An ancient rule, ignored for decades and one that ceased being fair or useful before World War II, has already had a major impact on the playoff race. And the NFL needs to act before it does any serious damage.
Fumble-touchbacks, those plays where the ball-carrier lunges for the end zone pylon but maybe-kinda-sorta loses control of the football and is punished by a change of possession, are being called in unprecedented numbers this year.
These touchdown-turnover catastrophes, "gotchas" for the team that briefly bobbles the ball and freebies for a defense that usually does little more than cross its fingers and hope to win the challenge-flag lottery, have already changed the course of several significant games this season.
- Benny Cunningham appeared to take a screen pass within a foot of the goal line for the Bears against the Packers on Sunday. But when the Bears challenged for a touchdown, officials ruled that Cunningham both crossed the plane of the goal line and lost his grip on the football for a few microseconds. The Packers went on to win a narrow 23-16 game.
- Austin Seferian-Jenkins appeared to score a fourth-quarter game-narrowing touchdown for the Jets against the Patriots in Week 6. Patriots defenders argued that he bobbled in the end zone for an incompletion. Upon further review, officials talked themselves into seeing a completion, fumble and loss of possession out of bounds. The Patriots were awarded the ball and held on for a 24-17 win.
- In Week 5, Todd Gurley rushed to the 1-yard line before Earl Thomas desperately swatted the football out of bounds early in the Seahawks-Rams game. It took some tortured crime-procedural magnify-and-enhance interpretation of the replays to award the Seahawks the football on a touchback in a game they ultimately won 16-10.
There have been other debatable fumble-touchback rulings over the past few seasons. But these three are the highest-profile miscarriages of justice: apparent touchdowns or out-at-the-1 situations turned disasters based on marginally conclusive video evidence.
It may only be a coincidence that they all resulted in traditional powerhouses getting gimme turnovers they did little to nothing to earn in close games against divisional upstarts, but it's still not great for optics when a Jets comeback against the Patriots is thwarted by referee fiat.
Those are the rules, you might say, especially if your team has recently benefited from a touchback technicality. But the fumble-touchback rule is a holdover from the dawn of the 20th century that lay dormant for decades and is now being applied in ways that were never intended.
The language the NFL uses to define a touchback dates all the way back to a 1906 rulebook edited by Walter Camp, one of the founding fathers of American football, over a decade before the NFL even existed. In addition to declaring that touchdowns were worth five points and banning players from attaching nails or metal spikes to the fronts of their shoes (smart thinking, Walter), Camp explained the touchback thusly:
"A Touchback is made when the ball in possession of a player guarding his own goal is declared dead by the Referee, any part of it being on, above or behind the goal line, provided the impetus which sent it to or across the line was given by an opponent."
The key word in all of this quaint old-timey language is "impetus." Here's Dean Blandino, then-NFL vice president of officiating, now a Fox Sports expert, explaining the touchback rule after a controversial call last season using language Camp would recognize:
"Impetus is the force that puts the ball into an end zone. So if a team provides the impetus that puts a ball into their opponent's end zone...then they are responsible for it."
The impetus rule makes sense on punts, kickoffs, end-zone interceptions and fumble recoveries: The kicker/punter provides the impetus that puts the ball in the end zone, so the other team gains possession when it retrieves it.
But in ancient football, incomplete passes in the end zone were also touchbacks! After all, the quarterback provided the impetus that launched the football into the end zone, but the offense did not retain possession, so the defense got the ball.
That explains why the defense doesn't have to recover a fumble in the end zone to earn possession of the ball. In the paleo-football of Walter Camp, a bouncing ball in the end zone pretty much belonged to the defense, even if (like a kickoff) it rolled out of bounds.
The fumble-touchback dates back to a forgotten era when the change of possession was no big deal. Teams sometimes punted on first down back then, and fumbles were frequent, so there was little controversy about giving the defense the ball after a minor miscue.
The fumble-touchback should never have survived the 1933 NFL rule changes that took away touchbacks for incomplete passes in the end zone and modernized football in many other ways.
But the fumble-touchback remained a vestigial organ in the rulebook because it was almost never applied. "In the '50s, '60s and '70s, it was exceedingly rare," football historian T.J. Troup told Bleacher Report. "You never saw it."
Obvious fumbles rolled through the back of the end zone for touchbacks now and then, most famously when the Colts fumbled at the end of a would-be scoring drive in Super Bowl V. But if a ball-carrier leapt and bobbled near the pylon for most of football history, referees threw up the touchdown signal or spotted the ball at the 1-yard line and kept the game flowing. "It was, 'Let's sell tires and beers and kick the ball to the other team," Troup explained.
High-definition slow-motion replays on portable tablets and an almost fundamentalist devotion to the language of the rulebook now allow referees to get the call exactly right. But what are they really getting "right" when they hand freebie turnovers to a defense that failed to stop the offense from getting within microns of the end zone, all based on a few frames of video footage and some language from the leather helmet days?
Fumble-touchbacks have already had too strong a bearing on three close games that will have major playoff implications. The NFL needs to corral fumble-touchback rulings before a major late-season or postseason game hangs in the balance on a fourth-quarter review of a loose football hovering in the airspace over the pylon for what's either a go-ahead touchdown, last chance from the 1-yard line or game-ending fumble.
In the short term, that means reeling in the referees before they lapse into the rulebook fundamentalist madness that causes them to abandon common sense and make the most extreme, game-altering decision they can based on tiny shreds of justification. All that would take is a league memo to the officiating crews: When in any doubt whatsoever, stop studying freeze-frames and place the ball at the 1, call the pass incomplete or just throw up your arms so the television networks can sell tires and beer.
After the season, the competition committee should do what the league forgot to do in 1933: Abolish the fumble-touchback.
To prevent any Holy Roller-type shenanigans (imagine a ball-carrier pitching the ball toward the pylon from the 5-yard line to get a charitable spot) and reward Earl Thomas heroics, a fumble out of bounds in the end zone could be deemed a 15-yard penalty. That way, a dubious ruling on the field like the one the Bears suffered Sunday would only leave them slightly screwed, not royally screwed.
Before this season began, the most controversial fumble-touchback in history took place in one of the most important games in pro football history: Canton Bulldogs vs. Massillon Tigers in 1915, five years before the birth of the NFL. The presence of Olympic hero Jim Thorpe and Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne drew a spillover crowd to Canton's League Park, so organizers allowed fans to stand in the end zone and declared that players had to both cross the goal line and emerge from the rowdy crowd in possession of the football to earn a touchdown.
Sure enough, a Massillon player named Briggs ran into the throng for what looked like a touchdown, but a Canton fan poked the ball loose and a Canton player retrieved it for a touchback. Canton won, but league organizers did not make the victory official until after midnight so the referees could escape on the first train out of town.
That game was the Super Bowl of its era. If this year's Super Bowl is determined by some hinky rule, the NFL will have one more mess on its hands, and casual fans will have one more reason to tune out.
Fans like touchdowns and hate technicalities. That should be all the impetus the NFL needs to change a rule it hasn't really thought about in a century anyway.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.