefly decides to not throw the ball, such as a pump-fake or motion to tuck the ball back to his body.

The easy fumbles to call are the ones where the quarterback is getting ready to throw, the defense makes contact with him, and by the time he puts his arm in a forward throwing motion, the ball is already out and the quarterback is throwing air. This is commonly referred to as the “empty hand” by announcers.

About the only type of fumble no one thinks about the Tuck Rule: the butt-fumble.

But on these other plays, as long as there was a forward motion with the ball still in control and the quarterback did not tuck it against his body, then it is not considered a fumble. That is the classic Brady play in a nutshell.

It is hard to understand the intent of this rule when plays like this clearly look like a fumble and are taken away from the defense. It was a rule that never should have existed in the first place, but some more consistency in applying it would have been appreciated.

Kurt Warner would have loved a real review of the final play in Super Bowl XLIII against Pittsburgh. Just as he was moving his arm forward to throw a pass, LaMarr Woodley contacted Warner.

But even with such quick contact, Warner was still able to fling the ball forward several yards. The hand had initial forward movement. The ball still went forward after Warner lost possession. What makes the Brady play or several others I am about to show an incompletion and this one not?

That inconsistency is part of the disgust over the rule.

Steelers Are an Odd Team to Vote in Favor of the Tuck Rule

If the Tuck Rule had been applied at the end of Super Bowl XLIII, then Warner, thanks to an unsportsmanlike penalty on Pittsburgh, would have been given one final shot at the end zone from 29 yards away to win the game. With the way Larry Fitzgerald was playing, you never know what may have been.

Yet it was Pittsburgh as the only team voting to keep the Tuck Rule. It comes across as a bit odd given recent results.

Even though Ben Roethlisberger can be a pump-faking magician in the pocket, he does not draw many of the penalties you would expect given his playing style. Not even a broken nose from a hit by Haloti Ngata drew a 15-yard flag.

Last season Roethlisberger was involved in a strange play against the Giants when he had his arm touched, but still controlled the ball to bring it forward for a pass. He only loses it at the end of the play when you can see his fingers snap together.

The ball was picked up and returned for a touchdown. Naturally, everyone pointed to the Tuck Rule and wondered why it was not overturned as an incomplete pass.

This does not even have to be a Tuck Rule play. Roethlisberger was trying to throw the ball the whole time, took a minimal amount of contact, but still controlled the ball and brought it forward, releasing it forward in the end.

That should simply be an incomplete pass, and slight movement of the ball is not a big deal.

From NFL Section 2, Article 7, Note 3: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.

The refs blew this call, even missing a clip at the end of the return, but fortunately the Steelers regrouped to come back in the second half for the win.

However, sometimes you get a call in your favor too. Roethlisberger’s biggest passing day ever (503 yards against the Packers in 2009) may have gone a little differently had he not been given a gift in the second quarter.

Clay Matthews, a rookie at the time, came in from behind on Roethlisberger and caused a fumble deep in Pittsburgh territory. But it would be overturned as Roethlisberger’s arm was moving forward and he had possession (that was the gist of what the referee said).

What exactly is the difference between this play and Warner’s fumble in the Super Bowl? At least Warner was still able to push the ball forward several yards. Roethlisberger did not.

But wait, there’s more.

From 2012 to 2013: Fumble or Not?

Let’s look at some more examples of Tuck Rule-type plays from last season with a prediction of how they will be called in 2013.

In Week 17 an incredible three games featured an example of these plays. All three were originally ruled sacks and quarterback fumbles on the field, but all three would be overturned as incomplete passes.

Each play had a different look to it as well.

Lions vs. Bears

In the first quarter Matthew Stafford dropped back to pass on a 3rd-and-1. He definitely appeared to be doing a pump-fake, but as his right arm came down he lost his control of the ball and tried to grab it unsuccessfully with his left hand as it hit the ground.

The 2012 ruling: incomplete pass (agree on principle and rules).

It is one of those plays that just look weird, but technically the ball did continue to move forward after leaving Stafford’s hand, which was also going forward. Stafford never even had an opportunity to try to tuck the ball back to his body as it was already gone.

The 2013 predicted ruling: incomplete pass.

Denver’s Jake Plummer had a very similar play in a 2005 game against Washington, and that play was initially ruled a safety since he recovered his fumble in the end zone. It was challenged and overturned as an incomplete pass.

What’s interesting about Plummer’s play is the ball landed behind him, so why not call a lateral and still reward the safety for Plummer recovering the live ball in the end zone?

Washington went on to lose by two points, which prompted coach Joe Gibbs to blast the Tuck Rule, courtesy of the Washington Post:

"The Tuck Rule is the Tuck Rule," said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who discussed the call with the NFL's officiating department. "It says you can pull [the ball] down and do anything you want for the next 10 minutes. It makes no sense to me. It's the way it's worded. I think everybody probably sees that and says it's a bad rule."

Bengals vs. Ravens

At a similar point to the Stafford play in the first quarter, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton appeared to fumble with Paul Kruger getting the recovery for Baltimore. Dalton brought his right arm forward, but as he tried to tuck the ball back into his body, Bryan Hall knocked it loose.

This is much more like the Brady play, as it looks like a fumble. During a lengthy review (oh Ron Winter), CBS’ Solomon Wilcots said that Dalton re-tucks the ball to his left hand, though that never even happens.

The 2012 ruling: incomplete pass (agree on rule; disagree on principle).

By applying the Tuck Rule, Dalton escapes with an incomplete pass since his arm was going forward before contact and he never tucked the ball into his body again. The hit from the defender is what forced the ball out, so this needs to be a fumble.

The 2013 predicted ruling: sack and fumble recovered by Baltimore.

Colts vs. Texans

This play is still hard to believe. At the start of the second quarter, Andrew Luck was under siege from Houston in the backfield and tried to do a little too much. With his arm coming forward, Luck re-cocks as J.J. Watt wraps around him, causing Luck to push the ball out of his hands, and the ball actually travels backwards.

Somehow, it went in the Colts’ favor.

The 2012 ruling: incomplete pass (agree on rule; disagree on principle).

The fact that the ball went backwards, surprisingly, is irrelevant, as the silly Tuck Rule only cares about that initial forward movement of the arm, which Luck did have. Plays like this one are exactly why people beyond just Raiders fans hate the rule with a passion.

The 2013 predicted ruling: sack and fumble recovered by Houston.

Moving to the playoffs, there was one final Tuck Rule situation to look at before the rule takes a dirt nap. It fittingly involved a high-profile quarterback, but with a different outcome this time.

Broncos vs. Ravens

With Denver leading 28-21 in the third quarter, Peyton Manning was bringing the ball forward before his arm was contacted. At that point the ball slipped down his hand but was not fully lost. He tried to tuck it back to his body but the ball eventually did leave his possession, recovered by Baltimore.

The CBS crew talked nonstop about the Tuck Rule during the review, but the call was not overturned. Baltimore used the field position gained from this turnover to score the game-tying touchdown and eventually win the game, which had its fair share of poor officiating throughout.

The 2012 ruling: sack and fumble (disagree on rule; agree on principle).

Was this any different from some of these other plays that used the Tuck Rule to become incomplete passes? Manning had a clear forward movement with the ball, but never managed to tuck it back to his body because he lost possession in attempting to do so.

Former head of NFL officiating Mike Pereira and former NFL official/officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos failed to agree on the ruling. If two experts of the rules cannot agree, who can we trust to get things right?

For Baltimore to get this fumble and not get the one on Dalton in Week 17 just shows how screwed up things have been for these plays.

The 2013 predicted ruling: sack and fumble recovered by Baltimore.

In the end, the Tuck Rule became famous by Brady in the playoffs, and 11 seasons later it eluded Manning for one last illogical time. Go figure.


It will be interesting to see if fumbles increase at all this season without referees being able to apply the Tuck Rule anymore. That first time a quarterback has the ball pop out unexpectedly with his arm going forward will really challenge that referee to make the right call.

But again, what is the right call in that situation in 2013?

It would still seem to be an incomplete pass, such as in the case of Stafford in Week 17 or anything that would not apply as an “empty hand” for the quarterback. It is still a forward pass. You might even be able to call intentional grounding on such a play if the quarterback was under pressure.

Again, some better clarity from the NFL could go a long way.

But these other plays, like Manning's in the playoffs, Clay Matthews on Roethlisberger or a young Brady’s loss of possession that put this thing on the map should all be ruled fumbles now. They look the part and it makes for an easy, consistent ruling.

Just as things should be.

Eliminating the Tuck Rule was long overdue, but there is still an onus on officials to call these critical plays correctly. Even with the replay system, you expect there will still be mistakes.

At least citing an obscure rule that makes fumbling okay will never happen again.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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