Wait…What Just Happened : Punt

football, advanced, punt, house

In last night’s Niners at Patriots game there was a substantial debacle over a potential muffed punt.

Between multiple fouls and Ed Hochuli’s classic method of explanation and his microphone cutting in and out due to inclement weather…it was one big confusing mess. Honestly, I’m still confused. But let’s try to break it down as best we can:

What Happened:

The Patriots punted the ball on 4th down. Ted Ginn Jr., a member of the 49ers special teams unit on that particular play, appeared to have potentially touched the football as the ball hit the ground and was bobbling around. The Patriots then appeared to have recovered the ball.

What That Means:

Members of the kicking team (the team that is punting the ball) cannot touch the ball before a member of the receiving team (the team receiving the punt) touches the ball. If they do, it’s a violation. However, if a member of the receiving team touches the ball but does not have possession of the ball (doesn’t catch it or have it in his hands) the kicking team can legally recover the ball (by falling on it or picking it up – any way of gaining possession) and therefore gain possession.

Terms To Know Before We Get Down To The Nitty Gritty:

A muffed punt is when a player touches the football prior to possessing the football. This can happen when the football inadvertently hits a member of the kicking team, or, as in our example, the football touches a member of the receiving team but is not possessed by that player.

An illegal touch (which I believe is synonymous with first touch) is when a member of the kicking team touches the football before a member of the receiving team touches the football. This is a violation, not a foul. (I’m still working on it, but I think the difference between a foul and a violation is that fouls are flagged penalties and violations are not flagged but are leveraged against the team committing the violation.)

Downing the ball is when the ball hits the ground and a member of the kicking team touches it to “down the ball” – or have it called dead – right where it is. You usually see this when a punter pins the ball deep into the opposing teams territory and members of the kicking team attempt to keep it from rolling into the end zone. If they down the ball before it reaches the end zone, it will be positioned wherever they downed it (the 5 yard line, the 2 yard line, etc), but if it goes into the end zone it is ruled a touchback and will be brought out to the 20 yard line, which gives the other team much better field position.

Confusing and not relevant to our current conversation but IMPORTANT:

Downing the ball DOES constitute an illegal touch. However, since it’s a violation and not a foul, it doesn’t carry adverse consequences for the kicking team. If the kicking team downs the ball, it is an insurance policy for a receiver on the receiving team who may want to pick the ball up and return it. Since downing the ball is an illegal touch (first touch) violation, the ball will automatically be spotted at that position (or at the most advantageous position for the receiving team if there were multiple first touches) if the receiver does decide to pick up the ball and return it and fumbles it or loses yardage in the process.

The Result:

Let’s go back to the play in question. The Patriots punted, it looked as if the ball may have touched a 49ers player, and the Patriots recovered the ball. (We’re not even going to get into the other penalties called on the play because illegal touching can’t offset any penalties (because it’s a violation, not a foul) so they were going to stand anyway.)

Bill Belichick thought the punt was muffed. We learned above that a muffed punt is when a player from the receiving team, in this case, Ted Ginn Jr. of the 49ers, touches the ball before possessing the ball. Upon further review, it was decided that the punt was not muffed – it did not touch Ted Ginn Jr. before being touched by the Patriots.


Now we have a situation in which the kicking team touched the ball before the receiving team had a chance to touch the ball. And what does that mean?

You got it! Illegal Touching/First Touching by the Patriots, which results in the 49ers getting to choose the most advantageous first touch to spot the ball.

Here’s the actual rule that was cited in the call:

” ‘First touching’ is when a player of the kicking team touches a scrimmage kick that is beyond the line of scrimmage before it has been touched by a player of the receiving team beyond the line. If the ball is first touched by a player of the kicking team, it remains in play.

“First touching is a violation, and the receivers shall have the option of taking possession of the ball at the spot of first touching, provided no penalty is accepted on the play, or at the spot where the ball is dead. First touching does not offset a foul by the receivers. There may be multiple ‘first touch’ spots, if more than one player of the kicking team touches the ball before it is touched by a player of the receiving team.”

And there you have it: the most confusing way to start a Monday. Holy cow.