The rules of football (NFL and college) are exposed once again

When I’m (hopefully) 98 years old and still able to draw breath, I hope I won’t have to write about all the awful, horrible, no-good, very bad rules in the football rulebook.

Surely, they’ll be changed before too long.

However, some of them are still on the books, and when a certain kind of play unfolds in a very particular circumstance, it becomes apparent to an entire nation how deficient a rule actually is.

Look no further than Sunday’s AFC playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos.


It’s true that the play about to be described did not decide the game. However, a very simple review of the game situation surrounding this play (which we’ll provide shortly) shows that it very easily could have meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Here’s the play:

This next vine shows the pylon-cam angle of the play. I had originally thought — when seeing the play live — that the ball was securely possessed at the 1, but the vine below shows that it wasn’t fully possessed until the ball was on the goal line:

By rule, Pittsburgh was given a touchback. That’s the rule. It was not in dispute that a touchback was the proper call as an extension of enforcing the rulebook. Both of the officials on site rather quickly and clearly waved one arm to the side in a half-arc motion, making the touchback signal.

Let’s process, though, what this rule means:

While players cannot intentionally bat or punch the ball (thereby drawing a penalty), they could certainly create the appearance of an “innocent muff” on the 5-yard line or thereabouts; allow the ball to roll into the end zone; cover the muff; and gain the relief afforded by a touchback. The rulebook, as structured, REWARDS RECEIVING TEAMS ON MUFFED PUNTS if the muffed ball rolls into the end zone.

Consider what a proper rule would have meant in the context of Pittsburgh-Denver.

If the rule had appropriately punished muffs with a safety (if the muff is recovered in the end zone by the receiving team, as was the case above in Denver), the Broncos would have gained two points.

The score at the time, remember, was 13-12 in favor of the Steelers.

Yeah, a safety would have been kinda sorta important there.

At the very least, let’s say that the rules on muffs were amended to say that in the case of a recovered muff in the end zone, the ball was automatically placed on the 1. That would not punish the receiving team with the loss of both points and possession, but it would at least offer the stiffest possible penalty in terms of field position. At the very, very least, that much should be incorporated into the rules on muffs committed outside the end zone which then roll into (and are recovered in) the end zone.

You might be wondering: Isn’t this a college sports blog, not an NFL blog? You’re correct.

The very simple follow-up here is that the rules are fundamentally the same in college.

Read this story from the 2012 Cincinnati-Louisville game.

The Bearcats muffed a punt outside the end zone. The muff rolled into the end zone. Cincinnati recovered its own muff in its own end zone.

TOUCHBACK. A mistake by the receiving team turned into a profound reward for the receiving team, giving the receiving team far better field position than it would have enjoyed without committing the muff in the first place.

How can a rule this bad be allowed to persist?

How can so many people — those who create the rulebooks at the college and pro levels — not intervene and amend the rule?

Surely, surely, this can be fixed in the offseason, in both the NFL and college football.

The sad part? Dozens of other rules are equally bad, if not worse.

The fight goes on, the cause endures, and the dream of a better football rulebook will never die… but hey, can’t we just fix these things? Being a rules reform activist sure gets tiring after bullspit such as this, every single season.


About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.