What Is a Fumble in Football? Rules, Records, and More

A Pee Wee football player fumbles the ball.

A fumble can change the outcome and complexion of a football game on a dime, either sealing a game with a defensive stop or giving an offense one final chance at a game-winning drive. So…

What is a fumble in football?

A fumble is when an offensive player loses possession of the football before they’re considered down. In other words, if a player such as a running back or wide receiver loses control of the ball before they’re ruled down, a fumble has occurred and either team can gain possession of the ball.

Throughout the rest of this article, we will explain the fumble’s purpose within the game of football and why it has generated so much excitement and so much controversy over the years.

What Is Considered a Fumble in the NFL?

According to Rule 8, Section 7, Article 3 of the NFL Rule Book, “A fumble is any act, other than a pass or kick, which results in a loss of player possession.” The exception to this rule is, “If a runner intentionally fumbles forward, it is a forward pass.”

How to Recover a Fumble

There are two techniques a player can use to try to recover a fumble. The first technique involves trying to scoop up the ball off the ground and run with it. This is not recommended, however, since it’s hard to grip the football because of its oblong shape. The recommended way to recover a fumble is to simply fall on the ball and cover it up with the entire body.

NFL Fumble Rules

Along with the rule mentioned earlier, several other NFL rules talk about what is and is not a fumble. One of these rules states, “Any player of either team may recover or catch a fumble and advance, either before or after the ball strikes the ground.”

For out of bounds fumbles, the NFL Rule Book states, “If a fumble goes backward and out of bounds, the ball is next put in play at the inbounds spot by the team that was last in possession.” It also states, “If a fumble goes forward and out of bounds, the ball is next put in play at the spot of the fumble by the team that was last in possession.”

Simply put, whenever a fumble goes out of bounds, regardless of if the ball moved forward or backward, the team that last had control of the football keeps control of it. The only thing that needs to be determined is the spot of the football before continuing play.

There are three more scenarios where the NFL has special rules for fumbles: Fumbles that occur in the end zone (the area where a team scores a touchdown), fumbles that occur on fourth down, and fumbles that occur after the two-minute warning (the last two minutes of each half).

For fumbles that occur in the end zone, the rule book states that “If a ball is fumbled in the field of play, and goes forward into the opponent’s end zone and over the end line or sideline, a touchback is awarded to the defensive team.”

Or: “If a ball is fumbled in a team’s own end zone or in the field of play and goes out of bounds in the end zone, it is a safety, if that team provided the impetus that sent the ball into the end zone. If the impetus was provided by the opponent, it is a touchback.”

In simple terms, if a ball goes out of bounds, a touchback like those on punts and kickoffs is given to the defensive team. On the other hand, a safety, which is what happens when an offensive player is tackled with the ball in their team’s own end zone, is also called if they fumble the ball out of the back of their end zone.

How Often Do Fumbles Happen?

Although they can be an exciting part of the game, fumbles do not happen all that often. According to teamrankings.com, out of all 32 teams in the NFL, the league averaged 1.16 fumbles per game. In other words, out of the hundreds of games in an NFL season, a fumble happened basically once a game in 2020.

What Happens if a Ball is Fumbled Out of Bounds?

Three football players kneel along the sideline during a game.

See the above section titled “NFL Rules” for what happens when a ball is fumbled out of bounds. For college football games, the rule is pretty much the same as the NFL but if a ball is fumbled out of bounds, the clock stops after the fumble, possession of the ball is given to the team that fumbled and play resumes once the ball is snapped.

What Is the Tuck Rule?

The Tuck Rule was a controversial football rule that existed from 1999 to 2013. In the NFL Rule Book, the Tuck Rule was explained as such:

“When a [offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.”

This was a unique NFL rule during its time because it blurred the line between what constituted an incomplete pass, and what constituted a fumble. Normally the distinction between the two was pretty black and white.

If a quarterback moved his arm forward in an attempt to throw the ball and then lost it, it was considered an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. With the Tuck Rule, if a quarterback moved his arm forward in an attempt to throw the football, but then he changed his mind and tucked the ball back against his body, and lost the ball, it was still considered an incomplete pass.

After several games ended in controversy because of the Tuck Rule, most notably the highly controversial 2002 AFC Divisional Game between the Patriots and Raiders, the league’s owners voted overwhelmingly to repeal the rule at the 2013 NFL Owners Meeting.

Most Fumbles in a Single Game

Remember when I said that fumbles are a rare occurrence in the NFL? Every now and then there’s an exception to the rule. The record for the most fumbles in a single game is 10, which happened three times between 1943 and 1978.

Most Fumbles by One Player

Even though he is a legendary Hall of Fame quarterback best known for his time with the Green Bay Packers, Brett Favre holds the unfortunate distinction of being the player with the most fumbles in a career with 166, according to Pro Football Reference.

Can You Advance a Fumble in High School Football?

Most of this article has been focused on familiarizing you with NFL fumbles. But what about in a high school game? The answer is no. Neither the offense nor defense can advance a fumble in high school football.

What Happens When a Ball is Fumbled in Flag Football?

Unlike the somewhat complicated nature of fumbles in the NFL, the rule dealing with a fumble in flag football is pretty simple. When a player fumbles the ball, the ball is considered dead at that spot and you move to the next down.

Fumble vs. Incomplete Pass

A fumble and an incomplete pass are two very different things in the game of football. A fumble happens when the ball carrier loses possession of the football before they’re ruled down. This is the case, no matter if the ball carrier is a quarterback, running back, or wide receiver. A player’s knee touching the ground signals the end of the play and is the most common way for players to be downed.

An incomplete pass may look similar to a fumble at times. After all, when there’s an incomplete pass, the wide receiver drops the football. However, there’s one key difference between the two – possession of the football. Unlike a fumble, in which a player has possession of the football before losing it, a player never has full possession of the football during an incomplete pass.

A player (in this situation a wide receiver) has to have possession of the ball and attempt a football move (run or change in direction) to have full possession of the ball. If they attempt a catch and drop the ball, the play is an incomplete pass.

Hopefully, this article familiarized you with what a fumble is, how it can be caused, and who can recover it. The fumble is just a small part of the game, but it never fails to produce exciting moments that add to the game we all love!

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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