How to fix the fumble out of the end zone rule

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Today’s Browns-Chiefs divisional playoff game featured a particularly painful example of the dumbest rule in sports. With under two minutes remaining in the first half, the Browns looked poised to make it a one-score game with a catch-and-run by Rashard Higgins. Higgins dove in an attempt to reach the pylon before the Chiefs’ defender made the (definitely illegal, helmet to helmet, by the way) hit. He failed and lost the ball, which went through the end zone. Instead of a touchdown for the Browns, the play resulted in first down from the 25 for the Chiefs. The fumble out of the end zone rule.

Any person with a brain knows this is idiotic. But, as Tedy Bruschi asked on Twitter, what is the alternative? Rugby’s five-meter scrum.

To replace the dumbest rule in sports, look to rugby.

From Rex Features

A few months ago I proposed a reform to the NFL’s video review system based on pro rugby’s. At the risk of sounding like some jerk who played club rugby in college and now talks about it way too much—which, to be fair, I am—I submit that football’s cousin can offer a solution to this problem, too. There is a roughly analogous situation for which it’s found a much more reasonable solution.

To score a try, the touchdown of rugby, a player must touch the ball down (a little etymology lesson there) at or beyond the goal line. When a player crosses the line but the defense prevents him from touching the ball down, he’s deemed to be “held up.” This situation is roughly analogous to our pesky little football rule—the ball carrier is very close to scoring, but not quite there. In American football, the punishment is draconian; it’s actually worse for your team than if you had lost a fumble at the 1 yard line. In rugby football, the attacking team gets a scrum from five meters outside the goal line. This makes the offense likely to keep possession but creates a cost to being held up.

A new American fumble rule

American football should adopt a rule like that. But the Tedy Bruschi in your mind asks: What would it look like in practice? Unfortunately there are no scrums in football, and being five yards from goal in the NFL is much more likely to earn you points than being five meters out in rugby. So since the offense would be guaranteed possession and a better chance at points, you’d probably have to place it at around the 10 if you wanted a similar expected value. Some analytics nerd could make a data-driven case for the exact placement, but I am not that nerd.

Whatever the specifications, this simple change would be easy to implement, and we’d hardly notice it. The Browns suffered a seven- or ten-point swing at the end of the first half of their first divisional playoff game since 1995. With a reasonable rule in place they could have lost themselves the game in another, more pathetic way. The way the Browns should lose.

Changing this rule is a no-brainer. That means the NFL probably won’t do it, or will do it in the dumbest way possible. But there’s no need to develop some new, convoluted formula for the fumble out of the end zone; it’s right here in the international rugby laws.

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Episode 140