With the NFL’s emphasis on player safety, particularly at the quarterback position, a number of rules have been put in place to ensure that the man under center is protected as a passer.
Where the black-and-white officiating book turns gray is when the quarterback becomes a runner. It is in these moments that the officials must switch the rules of conduct and protections to that of a generic skill player with the ball in his hands.
That was the case on the Redskins’ opening drive of the fourth quarter, when
Finding no one open on a rollout to his left, Griffin III tucked the ball, split three defenders and crossed the line of scrimmage as a runner.
Weaving his way 21 yards through traffic, Griffin III recognized imminent impact with three more defenders in the secondary and wisely decided to get down.
Making a cut to his left that took him slightly off balanced, Griffin III continued his momentum to the ground in a headfirst dive. Upon impact with the ground, the ball popped loose from his grip and squirted out to the 25-yard line where it was recovered by Lions defensive back Clover Quin.
Untouched, Griffin III got to his feet, indicating to the officials and his sideline that he was down, having given himself up and gone to the ground.
The officials disagreed, ruling the play a fumble, recovered by Detroit. Griffin III was mystified at the time, but understood the rule by the time he addressed the media after the game.
Part of the confusion could come from the discrepancies between NFL rules and NCAA rules. In college football, when a ball-carrier goes to the ground, he is ruled down by contact, with or without contact with a defender.
By NCAA definition, what Griffin III did was reasonably declaring himself down, but not so in the NFL.
“They said, ‘It’s a fumble!’ It’s unfortunate,” Griffin III said. “I just have to make sure if I dive forward, hold onto the ball. And if I slide feet-first, it’s going to fumble.”
Griffin III admitted in the moment he was not aware of the NFL interpretation of the rule, but said he never intentionally lets the ball go.
“No one consciously loses the football,” he said. “I hit the ground, thought I was down and the ball came out. I’m looking at the ref like I was down and they told me I wasn’t.”
As NFL official Gene Steratore explained to the media and players during training camp, a slide is a slide unless you slide headfirst.
“A slide is feet-first,” Steratore said. “If the quarterback goes down forward, he is entitled to the yardage gained as he slides forward as he is not contacted by the defense.”
Just like when a running back lowers his head and dives into the end zone, he is not giving himself up, but rather putting himself in a better position to gain yardage. Had Griffin III not fumbled and not been touched, his actions would not qualify him for having given himself up and the play would still be live.
Hypothetically in that situation, Griffin III could get to his feet and keep running. On the flip-side of that, any fumble incurred is a live football.
“We can pass judgment when he has to voluntarily give himself up and you’ll get the initial yardage,” Steratore explained. “[The quarterback] will come in with the whistle saying he was down because he voluntarily gave himself up, but also knowing that as he slides forward, prior to being contacted, if that ball were to happen to come loose, it’s a fumble.”
One of the most misunderstood rules in the NFL playbook is the rule that the ground cannot cause a fumble. This is true only in situations where the runner is touched by a defender first, which would make him down by contact before the ball came loose.
In the circumstances of Griffin III’s fumble, he was not down by contact, and therefore the ground can and did cause the fumble.
Ultimately, the definition of dead ball in play is multi-faceted. From the NFL rulebook, Rule 7, Section 2:
An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended:
(a) when a runner is contacted by a defensive player and touches the ground with any part of his body other than his hands or feet. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground. A runner touching the ground with his hands or feet while in the grasp of an opponent may continue to advance; or
Note: If, after defensive contact, any part of a runner’s leg above the ankle or any part of his arm above the wrist touches the ground, the runner is down.
(b) when a runner is held or otherwise restrained so that his forward progress ends; or
(c) when a quarterback immediately drops to his knee (or simulates dropping to his knee) behind the line of scrimmage;
(d) when a runner declares himself down by sliding feet first on the ground. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground with anything other than his hands or his feet.
Griffin III was not contacted by a defender, was not restrained in his forward progress, was not behind the line of scrimmage and did not do enough to declare himself down (sliding feet-first).
As Griffin III noted in his press conference: “It could be a sucky rule but it’s still one of the NFL rules.”
Moving forward, Griffin III intends to chalk this up as a lesson learned and make adjustments to what he considers reactionary plays.
“I think it’s an instinct thing,” he said. “On the sideline, I slid with [Lions safety Glover] Quinn coming after me. I slid feet-first because I didn’t want him to hit me in the face. On the run I had the fumble on, I went face-first because they were further away.
“You can’t really be out there thinking about that kind of stuff. You’ve just got to do what happens when you react and hold on to the ball.”