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Thought: The Rule Book Problem With Fumbles

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Oct 17, 2011


Zemek: The rule book has to define muffs and fumbles better

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By Matt Zemek


Yes, it’s undeniably true that the NCAA’s off-field rules – the ones regarding agents and education and commercial opportunities for athletes – demand the highest levels of attention and the most intense degrees of scrutiny. Reforming those kinds of rules should be the top priority of people in positions of power, and of the activists who are trying to push administrators along the right path. With that said, there’s also a need for college football’s power brokers to get their darn rulebook fixed.

As presently written and constructed, college football’s rulebook is immensely flawed. Every weekend of every season, an in-game event exposes the absurdity and stupidity of the sport’s on-field rules. This past Friday, college football fans were perplexed by yet another wrong turn in the sport’s gameday governance. A kickoff in the Hawaii-San Jose State game assaulted logic and slaughtered rationality at each and every turn.

Early in the second quarter of a 7-7 tie, San Jose State kicked off to Hawaii and its return man, Mike Edwards. The play began with Edwards muffing the ball near the 5-yard line, unleashing a chain reaction of events that should have punished Edwards, but didn’t.

Edwards recovered his muff in the end zone. Some people would argue that if you muff a kickoff outside the goal line, you should be expected to run the ball out of the end zone if you have to retrieve your muff. That’s a reasonable request, but it’s also quite reasonable to give the kick returner a degree of relief. There is a difference between muffing a kick and fumbling a ball after attaining possession. Removing a punitive dimension from the muff is entirely fair, even though the “he has to bring the ball out of his end zone” crowd makes its own very justifiable point.

However, Edwards’s muff wasn’t his only mistake on the play. This distinction between a muff and a fumble is necessary, yet ironic, because Edwards promptly proceeded to fumble the ball after he recovered his muff in his own end zone. Yes, Edwards gained full possession of the ball in the end zone. Instead of kneeling or – as Victor Cruz of the New York Giants did in an NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals a few weeks ago – “giving himself up” by ceasing to advance the ball, Edwards legitimately tried to run the ball out of the end zone. In the attempt to run the ball out of the end zone, he fumbled. Let’s process this series of events for a moment.

If a reasonable person allows a kickoff returner to enjoy relief with respect to muffs, that same reasonable person should not give a kickoff returner any relief on a genuine fumble. Moreover, that’s how one-point safeties are scored by offensive teams in college football: a blocked or otherwise botched PAT is touched by the defensive team, making the ball live for the offensive team and paving the way for a recovery of the ball in the end zone for a one-point score. If the defense can become vulnerable to the scoring of points when it mishandles a ball in or near its own end zone on a placekick, there’s absolutely no valid or consistent reason why an offensive team should be protected from conceding points on a kickoff or punt.

However, that’s exactly how the college football rulebook is written at the present moment. The rules governing fumbles or muffs by an offensive team in or near its own end zone are treated very differently from fumbles or muffs at the other end of the field, and specifically, near the other end zone.

Edwards’s fumble for Hawaii rolled around in the Warriors’ own end zone. Several members of the San Jose State Spartans fought with other Hawaii players in an attempt to recover the fumble, pushing the ball out of the back of the end zone. The ball, which had been rolling on the blue and yellow paint of the end zone itself, then touched the thick white “end line” before a Hawaii player could corral it. Casting aside the actual rulebook for a moment, let’s pause for a bit. What would any logical person conclude about this sequence? What should be the punishment for a player who not only muffs his kickoff, but is foolish enough to try to advance it out of his own end zone; who not only tries to foolishly advance the ball out of his own end zone, but then fumbles in the attempt; who not only fumbles in the attempt, but sees his teammates unable to recover the fumble; and who not only sees his teammates fail to recover the ball, but sees the ball go out of the back of the end zone? If ever there was a situation on a kickoff which should penalize the receiving team with a safety, this was – and is – the shining five-star example: muff, return attempt, fumble, no recovery by the offense, ball out of the end zone – five whacks against the receiving team on one play.

Yet, what does the college football rulebook say about such a sequence? Touchback. Hawaii ball, and not just Hawaii ball, but Hawaii ball on the 20. Pathetic. Ridiculous. Obscene, really.

At the very least – the VERY LEAST – the fact that Hawaii never could recover its own fumble before the ball went out of the back of the end zone should mean that the Warriors – or any team which suffers a similar fate on a kickoff return – should have to start its possession at the one-inch line. If you can’t recover your own gosh-dern fumble, for cryin’ out loud, you do not deserve the benefit of a drive start on your own 20-yard line. You really shouldn’t even deserve the ball – you should be conceding two points and be kicking the ball to the other team – but if you are given the ball by the hands of a merciful God, you should be pressed against your own goal line. College football’s rulemakers clearly disagree.

To fully and finally illustrate just how absurdly and atrociously awful this rule really is, simply consider the rules governing fumbles that occur at the OTHER end of the field. Remember when Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon fumbled at the Texas A&M 1-yard line? The ball rolled out of the end zone before any A&M player could recover it. Let’s establish the parallel: Much as Hawaii never recovered its own fumble in its own end zone, A&M never could recover an opposing team’s fumble in its own end zone. Yet, both Hawaii and A&M were given touchbacks. To repeat: The team that never could recover a fumble was given the benefit of a drive start at its own 20, in the form of a touchback. How insane is that?

The question that screams for a good answer (and won’t ever get one) is this: Why is an offensive team (Hawaii) not punished at all for fumbling out of the back of its OWN end zone, but punished beyond any and all reasonable sense of proportion (Oklahoma State and Justin Blackmon) when it fumbles out of the back of an opponent’s end zone? Just as an offense does nothing to earn a touchback when it fumbles out of the back of its own end zone, a defense (such as Texas A&M’s) does nothing to earn a touchback when it fails to recover a Justin Blackmon fumble that rolls out of the end zone.

Maybe offensive teams should give up the ball when they carelessly fumble out of an opponent’s end zone, but as is the case with Hawaii-San Jose State, the team that benefits from these fumbles should not be rewarded with a drive start on the 20. At the very least, if you want to expect a touchback, you should recover the fumble in the end zone as a defense or as an offense. If you can’t recover the fumble, you frankly should deserve to lose points (or face the possibility of losing points), but at the very least, your drive should start on your own 1.

College football’s rulebook, however, will have none of it. This sport’s rules continue to militate against basic principles of fairness, logic, reason, and good old-fashioned accountability. It’s really rather pathetic..

- Cirminiello: How Good Is Sammy Watkins
- Mitchell: South Carolina's Really Bad Week
- Harrison: Do Ohio State Fans Want Fickell? 
- Sallee: SEC East. The Division No One Wants
- Johnson: Just How Good Is Washington?
- Zemek: The Rule Book Problem With Fumbles