April 20, 2024

NFL end zone touchback rule under scrutiny again but owners not interested in change

The end zone fumble that results in a touchback, for many, is one of the worst rules in professional football. For some, it’s one of the last remaining rules that benefits the defense. And others just don’t see anything wrong with it.

For all the talk surrounding the rule every time it happens in a game — and it rarely happens — nothing has ever been done about it. The debate has been full of sound and fury signifying nothing, to borrow from a famous poet.

The NFL for decades has received rules-change proposals from the competition committee and from its 32-member clubs. Combing through proposals over the past decade, not one team has offered to change the rule. A league source believes no team has ever put forth a proposal.

Asked whether there has been any formal discussion in recent years to change the rule, a competition committee source texted CBS Sports saying: “None.” Another source indicated no formal discussions have been had about the rule in the last five years.

At the heart of the issue, a source said, is that no one has been able to crystalize what an alternative would be. And if no one cares enough to offer an alternative to the rule, then there won’t be any change to the rule.

The NFL rulebook states: “If a ball is fumbled in the field of play, and goes forward into the opponent’s end zone and over the end line or sideline, a touchback is awarded to the defensive team.” When the ball is fumbled out of a team’s own end zone, “it is a safety, if that team provided the impetus that sent the ball into the end zone.”

The safety ruling isn’t at issue in the public’s view. Many argue the end zone touchback rule is too punitive for the offense. The defense never possessed the ball via a recovery, so it shouldn’t get the benefit of possession as the thinking goes.

The 2022 season did not see a single end zone fumble resulting in a touchback. There was just one in the 2021 season. The 2017 season had eight such plays, but since then the end zone touchback has occurred just eight total times in the regular season.

According to a source, the competition committee last had a discussion on the play following the 2017 season.

“There was some sentiment from clubs and fans that the rule was too punitive against the offense,” a 2018 committee report obtained by CBS Sports reads. “…After much consideration and review of video, the Committee did not believe a rule change was necessary, believing that it is an exciting play that rewards the defense for an offensive error.”

The most recent play took place Thursday night. Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson caught and ran with what would have been a touchdown just before halftime. Jefferson fumbled the ball over the pylon and out of the end zone as Eagles safety Terrell Edmunds made a goal-line tackle. The officials ruled it out of bounds at the 1-yard line on the field, but upon review reversed the ruling to a touchback.

“We just have to continue to emphasize decision-making techniques and fundamentals, as far as the ball-carriers go,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said after the game. “Like I said, Justin is just trying to make a play in that moment and the hardest thing to do is to get a guy not to reach the ball out when they are that close to scoring a touchdown in a critical moment.”

Many alternatives proposed anecdotally have centered on the offense retaining possession of the ball, losing a down and setting the football at some arbitrary yard line. Should the ball be at the 1 or at the 20? Treat it like intentional grounding and go back 15 yards from the previous spot? The competition committee discussed that in 2018 and considered, among many options, the original spot of the fumble or the opposing team’s 15-yard line.

The committee meets occasionally during the season via conference call to discuss relevant topics. After the season they meet before and after the NFL Scouting Combine to put together their rules-change proposals. Teams are also allowed to propose their own changes. All of these proposals can be heard at the annual league meetings in late March, and it takes 24 of the 32 clubs to vote a proposal through.

To change the rule, there has to be a renewed discussion. And someone, somewhere in the NFL has to start it before anything could even happen.

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