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The NFL doesn’t need to modify its fumble out of the end zone rule

During a game between the Steelers and Bengals back in the mid-’80s, a Cincinnati defender intercepted a pass and headed for pay-dirt.

This defender looked poised to score. Unfortunately for this Cincinnati defender, a Steelers player came along and knocked the football from his grasp, and this football rolled through the back of the end zone he was trying to score a touchdown in. Instead of the Bengals scoring seven points or having possession deep in Pittsburgh territory, the play was ruled a touchback, and the Steelers regained possession at their own 20.

I believe I was 12 or 13 years old, and while this was my first time witnessing this fumble-through-the-end-zone-becomes-a-touchback rule, what transpired didn’t seem all that confusing to me: If you fumble the football through the end zone while trying to score a touchdown, the other team gains possession.

It just made sense to me.

I continued to watch the NFL for decades and never paid much attention to this rather obscure rule. Why? Because it was rather obscure, silly. It didn’t influence more than one game a year–if that.

The rule would make a cameo every now and then to remind us that it existed.

For example, Don Beebe became a hero to many “Act like you’ve been there before” types and/or Cowboys haters when he chased down Leon Lett and knocked the football from his hot-dogging hand (and through the back of the end zone for a touchback) late in the Bills’ blowout loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII.

Poor Lett, a huge, lumbering defensive lineman; he had probably never been there (the end zone) before and clearly didn’t know how to act after picking up a Frank Reich fumble and running for the goal line.

Lett show-boated. Beebe tried hard. One won a Super Bowl that day. One did not. Who doesn’t have to pay for a drink for the rest of his life? Beebe, the one who did not. In fact, here’s a four-minute clip of Beebe talking about how this play changed his life. 

And to think, it never would have happened, if not for the NFL’s obscure fumble-through-the-end-zone-becomes-a-touchback rule.

Full disclosure: I don’t know if that’s the official name of the rule. I mean, it’s so rare. How rare is it? People who have been following and covering the NFL for years are now suddenly outraged that it exists.

They’re demanding that the NFL do something about it. Why? Because it happened in the playoffs–twice–and as everyone knows, when something happens during a high-profile game, a rule must change.

Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman brought this rule to the attention of the football world when he fumbled through the end zone during Kansas City’s divisional-round playoff game against the Bills. Fortunately for Hardman, the Chiefs won the game, and he went on to score a walk-off touchdown in overtime of Super Bowl LVIII.

But Hardman may not have had a chance to be a Super Bowl hero had Ravens receiver Zay Flowers not fumbled out of the end zone in the second half of the AFC title game on January 28.

What is the NFL going to do to modify this obscure and suddenly unfair rule?


That’s right, it was reported on Tuesday that the NFL’s competition committee isn’t planning on recommending any amendments to this rule in time for the 2024 campaign.

Why? For one thing, nobody has come up with an alternative. Does the offense retain possession where the player was when he fumbled? Does it go back to the original line of scrimmage? Is it a loss of down? What happens?

Also, to reiterate: A fumble out of the back of the end zone is just so darn rare. How rare is it? According to the Yahoo article linked above, it happened one time in 2021 and zero times in 2022.

If you disagree with this rule, if you think it’s unfair, tell me why. Do you feel the same way about a punt that gets blocked, rolls out of the back of the end zone and is ruled a safety for the team that blocked it? What about when a ball carrier fumbles in the field of play, and the ball rolls through the back of his own end zone? The defense didn’t recover the football but is still awarded two points.

If neither team recovers it, why should the defense be awarded two points?

Because that’s the rule.

But why, damn it?

Maybe because the end zone is sacred ground, and it’s a ball carrier’s job to maintain possession whenever he’s anywhere near it.

Sorry, but there should be serious consequences when a player fumbles out of the end zone–even when he’s trying to score a touchdown.

Just ask Leon Lett, a three-time Super Bowl winner who is only remembered for one thing.


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