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The One-Point Safety, football’s rarest scoring jewel

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The Banner Society Advent Calendar’s entry for December 1

A rulebook has two evolutionary stages. The first is creation, when someone (usually a weirdo professor with a Vision, a love of competition, and a dumb-looking haircut parted in the middle) sits down to create a new game and the governing rules by which it will be played. The creator does their best to account for any possibility, but their work cannot be comprehensive. The game has to be played before the cracks and voids in the rules become visible.

That leads to stage two: refinement. As repeated iterations of gameplay show what the original rulebook didn’t account for, regulations are changed or added. The NFL, for instance, added a whole rule to dissuade teams from sending tall players back to the goalposts to jump and block field goals.

I don’t know which stage gave birth to the one-point safety rule. Extra points are a carryover from college football’s rugby origins, and safeties have been a part of the sport since at least the 1880s. Whether it was part of the original formulation or a later amendment, the one-point safety required someone, somewhere, to decide what to do in this incredibly rare and absurd set of circumstances:

  1. Team A attempts to kick an extra point.
  2. Team A fails, but the ball is not dead (likely because the kick was blocked or the snap was mishandled).
  3. Team B recovers the live ball outside of the end zone.
  4. Team B ends up retreating back into the end zone, where the ball carrier is downed and the play is blown dead.

As it turns out, we’re very lucky someone decided the answer was “Team A has scored one point via safety,” because this fucked-up Rube Goldberg football machine has made itself manifest twice. The first instance was during the 2004 Texas-Texas A&M game, and I recommend watching the entirety of this clip so you can hear Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, and Lynn Swann refuse to agree on what the hell just happened.

Eight seasons later, the one-point safety returned during the 2013 Fiesta Bowl. More importantly, referee/spoken word poet Ron Cherry used the occasion to grace us with the most honest phrase in officiating: “We have an unusual ruling.”

Football is full of moments where both teams muck it up: offsetting penalties, turnovers forced by the defense that they immediately fumble back to the offense, long would-be touchdowns carelessly dropped just short of the goal line by overeager receivers and returners. The sport has to decide what the outcome of those moments should be, and the answer is often to punish whoever messed up last. (It’s a very Exasperated Road Trip Dad approach.) That’s also true of the one-point safety, except the result creates an amazing system error. A missed extra point winds up increasing the kicking team’s score by one.

The one-point safety is the car crash where you were partially at fault and somehow your insurance premium goes down slightly. It’s the exam you slept through and passed. It is the failure that succeeds, because the football rulesmaster has to do something with this stupid word problem you just presented, so please take this point and go away. I love it so much.