Last night the Vikings lost a close game to the Eagles in which Justin Jefferson fumbled the ball through the end zone with 41 seconds remaining in the first half. It was a huge play. The Vikings were about to complete a near perfect two-minute drill from their own 25, capped off by what was almost a brilliant 31-yard touchdown to Jefferson. Instead, the Eagles took over on the touchback and managed to convert a last second, 61-yard field goal.
The Eagles won by just six points, and so the touchback rule became the focus of much post-game debate. A lot of people hate the touchback rule. They see is as overly punitive and nonsensical. Almost all critics of the rule believe the ball should be returned to the spot of the fumble, and to the offense that fumbled it, rather than resulting in a turnover for the defense. I believe, at a baser level, it comes down to people feeling sorry for the fumbler. Many call it “the worst rule in sports.”
I have to confess I do not understand how so many people seem to feel this way when it’s pretty clear that the current system is fairer, and makes far more logical sense than the prescribed alternative. So much of the case for reform seems to be based on the fact that there are severe consequences for fumbling just a millimeter before the goal line, which would have been a touchdown. The consequences are severe, but I think it’s important to remember that in football, we don’t give points for “almost touchdowns.” If you don’t gain that extra millimeter, you will score 0 points, fumble or no, which is pretty punitive! The End Zone is special, and it has special rules. Everything about the end zone is a high leverage event, and there is no reason that a fumble, one of the worst plays a player can make, should be treated with kid gloves so close to the ultimate goal of the game.
In terms of incentives, we frequently see players act in a careless manner around the goal line, stretching the ball out, sometimes flipping it to the ground before they actually break the plane on long bombs, sometimes fighting for too long when going down would be more prudent. These acts are fundamentally unsound, and they should absolutely carry a huge penalty. How is giving the ball back to the offense at the one yard line any kind of penalty, exactly?
Aside from all of the practical reasons to keep the rule, the fact is that the rule also makes sense, and in fact is NOT a special end zone rule at all. The only reason people have become accustomed to bringing the ball back to the point of a fumble is because of the Holy Roller touchdown in 1978, where the Raiders were able to use an intentional fumble to their advantage. The league acted quickly to change the rules specifically to prevent the offense from benefitting from a fumble by curtailing advancement, and ensuring that only the fumbler could recover and advance the ball in the last 2 minutes of the half or the game. Using that rule to benefit the fumbling team is perverse. The rule was never intended to help the fumbler.
And again, the rule is consistent. Any live ball that goes through the end zone and out of bounds is a touchback for the defending team. This is true on kickoffs, punts, and live balls where no side has possession. It’s not a special rule at all, it’s just THE NORMAL END ZONE RULE in a particularly high-stakes setting.
No one should have sympathy for Justin Jefferson, who committed a turnover through lack of ball security. Turnovers are huge EPA plays. Turnovers near the goal line are especially huge EPA plays. This should not be shocking to anyone, and if you lose the ball by reaching it out, or just by being careless, you should be punished. A lot. The rules are set up perfectly to do so.