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Bad Idea Time: How to fix football’s dumbest rule

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Football’s most bizarre rule awards end zone sideline fumbles to the defense. Let’s simply make that rule consistent with the rest of the field.

Photo by George Bridges/MCT/Tribune News Service via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

I cannot think of a rule more widely disliked than “if you fumble the ball out of bounds in the end zone, your opponent gets the ball, and it’s a touchback.” People HATE this.

It feels too punitive, as if it’s telling the offense, “you should have stayed just slightly OUT of the end zone , even though that’s the whole thing you were on the field to do.” Why is this a turnover at all, when a fumble out of bounds anywhere between the goal lines doesn’t change possession?

My solution is rooted in the spirit of that last question. We can eliminate the inconsistent treatment of end zone fumbles with one simple change:

Make every fumble that goes out of bounds a turnover.

Fumbles that go out of bounds at the 50 have the same consequence as fumbles that go out of bounds inside the end zone. I assume we’re all very happy with the rule now.

Wait! Don’t go. Let me try to convince you.

This rule respects the traditional role of the sideline: the defense’s friend.

Many college football broadcasts reference the sideline as “the extra defender,” and with good reason. It renders passes incomplete, it stops forward progress, and if you’re a receiver who voluntarily steps out, you can’t touch the ball first.

Fumbles out of bounds are currently the only time when the sideline functions as an offensive player, working on behalf of the team with possession instead of against it.

The sideline doesn’t belong in an offensive role. It should always serve as a boundary the offense must strategize around, as much as any elite linebacker or defensive back. Eliminate this strange exception to the sideline’s natural status as an enemy to the team with the ball.

Giving out of bounds fumbles to the defense is more equitable.

Statistical analysis suggests that recovering fumbles is a function of luck, not skill. But! Offensive players are only getting to 50% with the current sideline rule helping them out, which must mean defenders are better at recovering all the fumbles inside the sidelines. We should reward the defense for their hard work knocking the ball out in the first place, not try to balance it with unfair rule gimmicks that favor the offense.

It reinforces the notion of personal responsibility.

Let’s call the current sideline fumble rule what it is: a bailout for players who can’t do their jobs or clean up their own messes. You had the ball. You lost the ball. If you or your teammates fail to recover the ball — which, again, you lost — why are we creating loopholes that don’t force you to learn from your mistake? This only teaches the impressionable children who watch football that it’s fine to not take responsibility for your own actions. Somebody else will just fix everything for you, and you never have to grow up and take life seriously.

Exquisite chaos would result from this rule change.

This is a real thing Shea Patterson did in Michigan’s 2019 win over Notre Dame.

The play-by-play lists this as a 13-yard sack/fumble recovered by Michigan at their own six-yard line. Bad, but not ultimately disastrous, as the Wolverines punted and then stopped the Irish from getting inside the red zone.

That’s a pretty mild punishment for whatever the hell Patterson was doing there, especially when you consider the alternative under this new rule. Notre Dame ball inside the Michigan 10 in a game that’s just about to slip away? TREMENDOUS.

While it’s a fairly silly example, making every fumble near the sideline a matter of life and death raises the dramatic stakes. If this offends you as a football purist, well, then it’s a reminder that ball security is critically important. You’re not saying ball security doesn’t matter, are you?

Defenders get to develop a new technique.

If we make this rule change, we’re going to see defenders slapping wildly at the ball like pinball flippers trying to send the ball out of bounds. (You can’t kick the ball, as that remains against the rules, so we won’t get amazing slide tackles out of this.) Everything about that will be great, especially when someone really catches hold of one like a volleyball serve and sends the ball sailing into a Gatorade bucket.

This makes the chess match more interesting.

You probably don’t like screen passes or runs or options run to the short side of the field. They don’t feel like they work often enough because they limit the space available for the offense to work within. Good news: now those plays are much riskier to run, so either:

  • Your team won’t use them much or
  • Your team will only use them when the defense LEAST expects them, which should make them more exciting.

By extension, we’re also changing how the field works from a risk-management perspective.

If you’re conservative and care about ball control and avoiding turnovers, then the sidelines — which were maybe an asset under the old rules — now have a The Floor Is Lava quality.

If you want to get wild, run more plays to the sideline. Maybe the defense will get greedy and try to force a fumble, and you’ll break a big play after a missed tackle.

Please try the following experiment before you decide how you feel about this rule.

Watch an entire game, preferably one that’s close, with this potential rule in the back of your head. See how your reaction changes when a ball comes loose close to the sideline. (No, the players don’t know we’re incorporating this imagined rule, but that’s not important.) It’s especially effective in college football since the hash marks are so much closer to the sideline than they are in the NFL. I suspect you’ll find this rule adds a delightful little jolt of drama.

I could have done far worse.

If you’ve made it this far and still hate this idea, consider: Had I really wanted to infuriate you and ruin football, I would have proposed we borrow the NBA’s rule and determine possession based on who last touched the ball before it went out of bounds. Then you’d have to watch replay after replay trying to determine if a crazily-bouncing football had its trajectory slightly altered by possibly brushing against someone’s cleat.

Or I could have gone the college basketball route and proposed ... the POSSESSION ARROW SYSTEM. I get this fumble out of bounds, and you get the next one. Does it matter that they happened at wildly different points on the field? No. Would Pac-12 officials screw this up in a game and award a fumble to the same team three times in a row? Yes.

Frankly, I think I deserve some recognition for proposing something far better than either of those possibilities.

Did you hate this proposal and find it incredibly stupid? Definitely don’t read our other Bad Ideas, like: