Today's Tidbit... Touchbacks After Fumbling Into the End Zone
After Kansas City Chiefs wideout Mecole Hardman fumbled at the 1-yard line the other day, the ball went into the end zone and out of bounds, so they ruled it a touchback, and the Buffalo Bills gained possession of the ball at the 20-yard line.
Plays in which balls fumbled into and out of the end zone have led to complaints that the offensive team's punishment is excessive, despite similar rulings since 1898.
Despite recognizing that All Football Rules Are Arbitrary (AFRAA), I am comfortable with the existing rules, especially when backed by decades of tradition. Rules should be internally consistent, connecting and following similar logic despite being arbitrary. At least, that is the hope. So, let's look at some old-time rules that led to today's situation.
No Style Points
Unlike diving and gymnastics, football does not award style points. Despite calls by Pop Warner and others to award points for gaining first downs or penetrating the red zone, football has stayed true by awarding points only when the team in possession of the ball touches it down in the end zone or kicks it over the crossbar. That's it. The goal line and end line (where the goal posts moved in 1927) mean something, just like onside and offside. You don't get points for coming close to the goal line or nearly making a kick.
Safeties and Touchbacks
The goal line has so much meaning that if a team downs the ball behind their end zone, they commit a safety, and the other team gets two points, sometimes.
Early football did not have safeties or touchbacks because it was rugby. The players soon accepted the "safety touchdown" that allowed teams to touch the ball down behind their goal line, after which they kicked it from the 25-yard line. In those days, the kicking team retained possession of the ball on kicks, so teams (e.g., Princeton) could endlessly take safety touchdowns and kickoff to themselves. They tried fixing the situation with the system of downs, but it wasn't enough, so they started awarding 2 points to the team not taking the safety. Things seemed okay until 1898 when they opted to distinguish safeties from touchbacks based on which team provided the impetus for the ball crossing the goal line. There's that goal line popping up again.
The 1898 rules said that if Team A was downed in their end zone and their actions put the ball behind the goal line, the play resulted in a safety. On the other hand, if the ball was downed behind Team A's goal line after Team B provided the impetus for the ball to go behind Team A's goal line, the result was a touchback, and Team A would kickout. Soon, they gave Team A the choice to kick or keep the ball, and since everyone kept the ball, they eliminated the option from the rule book.
To relate that to Mecole Hardman, he lost possession of the ball, but not before providing the impetus that sent the ball behind the goal line. Then, the ball rolled out of the end zone and became dead, and when the ball became dead in the end zone following the impetus of Team B, they ruled the play a touchback.
Of course, you can change a set of logical and consistent rules because you do not like their consequences in certain situations (AFRAA), or you can avoid them by not fumbling close to the goal line.
A reminder that All Football Rules Are Arbitrary is that high schools, colleges, and pro teams play by slightly different rules. Each set of rules came about under different pressures and personalities, so they do not always match up.
The same is the case with Canada. Their game has safeties but not touchbacks, mainly because they also have the single (rouge).
In addition, the presence of the single may have affected their rule on fumbles that enter and exit the end zone, which is likely a rule that complaining Americans would embrace. Here's the rule from the CFL's 2023 rule book.
There you go. You can change the rule and give the ball to the offense at the point where they last possessed the ball.
Still, I like the rules as they are. They make sense historically and for consistency's sake, but AFRAA.
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