Muffed Punts, Dead balls, and the attempt to eliminate confusion
By Justin Nails
PINSON— In the Ramsay and Pinson Valley game on August 31, I witnessed one of the most bizarre plays that I’ve ever seen in high school football. I’ve been around high school football as a player and writer for the better part of ten years and what I saw that night left me in shock. I decided to do some research and get to the bottom of what is commonly known as “The Muff Rule.”
Pinson Valley quarterback and punter Bo Nix booted a high punt down inside the 10-yard line of the visiting Ramsay Rams punt returner. The returner, trying to fight off the wind and rain, muffed the punt, allowing the ball to roll into his own endzone. A Pinson Valley player quickly fell on the ball giving the Indians a touchdown while adding to their huge lead.
Or so I thought.
What actually happened, was that after the play was over, officials convened and announced that the ball had been ruled dead and Ramsay would get the ball on the 20-yard line, essentially calling the play a touchback. Like everyone else not in a zebra suite in the booth, I was confused. The Ramsay player had dropped the punt, the ball rolled into the endzone, and was recovered by the other team. So why did Ramsay get the ball back?
My first reaction was to notate the play because I knew I would want to come back to it later. On Thursday, I spoke with AHSAA Director of Officiating to seek out clarification about what happened and why the call was ruled a touchback.
Keep in mind that Mr. Jones had not seen the play I was referencing and our conversation was about the rule, not play, that I am referring to.
The first thing, and the most important part of our conversation, that was described to me by Jones to set the foundation by explaining Rule 6, or the kicking rule.
“Any kick, kickoff, punt, or field goal that breaks the plain of the goal line is considered a dead ball,” Jones explained. “A kick remains a kick until a player gains possession.”
In the example I was referring to earlier, once the muffed punt rolled into the endzone, the ball was considered dead. It didn’t matter who fell on it. Had the Pinson Valley player fell on the ball at the one, the Indians would have gained possession.
“A player cannot progress a ball forward after a muffed punt,” Jones told me. So in other words, had the ball been muffed by the returner and was picked up at the 10-yard line by the Indians, Pinson Valley would have taken over at the 10-yard line, without any chance of returning the ball into the endzone for a touchdown. The rule, Jones told me, has been apart of the rulebook for he guesses over thirty years and is followed nationwide by every state except Texas, who follow NCAA rules. To my knowledge, similar rules don’t apply at either the collegiate or pro levels of football when it comes to this rule.
“The rule, in essence, is a good rule because it’s purpose is to try and eliminate confusion on whether or not a play similar to the one I described is a touchdown, a safety, or a touchback,” Jones said.
In other words, it’s a lot easier to control the situation by simply ruling any ball that is kicked into the opponents endzone rather than deal with the chaos that plays like this can lead to. You know, the kind of chaos that’s fun. While I get the intent of trying to eliminate confusion, the rule also has the consequence of eliminating opportunities from such mishaps. Essentially giving the return team a mulligan in case anything bad happens.
Football is a crazy sport. Weird things happen. Sayings like “That’s just how the ball bounces” have all but been eliminated in order to simplify situations. Had the game in the example I originally used been a closer game, say a 23-20 lead by the team fielding the punt, an opportunity was taken away from the kicking team simply because the ball rolled into the endzone and not stopped before breaking the goal line. Rules are meant to bring clarity, simplify the game, and protect players, not take opportunities away. This scenario is going to play out again in the near future and I hope for the sake of both teams that it’s not an important rivalry game, a region game, or even a playoff or championship game. Then again, that’s just how the ball bounces I guess.