If the word “turnover” only calls to mind fruity pastries, then this post is for you. Today we explore the ways that a team accidentally loses possession of the ball.
A turnover is when the team with the ball loses possession of the ball to the other team. There are two types of turnovers: the interception and the fumble. Notice that I didn’t say “when the offense loses possession of the ball to the defense.” There are two reasons for this: (1) possession can occur during a special teams play when the teams are the “receiving” and “kicking” teams; and (2) there can be multiple turnovers on the same play, so that the offense initially loses the ball but then a scene from Keystone Kops ensues and the defense loses it after gaining possession! What fun!
An interception occurs when a defensive player catches a pass that was meant to be caught by a player on the offense. There is usually not much dispute over whether an interception has occurred, unless there is a question of whether the defensive player actually caught the ball. However, there may be a question of whether the defensive player committed a pass interference penalty in the process of catching the ball.* As you learned in my post on challenges, a judgment by the officials over whether a penalty such as pass interference occurred is not reviewable.
One quirk on interceptions: if both the offensive and defensive player come down with their hands on the ball so that it looks like they both have possession, the offense keeps possession of the ball at the spot where the ball was caught. In other words, to borrow a phrase from baseball, “the tie goes to the runner.”
Once a play has begun, the player that holds the ball is called the runner. The runner can be one of three people: (1) the quarterback, until he hands off, or throws the ball to, another player, or if he is keeping it and running down the field himself; (2) the player, usually the running back, that the quarterback hands the ball to; or (3) the player, a wide receiver or tight end, to whom the quarterback throws the ball.
A fumble occurs when the runner drops the ball before he is tackled. ** Any player can try to get the ball by diving on it or picking it up. A fumble is “lost” if a defensive player gains control of the ball, thus earning possession for his team. A fumble is “recovered” if a player on offense, either the runner or another player, gains control of the ball, retaining possession for his team.
Sound simple, right? It usually is. However, a couple of rules make the issue more complicated. Under the rules, a runner is tackled or “down” when one or both of his knees touches the ground and he had been touched by a defensive player (in the NFL, if a player stumbles on his own, he can get back up and keep running; this is not the case in college). Fumbles are often challenged or reviewed when there is a question of whether the runner was down before the lost the football. If he lost the football after one of his knees hits the ground, there is no fumble.
Another rule you will hear often is that the ground cannot cause a fumble. It’s hard to explain what this means; it’s one of those you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it situations. Generally, though, if a runner is being brought down, or has fallen, there is no fumble if he held onto the ball and it is only from hitting the ground that the ball came loose and out of the player’s grip. This is also often the subject of review.
*The standards for a catch and pass interference are the same for both the offense and the defense, and will be explained in a later post.
**I should distinguish a “fumble” from a “muff.” A muff occurs when a player unsuccessfully tries to get possession of a loose ball. Therefore, the player hasn’t even had the ball yet.