What is a fumble in football ? Turnovers are huge game-changing events. One minute the offense might be marching down the field, looking to get into scoring position…
In the next, they could commit a turnover that completely turns the game around.
The defense takes over possession of the ball, gets all the momentum, and might even be able to score a touchdown.
There are three ways that a turnover can happen in football — an interception, a turnover on downs, or a fumble.
Below, we’re going to discuss what a fumble is in football, breakdown what constitutes a fumble, and what explain happens when it occurs.
What is a Fumble in Football?
A fumble is one of the three ways a turnover can occur in a football game.
Most of the time a fumble occurs when an offensive player is running with the football. However, fumbles can also occur when the defense has taken possession of the ball or during special teams’ plays such as kickoff and punt returns.
So in order for a fumble to occur, one player must have complete possession of the football and then suddenly lose possession of it.
The quarterback is searching for someone to pass to and either drops the ball to the ground or has it knocked out of his hands by a defender.
It can happen as a running back is running with the football and it either slips out of his hands or a defender knocks it out of his hands.
It can also happen after a receiver completes a successful catch then loses control of the football as he’s running with it trying to gain yardage.
What Happens When a Fumble Occurs
On a Live Ball
First, realize that the football is considered “live” after a fumble and either team may try to recover it and gain possession.
This is why when a fumble happens, you’ll see players from both teams scrambling to either jump on the football or try to scoop it up and run with it.
If a player recovers the fumble while he’s still in bounds, then that team gets possession of the football.
If that player recovers the fumble without getting tackled or being considered ‘down’, then the play continues.
If it’s the offense that pounces on the ball, they’ll retain possession, with the next play starting from the spot where they recovered the ball.
If it’s the defense, then their offense will take over on a first-and-10 from that spot.
Fumble Out of Bounds
If the ball goes out of bounds before someone gains possession, the play will be considered dead.
The offense will retain possession of the football — i.e., it won’t be a turnover.
The next play will start where the fumble happened and not where the ball went out of bounds — as you can’t gain yardage from a fumble.
Fumble Out of the End Zone
The one exception to the earlier rule is if a ball gets fumbled out of the end zone.
If the offense fumbles the ball and it goes out of bounds in the end zone, it’s considered a turnover and a touchback.
The defense will get possession of the ball, which will be moved to the 25-yard line.
Fumbles are possible in flag football, but the results are very different than tackle football
I’ve seen several league rule books (and even the official NFL Flag Football rules) state: “There are no fumbles in flag football”. But then those same rule books say in the very next sentence that the ball is dead and the spot where the player with the ball fumbled it. How can a player fumble the ball if there are no fumbles? To answer that question, we first must define exactly what a fumble is.
So, by this definition, there ARE fumbles in flag football. It is just that the results of a fumble in flag football are different from what happens in tackle football. When those rule books say there are “no fumbles” in flag football, those are just badly written statements. What they meant to say is that if a player fumbles the ball, it is a dead ball where it hits the ground. Flag football players do not wear helmets or pads, so it would be a big safety risk if players were allowed to try to recover fumbles. So, whether or not the offensive player had possession of the ball if the ball hits the ground, it is dead at that spot.
Of course, you must consult the rules for your flag football league to ensure you understand their rules around fumbles, but by far this is the most common way it is handled.
What does it mean for a player to have possession?
Flag football rule books usually do not have a lot of detail about defining possession, leaving it up to the referee’s judgment. Usually, it just means the player has control of the ball.
When it comes to fumbles though, whether or not the player had possession usually doesn’t matter. In other words, imagine this scenario. The quarterback takes the snap from the center and turns to hand the ball to the running back. During the handoff, the running back bobbles the ball, and it falls to the ground. It really does not matter if the running back ever had possession of the ball or not … either way, the offense fumbled the ball, and it is a dead ball right there, and a loss of down.
Times where the ball can hit the ground and still be “live”
No matter how it happens, usually, if the ball hits the ground in flag football, it is a dead ball. However, I have seen one youth flag football league where there was one exception.
In the case of this league, if the center snaps the ball to the quarterback, and the ball is fumbled on the snap AND the quarterback can safely recover the ball, the ball is not whistled dead and play can continue.
In that league, the quarterback could pick up the fumbled snap and continue the play. It is up to the discretion of the referee if a collision is going to happen and they can whistle the play dead that that point. This unusual, but you should definitely check with your flag football league to find out the rule in your situation.
Fumbles can be game-changing plays.
When they occur, they result in mad scrambles to try to gain possession of the ball before the other team does, or before it goes out of bounds.
Ball carriers need to always make sure to secure the football so that they don’t fumble it. They can do this by wrapping up the ball with one arm on top and one on bottom — especially when they’re running through heavy traffic.
Ball carriers need to make sure to hold the ball in tightly to their bodies, too, to provide extra protection from defenders who are looking to knock the ball away.
Teaching players how to avoid fumbling at all costs is vital so they don’t commit a play that can completely turn a game around.
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