Wait…What Just Happened : The Tuck Rule

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A controversial call was made this weekend in the Steelers at Giants game regarding the tuck rule. So let’s spend some time dissecting the various rules concerning a quarterback’s handling of a football that hits the ground and how it all relates to the tuck rule.

Ok, first things first. Let’s define what we’re talking about:

Imagine the quarterback drops back to pass. In the process, he loses the football. There are two ways he can do so:

1. A Fumble: This is when a quarterback (or any player, but for our purposes, a QB) accidentally loses control of the football. He could drop it, never get a good hold on it after it is snapped, or have it jarred/bumped/hit by another player while he is NOT in the process of making a forward pass (we’ll get to that later). If a defensive player recovers the loose ball, it’s a turnover and the defense now has possession of the football where the turnover occurred. (Fumbles in the offensive team’s endzone are considered touchbacks, in which the ball is brought out to the 20 yard line.)

2. An Incomplete Pass: This is when a quarterback’s arm is in the process moving forward to make a pass (VERY important!) and the ball hits the ground. As long as his arm was making a forward motion and the ball hits the ground, the pass is incomplete and the offense retains possession. (If a defensive player catches the pass before it hits the ground, it’s an interception.)

So when it comes to quarterbacks losing the football: fumble = bad, incomplete pass = better.

Enter: the tuck rule. As per the NFL rule book:

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When [an 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.

So, basically, the tuck rule is every quarterbacks saving grace. The key word in the rule is “intentional.” Even if the arm isn’t fully extending forward, if it appears that the quarterback had the intent to throw a forward pass, it’ll be called an incomplete pass via the tuck rule. This is better for the quarterback because if it’s an incomplete pass, the offense retains possession. If it had been ruled a fumble and the defense recovered it, it would be a turnover and the defense would get possession.

photo credit : the sports quotient

The most famous tuck rule incident – and it’s inaugural enforcement – occurred in a divisional playoff game between the Patriots and the Raiders in 2002. It was called in the Patriots favor. They ended up winning that game…and the Super Bowl that followed. (If you aren’t familiar with the story, ESPN has a great recap with player’s perspectives a decade later.)

Keep an eye out next weekend, you’ll be sure to see a few fumbles and incomplete passes. If the tuck rule comes up, you’ll be able to explain it for everyone else!