It’s once again the time of the NFL offseason when free agency is slowing down, the draft is still several weeks away, and the first round of league meetings have been completed. While the last item on this list may seem to be the least important, one of the bigger things that comes out of when the NFL owners meet in March is the release of proposed rule changes for the following season. Of course, the 2021 meetings also made the 17-game schedule official for this coming year, but there were still some rule changes worth noting.
Some of the proposed rules make sense such as eliminating overtime in preseason games. Another proposal wants to expand which positions are allowed to be issued single-digit jersey numbers. Yet another proposal is to implement an alternative to an onside kick by giving the team a 4th & 15 from their own 25-yard line. I also recently explained the need for one rule change which make sure all penalties on point after attempts are enforced throughout successive tries.
What some fans have also noted are the rule changes that were not presented. Of course there’s always some interesting ideas floating around, but there is one a lot of fans have talked about the need to change for years. And it’s not just Steelers fans. Although there are a few examples of this rule which needs changing which of affected the Steelers in a negative way, every time it comes up in any game it seems like the rule just doesn’t make sense.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, or if the lead picture did not give it away, it’s the rule in the NFL where if a team fumbles the ball into the end zone and it goes out of bounds, it becomes a touchback with the defensive team gaining possession.
Sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.
I can think of no less than two games in which this rule affected the Steelers. One was years ago when Kordell Stewart lost the ball before crossing the goal line where it hit off of his thigh and out of bounds just past the pylon. Instead of the Steelers being set up to try to finish off the touchdown they should have scored on the previous play, the defense had to come onto the field. More recently, too many Steeler fans would like to forget the play in Denver in 2018 when tight end Xavier Grimble chose to take on the defender rather than simply steer clear of him into the end zone. The hit, pictured above, jarred the ball loose just before he cross the goal line. When the ball went out of bounds along the sideline in the end zone, it cost the Steelers a touchdown in a game which they ultimately lost by seven points.
What makes this rule so frustrating is the difference of 6 inches. If an offensive player fumbles the ball out of bounds 3 inches in front of the pylon, the offense simply retains possession and they move on to the next down. But if the player fumbles the ball and it goes out of bounds three inches beyond the pylon, it’s considered a turnover and a touchback with the defense taking over on the 20 yard line.
So how should the NFL change this rule? I have an idea. In fact, I have several depending on why this rule is still even in place.
First of all, I would differentiate between a fumble in the end zone going out on the sideline versus out the back at the end line. If the NFL wants to keep a fumble out of the back of the end zone as a touchback, I’m okay with that. If a player fumbles the ball forward by more than 10 yards, I see why they would do it, and I don’t think it would happen very often. But if the ball was funneled into the end zone and it goes out along the sideline, which could be just inside the pylon, the ball should go back to the spot of the fumble and the fumbling team retains possession. In other words, it would be like any other fumble out of bounds, except the ball would be returned to the spot of the fumble regardless of the time it is in the game or the down.
If the argument about not changing this rule is that it isn’t enough of a punishment to the fumbling team, then let’s institute a more reasonable punishment. Instead, let’s make it a special situation where if the team fumbled the ball into the end zone and it goes out of bounds, the ball returns to the spot of the fumble, the down is lost, and the team receives a 5-yard penalty. More often than not, this would mean that instead of the team getting the ball back at the 1-yard line, they would have to run the next play from the 6-yard line. This would make the fumble going out of bounds in the end zone a bigger punishment than a fumble going out of bounds on the field of play, but doesn’t make it so ridiculously harsh to where the team loses possession.
If you’re one of those people who thinks that the rule is fine the way it is and that the defense should be rewarded for forcing the fumble out of bounds, then why don’t we give the defense a fumble out of bounds at any time? Or even better, how about the defense actually has to recover the fumble in order to gain possession? That’s what they have to do anywhere else on the field.
It’s sad that the NFL did not address this rule once again this offseason. Is it the end of the world that this rule stays in place? Not really. Do we realize how bad the rule is every time it comes up? Yeah, pretty much. Even when the rule goes in your favor, most people believe it’s still a bad role.
Come on NFL, it’s time to get this one right.