Raiders fumble away playoff hopes, but no, touchback rule isn't dumb

Derek Carr and the Raiders made the playoffs last season because of their uncanny ability to make clutch plays and steal close games late in the fourth quarter. That mojo is long gone for Oakland in 2017, capped by how the team fumbled away Sunday night’s must-win home game to Dallas.

While the Cowboys (8-6) got a controversial fourth-down measurement in their favor to help them drive for the tiebreaking field goal in a 20-17 victory, the Raiders (6-8) blew their final possession when a near game-winning rushing touchdown by Carr turned into a fumble out of bounds through the end zone for a game-losing touchback.

Predictably, just as NFL fans and observers couldn’t believe that a game-winning TD “catch” by Steelers tight end Jesse James was neither a TD nor a catch against the Patriots a few hours earlier, the touchback rule got lambasted again in a high-profile prime-time game.

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By the letter of the law, referee Gene Steratore and his officiating crew made exactly the right call. From the condensed version of the NFL rulebook:

“A fumble that goes forward and out of bounds will return to the fumbling team at the spot of the fumble unless the ball goes out of bounds in the opponent’s end zone. In this case, it is a touchback.”

This sort of play has happened in key spots more than usual this season — most notably to Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in a seven-point loss to the Patriots in Week 6. That, in turn, has brought more awareness to the rule and more public disdain toward it.

The logic goes: If Carr’s fumble goes out of bounds anywhere else on the field, then the Raiders retain possession. But we should also know the goal line isn’t like anywhere else on the field.

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Sure, Carr made a gritty play scrambling and reaching the ball out in an attempt to break the plane, but Cowboys safety Jeff Heath made the greater play by chasing down Carr and preventing him from making it to the pylon with the ball in his hands.

Just as Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger was held accountable for making a shaky decision that led to an interception against New England, Carr should be held accountable for his mistake in the most crucial place and time on the field.

Does it stink for Raiders fans that Carr couldn’t quite go all the way? Yes. But had he protected the ball and gone out of bounds instead of riskily overextending, the Raiders would have had a first-and-goal inside the Cowboys’ 5-yard line with 32 seconds left plus their final timeout.

The Raiders won most of the gambles that Carr and coach Jack Del Rio made in ’16. The Cowboys and Jason Garrett made the better calculated decisions Sunday, as Dak Prescott’s fourth-down sneak was trumped only by the brilliant fake-punt run by Chris Jones that sparked a tiebreaking TD drive late in the third quarter.

MORE: NFL explains reversal of call on James’ no-catch

The Carr play was a reminder why the touchback rule exists. There are consequences when you fumble near your own end zone: a safety that gives the opponent two points and the ball back on a free kick, or a touchdown by the defense. There should be consequences some 100 yards the other way, too.

Rewarding a team for something literally defined as a clumsy act is silly. Sure, the offense can recover its own fumble to save a possession elsewhere on the field and score in the end zone, but by definition, it is more rewarded for, you know, the recovery effort. 

MORE: Steratore rambles in explaining use of card/paper to measure

So the argument against the touchback rule is that the tie goes to the defense. When a fumble occurs in bounds in the end zone, it’s either recovered for a touchdown by the offense or a touchback for the defense.

To understand the rule, it comes down to this: Why, exactly, is the offense the one that gets screwed? Simple: In those situations, the offense carries more the burden of execution; it is the prosecution to the defense’s, well, defense.

The defense is innocent of giving up a touchdown until it is proven guilty by the offense. Evidence that isn’t undisputed (or incapable of being overturned) shouldn’t go in the offense’s favor. That’s true with not completing the process of the catch in Pittsburgh and that’s true with fumbling in Oakland.

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It’s funny how everyone complains that holding, pass interference and unnecessary roughness make it “impossible” to play defense in the NFL, yet here are two not-so crazy challenges for offenses, and no one can stand it.

It’s only natural. We’re offense-first in this fantasy football era, and these are bang-bang plays with nuanced rules that decide games. It doesn’t really help when two teams hated by pretty much the rest of the NFL — the Patriots and Cowboys — are the beneficiaries in games with huge playoff implications.

There’s nothing wrong with the touchback rule. It’s totally right to hold the Raiders responsible for a big mistake in a big moment.

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