Definitions

crowd pleaser

Fumble

[fuhm-buhl]

A fumble in American and Canadian football is when a player, who has possession and control of the ball, drops the ball. By rule, it is any act other than passing, kicking or successful handing that results in loss of player possession. A fumble may be forced by a defensive player who either grabs or punches the ball or butts the ball with his helmet (a move called "tackling the ball"). A fumbled ball may be recovered and advanced by either team (except, in American football, after the two-minute warning in either half or 4th down, when the fumbling player is the only offensive player allowed to advance the ball, otherwise the ball is ruled dead at the spot of recovery if the ball bounces backwards or spotted at the point of the fumble if the ball travels forward). It is one of two events considered to be turnovers, where possession of the ball can change during play.

Under American rules a fumble may be confused with a muff. A muff occurs where a player drops a ball that he does not have possession of, such as while attempting to catch a lateral pass or improperly fielding a kicking play such as a punt (you can't "fumble" a loose ball). The result is the same and most announcers will still call it a fumble. Ball security is a term used to describe the ability of a player to maintain control over the football during play and thus avoid a fumble.

Rules

If the ball is fumbled the defensive team may recover the ball and even advance it to their opponents' goal. The same is true for the offense, but usually when the offense recovers the ball it simply tries to down it. In American football the offense cannot advance the ball if it recovers its own fumble on fourth down, or in the last two minutes of the game, unless the ball is recovered by the fumbler (there are no such restrictions in Canadian football). However, if the offense fumbles the ball, the defense recovers and then fumbles back to the offense, they would get a first down since possession had formally changed over the course of the play even though the ball had never been blown dead.

This is not the same thing as when a forward pass is attempted and the intended receiver does not catch it. In this latter case, it is simply an incomplete pass. However, if the receiver catches the ball, but then drops it after gaining control of the ball, that is considered a fumble.

Any number of fumbles can be committed during a play, including fumbles by the team originally on defense. Most famously, Dallas Cowboys defender Leon Lett fumbled during Super Bowl XXVII while celebrating during his own fumble return.

A sometimes controversial rule is usually referred to as "the ground cannot cause a fumble". If a player is tackled and loses control of the ball at or after the time he makes contact with the ground, the player is treated as down and the ball is not in play. However, if a ball carrier falls without an opponent contacting him, the ground can indeed cause a fumble.

The effects of fumbles vary when the ball goes out of bounds without being recovered:

  • A fumble going out-of-bounds between the endzones is retained by the last team with possession (in Canadian football, the last team to touch the ball). If the ball was moving backwards with regard to the recovering team, it is spotted where it went out of bounds. If the ball was moving forwards, it is spotted where the fumble occurred (the fumble itself cannot advance the ball).
  • A fumble going out-of-bounds in the endzone being attacked results in the defending team assuming possession via touchback if the offensive team forced the ball into the endzone. If the defensive team forced the ball into the endzone it is a safety for the offense.
  • A fumble going out-of-bounds in the endzone being defended is ruled a safety if the offensive team forced the ball into the endzone. If the defensive team forced the ball into the endzone it is a touchback and the offense will retain possession of the ball.

In all cases, a fumble recovered by an out-of-bounds player is considered an out-of-bounds fumble even if the ball never leaves the field of play.

A punted or place-kicked ball that touches any part of a player on the receiving team, whether or not the player ever gains control, is also considered to be live and is treated like a fumble.

In statistics

Game box scores commonly record how many fumbles a team made and how many it recovered. A fumble is credited to the last player who handled it from the possessing team, regardless of whether it may have been his fault or not.

Play during fumbles

Since footballs tend to bounce in unpredictable ways, particularly on artificial turf, attempting to recover and advance a fumbled ball is risky even for those with good manual coordination. Coaches at lower levels of the game usually therefore prefer that players, particularly those such as interior linemen who do not normally handle the ball in the course of play, simply fall on the ball. Gaining or retaining possession is more important in most situations than attempting to advance the ball and possibly score, and there have been many instances where those attempting to do so have wound up fumbling the ball back to the other team.

Recovering and advancing a fumble is also made difficult, and potentially injurious, by the effect on play. Since neither team is on offense or defense while the ball remains loose, there are no restrictions on the type of contact allowed as long as all players are making legitimate efforts to recover it. A loose ball has been described as the only situation in football where the rules are suspended.

If the ball remains loose, every player on the field will eventually gravitate towards it, increasing the chaos around it. Spectators relish the suspense. Some players, particularly offensive linemen, have a reputation for taking advantage of the situation to do things to opponents that would otherwise draw penalties, since the officials' attention is necessarily focused on the ball and away from the players trying to get to it. Most commonly, players will "pile on" opponents already down trying to recover the ball. Some NFL players also report that pokes in the eyes, pinches or other abuse is common in post-fumble pileups, conduct which has sometimes led to confrontations, fights or even brawls.

The usual aftermath of a fumble, at every level of play, is a pile of players, many still squirming diligently despite the whistle, surrounded by teammates pointing upfield (the hand signal for a first down) while the officials slowly extricate them in an effort to determine who has won possession. If two different players have hands on the ball, it is often a judgement call on the officials' part as to which team gets it. In the NFL and CFL this has often been the occasion for coaches to call for a review of the instant replay.

Fumbles recovered for touchdowns in the end zone are often the only way offensive linemen score points.

Proper fumble recovery

The most obvious way to recover a loose football would be to fall prone atop it and cradle it between both arms against the abdomen. Amateur players are seen doing this all the time, particular when playing touch football, and it can even be seen in professional contests.

However, coaches tell players not to do this in game situations if at all possible, since not only is the ball likely to squirt loose again once other players pile on, there is also a possibility of injury from the ball being driven into the soft organs with great force.

Instead, players are taught to fall on their sides and augment their cradling with a thigh and upper body, if possible. This greatly reduces both the chance of losing the ball and the potential for injury (at least from the ball).

Coaches are also increasingly encouraging their players to use the "scoop and score" method of picking it up and attempting to return it.

Intentional fumbling

A very rarely-used trick play known as the "fake fumble" calls for the quarterback to lay the ball on the ground as he backs up after receiving the snap, so that a pulling guard can pick it up and run the ball around the end. Coaches are very leery of calling this, however, as a team must be able to execute it flawlessly in order for it to have a chance of working in a game situation. The guard must also be able to run the ball competently and protect it when being tackled, both not usually part of the skill set for the position.

The "fake fumble" is in fact a real one as far as the rules are concerned, and if the defense manages to get the ball, the coach's judgement is likely to be questioned by fans and media alike. While it is a crowd pleaser when done properly, the risk far outweighs the likely reward. For this reason it is most likely to be used in informal touch football games. It was sometimes used in the college game before the NCAA banned it in 1992. It has almost never been used in the NFL or any other professional league.

The best-known fake fumble is probably the Fumblerooski play in the 1984 Orange Bowl (see below).

Fumbling forward, as the Holy Roller play (see below) demonstrated, once was a viable offensive tactic in desperate situations, but the rules have been changed to discourage that.

Use in place of opening coin toss

The XFL, a competing pro league which played its sole season in 2001, used a fumble recovery instead of a coin toss to decide which team would get to choose whether to kick off or receive at the opening of the game and before overtime. A player from each team would sprint, alongside the other, toward a loose ball at the middle of the field, and whoever was able to gain possession won the right for their team to decide.

The idea was that such a key element of the game would be decided by a test of playing skill, not chance. While it intrigued some fans and commentators, it is unlikely to be adopted by the NFL, NCAA, or any other governing body.

Famous fumbles

Fumbles have sometimes played a role in deciding games. Some of these have been so unique as to not only earn their own distinctive sobriquets, but to change the way the game has been played afterwards.

College football

  • The Fumblerooski. In the 1984 Orange Bowl, all-American guard Dean Steinkuhler scored a touchdown for Nebraska on a fake fumble early in the game's third quarter when his team was down 17–0 to the University of Miami. While the play is credited with sparking the Cornhuskers to a comeback that almost allowed them to close out a perfect season with a national championship, it also showed that coach Tom Osborne was getting desperate at the time. The play would be the on-field highlight of Steinkuhler's entire football career.

NFL

  • The Holy Roller: The Oakland Raiders won a September 10, 1978, contest against divisional rivals the San Diego Chargers through another intentional fumble. With ten seconds left, down 20-14, quarterback Ken Stabler fumbled the ball forward to avoid being sacked at the Chargers' 15-yard line. Two other players, Pete Banaszak and Dave Casper, attempted to recover it but batted it forward when they could not. Finally it reached the end zone, where Casper fell on it for the tying touchdown, which cleared the way for the extra point that gave the Raiders the win. Officials decided to allow the touchdown on the grounds that the fumbles did not appear to be intentional and thus could not be considered forward passes, but Stabler freely admitted his was. Chargers fans have referred to the play as the Immaculate Deception ever since, and the NFL quickly instituted the current rule that a forward fumble in the last two minutes of play (or on fourth down) can only be recovered and/or advanced by the player who originally fumbled.
  • The Miracle at the Meadowlands: Later that season, on November 19, 1978 the New York Giants were closing out an apparent 17-12 victory over the visiting Philadelphia Eagles. With 31 seconds left to play, they had the ball on third down. The Eagles had no timeouts left. All the Giants had to do was snap the ball one more time, and since they had knelt with the ball on the play before, it was expected they would do it and the game would be over. However, the kneel-down play wasn't universally accepted as an honorable way to win a game at the time, and Giants' offensive coordinator Bob Gibson ordered quarterback Joe Pisarcik (with whom he had been having a running feud over play-calling authority) to hand the ball off to fullback Larry Csonka for one more run up the middle to end the game. Csonka was reluctant to take the ball, and instead Pisarcik fumbled the handoff, allowing Eagles' cornerback Herman Edwards to return it for the winning touchdown. The Fumble, as outraged Giants' fans still call it, spurred the Eagles to the playoffs that season and precipitated a complete overhaul of the Giants' coaching and management staff, eventually reversing years of decline. Gibson was fired the next day. The following week, kneeling on the ball when possible to run out the clock and preserve a victory became standard operating procedure in the NFL.
  • The Fumble: The dubious honor of having committed "The" fumble goes to Earnest Byner of the Cleveland Browns. On January 17, 1988, he lost the ball just short of the Denver Broncos' goal line with 65 seconds left in the AFC championship game. The touchdown he might have scored would have tied the game and kept alive the Browns' Super Bowl hopes. Instead, the Broncos spotted them a safety and the game ended in a 38-33 Broncos victory. The play has entered Cleveland sports lore as one of several instances in which the city's teams were frustrated at the last minute on the way to possible future glory.
  • While not technically a fumble since Buffalo Bills wide receiver Don Beebe stripped the ball from him, Leon Lett's loss of the ball on the way to an apparent touchdown late in Super Bowl XXVII has gone down in football history. The Dallas Cowboys defensive end had recovered one of the Bills' record-setting five lost fumbles in that game and had slowed down as he approached the goal line to hold the ball out in an attempt to celebrate, leaving him vulnerable to the swift Beebe's strip. The loose ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback, giving the ball back to the Bills. Beebe's team had by that point effectively lost the game, but Lett's loss prevented the Cowboys from setting a new record for most points scored by one team in a Super Bowl. It was also seen as a fitting rebuke to a showboat. Despite an otherwise commendable career, that play and Lett's later unnecessary attempt to recover a blocked field goal, which cost Dallas a game the next season, have led to him being ill-remembered by football fans.

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