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I was watching football this past week and a play got to me. Sorry I can't remember the exact game (I watched all 32 games the past two weeks) but maybe someone will be able to find it. This question has me a little perplexed because I know the answer for high school football but not NFL.

So NFL. Player fumbles. Offensive player has part of his body out of bounds.

Two part question:

  1. If defensive player is gathering the fumble but hasn't retained 100% possession is the ball considered out of bounds if the offensive player makes contact with the ball when he is touching out of bounds.
  2. Same question but instead of touching the ball the defensive player is resting on the offensive player who is out of bounds.
  • What part of the offensive player's body is out of bounds? Is this body part touching the ground out of bounds, or are we talking about him standing with his feet in bounds and holding his arm over the line? – Nate Eldredge Sep 23 '15 at 4:10
  • @NateEldredge - His physical body was touching the white chalk. I was a bit taken that none of the announcers talked about but you know how that is. I have to say this is the first football rule I have looked up in years and I couldn't find this exact scenario. – Coach-D Sep 23 '15 at 6:40
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    I believe you are referring to the Oakland/Houston game. There was actually a double fumble. – steelersquirrel Sep 23 '15 at 8:17
  • @steelerfan That was last year, not this year (it was James Jones, who's now a Packer), and didn't involve a ball going out of bounds. (Raiders have played BAL and NYJ this year.) – Joe Sep 24 '15 at 17:10
  • The only out-of-bounds controversy I could find was TB vs NO, which doesn't precisely match the above scenarios (no offensive player was near). I do disagree with it being considered a recovered fumble, though... – Joe Sep 24 '15 at 17:13
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Some rule notes that may help clear this up, from the NFL Rulebook 2015 edition. However, it's likely that this is a highly technical issue that is hard to give a good answer to without game film.

Rule 3, section 2:

A recovery is made when a player inbounds secures possession of a loose ball after it has touched the ground.

Rule 3, section 2, article 7:

Item 2. Possession of Loose Ball. To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and then maintain control of the ball until he has clearly become a runner. A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground, there is no possession. This rule applies in the field of play and in the end zone.

So we know what a player has to do to secure possession: have the ball, and both feet or hands OR one elbow/knee/etc. in bounds. Just like a catch, and in fact there is later information that says the same - it has to continue through a trip to the ground, aka the Calvin Johnson rule, just like a pass. This should cover your second point, in part: regardless of anything else, the ball must be possessed in bounds, so a player out of bounds would have to reestablish in bounds. A player on top of an out of bounds player could only recover the ball if parts of him are in bounds.

Now, what about the ball being out of bounds/in bounds (ie, the first scenario)?

Rule 8, section 7 (Fumbles):

If a fumble goes backward and out of bounds, the ball is next put in play at the inbounds spot by the team that was last in possession

Note that the ball is what this is discussing, in terms of being 'out of bounds' (this is important, because there are some slight differences in what counts for ball vs. person). (The rule about 'forward' is similar.) So we go back to Rule 3, Section 21 to look at whether a ball is in bounds or out of bounds:

Item 2. Loose Ball. A loose ball is out of bounds when it touches a boundary line or anything that is on or outside such line, including a player, an official, or a pylon.

A loose ball is out of bounds when it touches a player who is out of bounds. That means that in the first scenario, that ball instantly is out of bounds - it has touched a player out of bounds. It doesn't matter that it's the offensive player.

However, if the ball was determined to be in possession of the defensive player, the rule is different:

Item 1. Ball in Player Possession. A ball that is in player possession is out of bounds when the runner is out of bounds, or when the ball touches a boundary line or anything that is on or outside such line, except another player or an official.

So if the ball is not yet recovered (per 3-2-7), the touching of the offensive player is sufficient to make it out of bounds. If the ball is recovered per 3-2-7, then touching the offensive player is irrelevant.


To specifically answer the question, if the conditions are as stated, in scenario 1 the ball is out of bounds and reverts to the team who last possessed it (regardless of side). In scenario 2, the ball is also likely out of bounds, but not definitely (as the player is not "out of bounds" until some part of him actually touches the ground), and the defensive player could theoretically touch down in bounds. NFL does not consider a player touching another player to be out of bounds:

ARTICLE 1. PLAYER OR OFFICIAL OUT OF BOUNDS. A player or an Official is Out of Bounds when he touches a boundary line, or when he touches anything that is on or outside a boundary line, except a player, an official, or a pylon.

  • Wow! Detailed answer. I am glad the question didn't involve a fumble after the two minute warning...that would have been another headache. Horrible rule. – steelersquirrel Sep 24 '15 at 18:16
  • Very good answer. We need to find the tape of the play to show the example. I am pretty sure it is the game that @steelerfan suggested. I wasn't 100% sure that the player out of bounds make contact with the ball but I was like whhhhhatttt... Because nobody talked about the call made. The referees ruled possession by defensive player. Also is this rule implying that if you catch the ball with a foot on top of a foot that is out of bounds and tap your other foot down twice you are in bounds? – Coach-D Sep 24 '15 at 22:24
  • I think you'd have to have two different feet in bounds. I just saw video of the game Steelerfan suggested, and that game (from 2014) didn't have the player anywhere close to out of bounds, so I doubt that is the case. – Joe Sep 24 '15 at 22:33
  • @Joe - Just two points below the knee or one above. I don't know if this rule explains the situation of on an out of bounds player well. I think we need to find the scenario sheet for that. – Coach-D Sep 25 '15 at 0:02

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