(EDITOR’S NOTE: To access the Rich McKay interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 50: NFL Rule Changes, Falcons HOF, and The 2020 Season With Rich McKay | Spreaker)
When Cleveland’s Rashard Higgins fumbled the football in and out of the end zone in January’s playoff loss to Kansas City, there was an immediate outcry. Not from Higgins. Not from the Browns. But from fans incensed that Cleveland lost the ball on a touchback.
But that’s the rule, one of the most controversial in pro football, and it wasn’t long before it was under attack on social media. Calling it “the worst rule in football,” outraged viewers demanded a change … and not sometime in the near future.
Well, it didn’t happen. In fact, it didn’t come close to happening, according to Atlanta president and CEO Rich McKay, and he should know. He’s the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, which oversees rules changes, and he’s been on the board for 26 years.
No one in the history of the committee has been on longer.
“I don’t even know that we discussed it this year,” he said on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast on fullpressradio.com.
Yikes. That’s surprising considering it’s been a hot topic of debate in previous years and because of the fallout from the Browns-Chiefs playoff game. Higgins’ fumble cost the Browns a sure touchdown in a game they were down, 16-3, and would lose 22-17. So it was significant. It wasn’t Earnest Byner significant. But it was a critical mistake that reminded fans – especially Cleveland fans -- how much they hate the rule.
Apparently, however, it didn’t remind the Browns or Chiefs.
“Neither team from that game,” said McKay, “came in and said, ‘Hey, we want you to take a look at this.’ And in our survey … we survey all the teams … I would say I don’t remember anybody bringing it up.”
But why not? There have been other instances where the hated fumble-touchback rule was enforced at the goal line, and fans were so outraged they demanded a change. So far, that hasn’t happened. And it doesn’t look as if it will anytime soon.
“Let’s go back to 'why not,' ” said McKay, “because it sounds like it’s an easy 'why.' The why is: It seems like an over punishment, the guy’s fumbled and, instead of getting the ball at the 1, it goes out of the end zone. So why is it a touchback?
“It’s always gotten to this theory … that you don’t want people putting the ball at risk. We don’t want people putting the ball at risk in the field of play; we certainly don’t want them putting the ball at risk when they get to the goal line. So this move … this decision to put the ball out (toward a pylon) … means the ball’s at risk.
“If you do it in the field of play, guess what happens? The defense gets the ball because they recover, OK? So now, all of a sudden, you’ve done it again at the goal line and you get rewarded? You get to get the ball back because the ball went out of the end zone, and they couldn’t get to it in time. So you get the ball back. It‘s like: Hold it. We just rewarded you for the risk you took. So that’s why we’ve always kind of stayed away from that.
“I still have Don Shula in my mind (when) he used to say … he used to scream: ‘Anybody that puts the ball out here (he demonstrates by reaching an imaginary ball in front of him), they’re not playing anymore!’ He couldn’t even understand this theory of reaching, but that’s kind of how we looked at it, right? In that you are taking something away from the defense because the defense now only has 10 yards, and they can’t get the ball anymore.
“Now I know everybody says, ‘Well, if it goes out of bounds, that’s different, right? Or could be different.’ We just looked at it as though we’ve got a rule that we’ve had in play forever, people know the rule, the players know the rule and the players know: Don’t take the risk. If you take the risk, you’re risking losing the ball.”
So it doesn’t sound as if there’s momentum within the league to have the rule changed. McKay agreed.
“Maybe that does happen,” he said, “but I don’t think so.”