How to fix NFL’s fumble possession rules

Mueller: This is frustrating because it is a true gray area. And as much as my typical inclination is to just throw my hands up and say, “Well, the league has to be able to figure out something,” I’ve racked my brain, and nothing practical seems to exist. That’s not to say there isn’t a solution out there, just that there isn’t a common-sense one, like there was when the edict came down to stop nitpicking down to the millimeter when it came to catch/not a catch plays.

As far as whistling plays dead, put me in the camp that would rather see players have a chance to escape and make plays. That feels like the kind of thing that shouldn’t be standardized, partly because it can’t be. Lamar Jackson is going to be more elusive and capable of escaping a defender than, say, Kirk Cousins or someone less naturally gifted as a runner. Blowing plays dead after a standard count would unfairly hinder those for whom “in the grasp” has no real meaning. If it makes things marginally less safe, so be it.

The one thing I keep coming back to, ridiculous as it is, is the technology used by ESPN, NFL Network and others to scrub players from the screen when doing film breakdown segments. Without knowing the ins and outs of video production, I assume that the process takes a fair amount of time, and isn’t something that could be applied in a matter of seconds, but imagine if it could. You see a pile of bodies, you have the league’s nerve center start scrubbing them from a still image, find out who has the football first, and quickly send down a call. I am aware how ridiculous that sounds, but it strikes me as the best possible solution, even if technological limitations render it completely impractical.

We’re also fighting the nature of fumbles themselves. Football die-hards love to tell the unwashed masses how complicated the game is, how much mental work happens just before the ball is snapped, and how subtle and nuanced seemingly straightforward plays actually are. The fumble is the one thing that strips the game back down to its barest elements: The ball is on the ground, and everyone is trying to fall on it. I’d still like to see the league figure a better, fairer way to determine possession in situations like the one in Colts-Texans. But on some level, I like the fact that all that high-minded strategy disintegrates as soon as someone puts the ball on the turf.

Tunison: Given the pace of frivolous technological advancement, I’d imagine the ability to scrub people or objects from video will be along shortly, if not already feasible in semi-real time. Though in this case it’s funny that review, perhaps the most clinical element of football, is required to rescue the most raw aspect of the sport. In most ways I’m against the further encroachment of review, yet if it allows the league to let action play out in ways fundamental to the concept of the sport, then it’s a fine marriage of tech and base human instinct.

There has to be discretion left to the refs on certain issues, and deciding when the blow plays dead falls into murky territory insofar as finding an enforceable universal standard. I wouldn’t be surprised if analytics people find a way to track which refs has the longest average wait time before whistling a play dead. The applications of that data are probably limited, as players are surely instructed to fight through the whistle regardless, though perhaps being mindful that a given ref will let the play go a half-second longer than another could be fine cause to preach for added emphasis on ball security that week.

Ultimately, I doubt allowing a few additional scrums to happen for the sake of more consequential plays and fewer unsatisfactory rulings would have many objections among fans. Encouraging more violence doesn’t really track with the NFL’s PR efforts, though if the league combined the change with inevitable further efforts to do away with kickoffs, it can cover itself a little easier.

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