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Just How Bad Is the Touchback Rule That Screwed the Browns?

The Browns got screwed by a rule (almost) everybody hates.

It’s not difficult to envision an alternate universe where the Bills are facing the Browns in the AFC championship ship game. If not for an unlucky Cleveland turnover at the end of the first half, Kansas City could have easily been forced to play from behind with Chad Henne at the helm.

The turnover in question came with 1:42 left in the second quarter. Baker Mayfield found Rashard Higgins near the goal line and the receiver reached the ball toward the pylon, where it was jarred loose by a hit from Daniel Sorensen. The ball bounced into the end zone and caromed out of bounds. By rule, that’s a touchback. It denied the Browns a chance to cut into the Chiefs’ lead and instead Kansas City went down the field for a field goal. (Sorensen’s clear helmet-to-helmet contact went unpenalized.)

The chorus of fans, players and media members declaring the fumble-touchback the “worst rule in football” was quick and forceful. But just how bad is the rule?

Offense-oriented football, the style that’s all the rage in the NFL right now, is far more fun to watch than a dominant defense, and so fans are more inclined to sympathize with the offense. For the neutral fan, a fumble out of the end zone resulting in a touchback is an injustice against the offense, not a godsend for the defense.

It’s absolutely backbreaking for an offense to be on the precipice of a touchdown only to lose possession on a fumble that isn’t even recovered. It’s even worse that the opponent gets the ball with not-so-terrible field position. Is it really that unfair, though? Extending the ball near the goal line is a high-reward play, so why shouldn’t the risk also be high? 

Calculating that risk is part of a player’s job. Having the mental capacity to make that decision in a fraction of a second is as much a part of being a good athlete as having the physical skills to get down to the shadow of the end zone. 

Weighing the risk-reward proposition is also part of a coach’s job. If they don’t want the player to have to make that split-second decision, they can issue a blanket decree not to extend the ball toward the pylon. Bill Belichick was rumored to have benched players for sticking the ball out in that situation and while that’s not true, longtime Patriots safety Devin McCourty tweeted after the Higgins play, “Every guy who has played for Bill started screaming at the tv ‘DONT REACH IT.‘”

Browns coach Kevin Stefanski has a similar policy.

“I will never ever doubt Rashard Higgins’ effort or our guys’ effort,” Stefanski told reporters. “Our rule there is not to reach the ball out when it is first and goal, and he knows that. Again, [I] appreciate his effort. He battled like he always does, but we have to fight that urge because it is such a big loss if it does end up being a touchback.”

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What frustrates fans most about the rule is how much it varies from other fumbles out of bounds. If a fumble goes out anywhere between the goal lines, the fumbling team retains possession. Once the ball goes out of the end zone, it magically goes to the other team. That’s a legitimate complaint, and part of what makes the controversy over the rule so difficult. 

What really makes this the worst rule in football is that no one can decide on what the right alternative is. Should the offense get the ball back at the spot of the fumble? Should the offense get the ball with a first-and-goal at the 20? Should the defense get the ball at the spot of the fumble? Or should the rule just remain unchanged? Each option has its merits and each option has downsides. 

Complaints about this particular rule are nothing new. If there was an easy fix, the NFL would have changed it a long time ago. But there’s not. It’s a bad rule simply because it’s impossible to fix. 

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