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In the game between the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets on 12/27/2020, Baker Mayfield fumbled on the final Cleveland posession, at 1:25 remaining.

The ball was fumbled during an attempted quarterback sneak on fourth and 1. The ball was recovered by Kareem Hunt and subsequently advanced beyond the line of scrimmage; however, the referees ruled that the ball was down at the point that Hunt recovered the fumble, as he was not allowed to advance the fumble.

Why was he not allowed to advance the fumble? I understand the rule to only apply to forward fumbles; as this appears to have been a fumble backwards, why was this rule enforced?

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  • If you are interested in the part I left out in my edit - the idea of how rule enforcement might change over time (the idea of a "precedent"), you might want to ask that separately, as a question that's not related to this exact thing; that's an interesting question, and not one really related to this but still interesting. – Joe Dec 28 '20 at 22:04
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Two different rules could actually apply here, and neither mentions "forward" fumbles being advanceable anywhere in the current rulebook.

First is the rule for Fourth Down Fumbles, Rule 8.7.5:

If a fourth-down fumble occurs during a play from scrimmage:

(c) If the recovery or catch is by a teammate of the player who fumbled, the ball is dead, and the spot of the next snap is the spot of the fumble, or the spot of the recovery if the spot of the recovery is behind the spot of the fumble.

And then there is the rule for Fumble after the Two-Minute Warning:

If a fumble by either team occurs after the two-minute warning:

(c) If the recovery or catch is by a teammate of the player who fumbled, the ball is dead, and the spot of the next snap is the spot of the fumble, or the spot of the recovery if the spot of the recovery is behind the spot of the fumble.

Both would apply to this down (which was on 4th and 1, after the two-minute warning for the second half).

You are most likely confused due to the wording - as there are two different potential spots depending on if the fumble is recovered behind or forward from the spot of the fumble. Once Mayfield fumbled, there were two possibilities of where the ball might be spotted, unless Mayfield recovered his own fumble:

  • The spot Mayfield fumbled (~1 yard behind the line to gain)
  • The spot the ball was recovered, if that spot is behind the point Mayfield was at when he fumbled

No other result would have been possible, unless Mayfield recovered his own fumble. This has been the case for decades - since 1978, when the rule was introduced. This article by Football Zebras explains that in some detail. Note that the ball is dead immediately upon recovery by any other player than the original ball carrier - similar to a punt being touched by the punting team. Once Hunt recovered the ball (and had possession), the play was over, and nothing else could occur (for either team).

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  • Thank you sir for your time and knowledge. So it is safe to assume that a center snaps the ball and it is fumbled during the snap ,that only the center himself can advance the ball correct ? If the QB picks up the ball, he can not throw it, or hand it off because the ball is dead correct ? – David Carelli Dec 28 '20 at 23:12
  • @DavidCarelli I think that might be a different question, unless you're suggesting this particular play involved an aborted snap. I think I know the answer to it, but don't actually see any clear evidence that I'm correct; hopefully someone else will, if you ask it as a separate question. – Joe Dec 28 '20 at 23:26
  • (And to be clear, I'm pretty sure there's a difference between a "butt fumble" like in the classic Jets game, and a center snapping the ball over someone's head or similar; if the QB took possession of the ball, even to bobble it, he's the fumbler.) – Joe Dec 28 '20 at 23:28
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This is a 2 parter. First part will be the rule enforcing the call, second will be the reason behind the rule.

There is a special rule surrounding fumbles after the 2 minute warning of either half. Article 6. Fumble After Two-Minute Warning of the NFL rulebook states:

If a fumble by either team occurs after the two-minute warning:

a) The ball may be advanced by any opponent.

b) The player who fumbled is the only player of his team who is permitted to recover and advance the ball.

c) If the recovery or catch is by a teammate of the player who fumbled, the ball is dead, and the spot of the next snap is the spot of the fumble, or the spot of the recovery if the spot of the recovery is behind the spot of the fumble.

Note: The restrictions in (b) and (c) are applicable during a Try throughout the game.

So when Kareem Hunt recovered the ball, the ball was called dead since he was not the original fumbler.

[Second Part] Now we get to the more interesting question, why is there such a rule? The answer is the The Holly Roller, you can see the play here:

The 1978 Raiders fumbled their way to victory in a game trailing by six and 10 second left. Their QB Ken Stabler intentionally fumbled the ball right before getting sacked. You can see #40 also intentionally throwing the ball towards the endzone instead of taking the possession where it ends up getting scored by Raiders and giving them the win. Although the play was legal, it was clearly a loophole in the NFL rules, which was patched by the above rule in that immediate off season.

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