The Vanderbilt-Ole Miss kick-catch interference ruling: wrong, yet defensible

It came as a revelation… and the revelation was not a happy one.

I had thought  this was the worst rule in the college football rulebook, and that this clock-start/stop policy was about as bad.

On Saturday night (and then through study on Sunday morning), I realized that college football has a rule which is worse — or at least, more poorly written — than the “fumble-off-the-pylon-is-a-touchback” rule.

That’s incredibly hard to pull off. Yet, college football has never been able to limit its stupidity. There is always a greater depth to which the sport can sink in terms of making up the dumbest rules known to humankind… rivaling the NFL’s awful rules.

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Here’s the new leader in the “Worst Rule in Sports” sweepstakes. It comes from Saturday night’s game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Ole Miss Rebels.

Here is the YouTube video of the play. This was ruled kick-catch interference on Vanderbilt (in white).

The scary part of all this, as you’ll soon read, is that it’s NOT a 100-percent verifiable error. You can make a CASE that it’s a bad call, but it’s not an airtight case in terms of a strict interpretation of the rulebook. Logic suggests that this is a terrible call, but since when did logic have a single flipping thing to do with the college football rulebook?

Here are the two relevant sections of the rulebook which enable the above play (in the video) to be interpreted as kick-catch interference:

First, Rule 6-5-1-b, on page FR-69 of the rulebook, states the following:

“When a Team B player makes a valid fair catch signal, the unimpeded opportunity to catch a free or scrimmage kick continues if this player muffs the kick and still has an opportunity to complete the catch. This protection terminates when the kick touches the ground.”

The interpretation which reinforces the above rule is 6-4-1-VII, on page FI-31 in the interpretations section of the rulebook (after the main rules chapters, later on in the PDF, which you can access here):

“B10 signals for a fair catch, muffs the ball and then catches it.

RULING: If B10 has an opportunity to catch the kick after the muff, he must be given an unimpeded opportunity to complete the catch.”

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The main problem with that rule and its attached interpretation is not that they exist; no, that’s too extreme a response. What is more precisely the problem here is that there is no subsequent spelled-out description of what is and isn’t an “unimpeded opportunity to complete the catch. ”

Go back to the YouTube video above. You will notice a few details if you didn’t pick them up the first time.

Detail No. 1: Notice that the Ole Miss returner bobbles the ball not once, but twice. He was given a second chance to catch the ball by the Vanderbilt coverage team. This raises the question: Did the receiver already get a “second bite at the apple,” so to speak? A reasonable interpretation would say yes, he did. Yet, when does the “unimpeded opportunity” end? A limit to one discernible bobble could be one parameter written into the rulebook.

You might wonder why a fair-catch signal merits this protection. Fair question. The reason is player safety. Deciding to make a fair catch SHOULD protect a player from a hit. If the catcher (returner) is given the buffer of one allowed bobble in order to avoid getting hit, that doesn’t seem like an entirely bad thing, in the name of player safety.

However — and this is where the vague and overly short construction of the rule emerges to an even greater degree — even if a player was to receive one bobble (and not two, as the Ole Miss player gained), what if that bobble was a long-distance bobble?

This leads us to…

Detail No. 2: Notice that the second bobble of the ball travels a few yards. The flight of the ball took the ball out of the immediate range of the Ole Miss player to re-catch it.

This once again underscores the lack of specificity given to this notion of an “unimpeded opportunity” to catch a scrimmage kick.

Just imagine a kick returner signaling for a fair catch but watching the ball bounce off his helmet, 10 yards away from where he is. A member of the coverage team catches that muff in the air. Since the ball has not hit the ground, are we really going to say that kick-catch interference was committed?

In other words, does “unimpeded” refer solely to the body of the kick returner, or to the whole process of having to wait for the ball to hit the ground before being able to recover the muff? Common sense tells us — as does any rule which emphasizes player safety — that the intent of the rule is to protect the person, the returner who signals for the fair catch and the relief it offers. Yet, an interpretation in which one must wait for the ball to hit the ground in order to “not impede” during an attempted fair catch is plainly beyond the realm or interests of player safety.

When that Ole Miss player bobbled the ball a second time, a couple of yards out of his reach, he was chasing after a loose ball. The whole idea of needing to be shielded from a hit on a fair catch had, as a matter of observable fact, come and gone. He was no longer catching a kick, but trying to chase down his mistake, his muff.

If the intent of the rule is to protect the kick returner, the only act it SHOULD protect is the act of catching the kicked ball, which demands looking upward while coverage men are closing in. Once that ball is bobbled out of one’s own reach or wingspan, it’s a chase for a fumble. The theater of action on the play has switched from looking upward to diving downward or running in some direction. There is no more catching to impede, because the attempt to catch the kick has already been made… and the returner’s attempt failed.

A “one-bobble provision” would make this rule better, but such a provision would also need to be supplemented by something to the effect of, “If the kick returner bobbles the ball outside the one-yard range a coverage man must generally observe in order to not impede the opportunity to make a catch, the coverage man can grab the ball without penalty.”

That’s ALL the rulebook needed to add, but college football — being college football — couldn’t do that.

The sad part of all this is that, as mentioned above, one cannot say with 100-percent certainty that what happened in Vandy-Ole Miss is the incorrect application of the rule. It might be true that this rule was wrongly applied, but if any official was taught in football officiating school, “The returner is the only one who has the right to a muffed ball on a fair catch until the ball touches the ground,” or, similarly, “The returner gets as many additional bites of the apple as he wants until the muffed ball touches the ground,” then the officials in Vandy-Ole Miss are not to blame, and it’s all the rulebook’s fault for being so horribly and insufficiently written. That’s the basic verdict on this case.

It’s still, in my mind, the wrong call, but it’s a defensible call because the imprecise nature of the rule leaves so much open to interpretation and to a rigid application: “Until the ball hits the ground, the returner gets full protection, even if the coverage man never touched or hit the returner himself.” An official could apply that bottom-line approach, and so while such an official would not be exercising any common sense (which officials have to do all the time), he would also not deserve to be suspended or reprimanded… because he was only following the rulebook. He could make that claim, and he would be right (albeit in a very narrow frame of interpretation-based reference).

What a rulebook, eh, folks?

A postscript is next:

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From a football-only standpoint, this point must be added as well:

If we are to play along with the idea that a muff which hasn’t hit the ground cannot be touched by the other team — under penalty of kick-catch interference if it is — the question follows: Why should a muffed kick — which is a mistake — give the kick returner and his team added relief?

This accompanies another absolutely horrible rule which is still on the books: A muff in the field of play, which then rolls into the punt returner’s own end zone and is recovered by the returning team, is a touchback and not a safety.

Why should muffs — mistakes — be given protection, ESPECIALLY when a fumble off the pylon of the opposing team’s goal line is punished so severely, with not only an exchange of possession, but a touchback, putting the ball on the 20 and not the 1?

The college football rulebook, in instances such as these, makes me want to do what’s illustrated below:

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.

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