Somewhere in a vault in the catacombs of the National Football League’s Park Avenue headquarters is a volume – a very large volume – labeled NFL Rules. It is the game’s Holy Grail.
This book defines all manner of what might happen in a game. What is a catch? That seems simple enough. But not in the NFL where officials must decide if the ball is under control when the receiver goes down. What is holding? There are players who swear that officials could call holding on every play. Sometimes, it seems like they do.
There is, however, one rule that is hard and fast and needs no interpretation by the striped shirts. And right now, Cleveland Browns fans can tell you all about the touchback rule.
There aren’t many touchbacks called but one surfaced at a pivotal moment in last weekend’s AFC playoff game between the Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs and it left the Browns howling.
Trailing 16-3 near the end of the first half, quarterback Baker Mayfield had the Browns on the move. He hit Rashard Higgins for 23 yards putting the ball into the red zone and he liked that play so much that he called it again. And again, it worked.
Higgins caught Mayfield’s pass and headed for the corner of the end zone, closing in on the python that marks that spot. As Higgins neared paydirt, reaching out with the football to break the plane of the end zone for a touchdown –that’s also in the rule book – KC safety Daniel Sorenson arrived on the scene.
With head lowered, he slammed into Higgins, head first. The collision caused the receiver to lose his grip on the football and it bounced out of the end zone.
Not only did the Browns not score a touchdown, but the ball went over to Kansas City. In the few seconds remaining before the half, mercurial Patrick Mahomes positioned the Chiefs for a field goal. Instead of narrowing Kansas City’s lead to 16-10, the Browns were in a 19-3 hole and they never climbed out of it.
Browns fans were apoplectic, but hey, a rule is a rule. The ball gets fumbled out of the end zone, it goes over to the other team. It says so right there in the Holy Grail, right there alongside the explanation for what is a catch and the one all about holding and the one that explains when pass interference gets called on the offense and when it gets called on the defense.
Be patient. The league will sort all this out eventually. But not touchbacks. That rule is clear, just not very popular these days in Cleveland