Two weeks in a row, the Bucs had similar plays that tested fans’ knowledge of the NFL rulebook, with fumbles in the final two minutes of a half recovered by teammates, leading to official reviews and questions about 10-second runoffs on both plays.
To help navigate a complex and tricky issue, we got help from FOX Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino, a former vice president of officiating for the NFL, who was kind enough to explain the officiating on both plays.
The first play came late in the Bucs’ Week 9 game at Houston as they were driving for a go-ahead touchdown. With 53 seconds left in the game, Baker Mayfield completed a pass to receiver Trey Palmer, but the ball was knocked loose and recovered downfield by teammate Mike Evans. When there are fewer than two minutes left in a half, a fumble cannot be advanced by a teammate and only by the fumbling player. So when Evans recovered the fumble, it was a dead ball and the play was over.
The ball was initially placed at the 10-yard line, where Evans had recovered it, and the game clock started running. But play was then stopped before the Bucs could snap the ball. Replays showed that Palmer had possession long enough for it to be a catch and fumble, as opposed to an incomplete pass that would put the ball back at the 29. The ball had been lined up incorrectly — the rule calls for the ball to be placed at the point of fumble or the recovery, whichever is farther back, so the ball was moved back to the 14-yard line.
Because of the review, the play was subject to a 10-second runoff, though Bucs coach Todd Bowles opted to use his final timeout to preserve the 10 seconds. The clock had stopped at 44 seconds after the play and had run down to 37 seconds before play was stopped for the review, but it was corrected to 49 seconds — the exact time of the fumble. The Bucs scored a touchdown on the next play, and the Texans drove down the field and got a touchdown of their own with six seconds left for a 39-37 win.
“The officials ruled it correctly,” Blandino said. “They had a fumble, they had a recovery by the non-fumbling player. But they brought it back to the wrong spot. The ball always goes back to the spot of the fumble or the spot of the recovery, whichever is further back. They brought it back to the 10, but it actually should have been the 14, so replay stopped the game to look at it. They changed the ruling on the field to the spot of the fumble on the 14. And by rule, when you have a replay reversal in the last two minutes that results in a running clock, which this did, there’s a 10-second runoff applied and either team can take a timeout to avoid the runoff.
“I think ideally, had replay just been able to quickly communicate on wireless communication the right yard line, that would have avoided the whole runoff and timeout. Obviously, losing the timeout is big at that juncture of the game.”
The second play came in Tampa’s win over the Titans on Sunday. With about 1:20 left before halftime, Mayfield scrambled and lost the ball as he started to slide. Bucs tackle Tristan Wirfs scooped it up, gave a stiff-arm to a Titans defender and rumbled about 14 yards before he was brought down. As we learned a week earlier, a teammate can recover a fumble but can’t advance it in the final two minutes, so Wirfs officially lost his moment of ball-carrying glory.
Mayfield knew the rule, and when asked what he thought about Wirfs running with the ball, he went back to that.
“He needs to get his ass down,” Mayfield said after the game. “Can’t advance the ball, so he needs to go down.”
This play was reviewed as well. It was unclear whether Mayfield had fumbled before he was down on the play, as he tried to give himself up by attempting a slide. After official review, the ruling stood as called and because there was no reversal, there was no need for a runoff.
“I looked at it, and I thought Baker was down. I thought his knee was down when he was contacted,” Blandino said. “It would have been the same result in terms of the yard line, but had they overturned it to down, then they would have applied a 10-second runoff because the ruling on the field was changed. I didn’t think in that instance letting the play stand was the proper call.”
It seemed like an unnecessary review. The ball would be placed at the same yard line whether Mayfield was ruled down or whether he fumbled. So the only change that would come with a reversal would be the 10-second runoff. The Bucs missed on the following play and punted, so it wasn’t a significant play either way.
“As soon as he gives himself up, whether he slides feet first or goes head first, as soon as that knee touches, it’s over. He’s down,” Blandino said. “That’s what it looked like to me.
“It’s a good reminder that sometimes the NFL rules can be somewhat complicated, [especially in] a couple of situations where you have a lot of moving parts.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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