Fumble mechanics

When the Ball is on the Ground: How to Officiate a Fumble

Before examining specific fumble mechanics, it’s worth reviewing two “When in Doubt” axioms. When in doubt, the runner was down by rule and did not fumble and when in doubt, a forward pass is incomplete rather than caught and fumbled.

Officials should not award the defensive team a cheap turnover with an indecisive decision. The covering official must “sell” the call with a strong voice, purposeful movement, and exaggerated signals.

If a runner is down and then coughs up the ball, the covering official must quickly pinch to the ball, point forcefully to the ground, and yell “he’s down!” multiple times. A timid response will cause players and coaches to question the ruling.

Toss a Beanbag When a Runner Fumbles Beyond the Neutral Zone

When a runner fumbles beyond the neutral zone, a beanbag will help determine where the run ended for any subsequent penalty enforcement. While a beanbag is not required for fumbles behind the neutral zone, it’s not incorrect to mark every fumble, especially for newer officials, as tossing a beanbag for a fumble is one of the harder habits to develop.

Also, some officials prefer this action as it is a clear visible indication to the rest of the crew that the ball is loose. Officials should toss the beanbag to a specific yard line; wings will be able to drop the beanbag close to their feet. The referee and back judge will typically need to pitch the bag a little farther.

No Whistles!

It’s imperative to avoid an inadvertent whistle during the first few frenzied seconds. If officials can’t see the ball in a pile of bodies, they shouldn’t sound their whistles. In pregame meetings, Referees may choose to instruct the crew to not use whistles when approaching the pile. Sounding a whistle serves no purpose when the ball is under a mass of players.

If an official can clearly see the ball in player possession before the pile forms, he should confidently blow his whistle and sell his decision. Officials should not allow a cheap turnover by awarding possession to the opponent who rips the ball from the recovering player’s grasp. It won’t be a popular call when the offending player triumphantly raises the ball after stealing it, but it will be the correct call.

Fouls That May Occur During a Fumble

It’s important to watch for fouls that sometimes occur during the fumble scrum. Officials should
consider penalizing players who carelessly launch themselves on the pile. They are not trying
to recover the loose ball; they are simply attempting to hit the opponent.

Also, officials should not allow players to aggressively rip opponents from the heap. This will undoubtedly create ill will. Officials should use their voices whenever possible to stop the action, but must penalize unnecessary roughness when warranted.

Officials’ Responsibilities

The closest officials must get to the pile as quickly as possible. The immediate physical presence of officials at the scene is paramount to de-escalate the conflict.

The first official to the pile is the digger

This person could be featured on Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” television show as sticking an arm into a writhing mass of sweaty and slimy football players is not the most pleasant experience. It’s the digger’s job to physically find the ball and the player in possession.

The next two officials to the pile are the peelers

First, the peelers should give the stop-the-clock signal. Peelers will use their hands and their voices to help disengage the players without the ball from the pile. The peelers must not physically jerk the players; instead with a firm tap on the arm or shoulder, they should indicate player numbers and say, “75, you don’t have it,” or “33, it’s not yours.” The peelers’ voices are their most valuable resource.

The remaining officials not at the pile

The remaining officials must maintain a cushion, sustain “wide eyes,” and practice dead ball officiating by observing the players not on the pile. They will also mirror the stop-the-clock signal.

The Officials Determine Which Player Recovered the Fumble

The digger should not signal from his knees; instead he should verbally announce possession to the closest standing official. Only one official should indicate the team that recovered the fumble, so the digger should make eye contact with and use the name of the signaling official when reporting the recovering team. “Steve, I have Liberty ball.”

If the offense recovers short of the line to gain, the signaling official will indicate the next down and the referee should wind the clock. If the offensive recovers beyond the line to gain or if the defense recovers, the signaling official should give the stop-the-clock signal and point in the direction of the recovering team.

In this video, the covering official does not blow his whistle. He is first to the pile, so he is the digger. The next two officials are the peelers. They use their proximity and voice to police the players near the pile. Notice the referee prevents B33 from yanking an opponent off the pile. The two officials out of view are the “wide eyes” officials and have all 22 players in view.

Inappropriate Behavior Under the Pile

Occasionally players at the bottom of the pile will report non-football related behavior that occurred during the scrum. Unless an official has witnessed the prohibited activity, a flag is not justified. However, it’s important for officials to listen and acknowledge the complaint and it will likely diffuse lingering anger.