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Rules analysis: How was that not a safety?

And what the heck is impetus?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle of the 3rd quarter of the game yesterday, there was a play that was/is confusing to many football fans. If you’re a Chargers fan, you’re probably wondering why the team was not awarded a safety. Bills fans probably wonder why Nwosu wasn’t ejected for his devastating and injuring hit on Taiwan Jones. I’m not going to touch the latter question as it is likely going to be split down party lines whether you think it was a dangerous play, or an inadvertent football play. I can, however, try to answer the former.

Here is the play in question:

Breaking the play down into bullets:

  • Marcus Murphy catches the punt but the ball is immediately separated by a hit from Michael Davis.
  • The momentum from the hit drives the ball into the endzone where it is recovered by Taiwan Jones.
  • Jones evades tackles by Kyle Emanuel, Adrian Phillips and Jatavis Brown, but Phillips does pull his helmet off in the process.
  • Jones is then hit in the head and tackled by Uchenna Nwosu, losing the ball in the process.
  • The first whistle sounds as Jones hits the ground clutching his head.
  • A Chargers player picks up the football after the whistle.

Here are some things that did not happen, which have bearing on the play:

  • Murphy did not make a football move or establish himself as a runner.
  • The back judge does not throw his bean bag to signal a loss of possession, confirming the previous bullet.
  • Jones attempts to, but does not succeed at advancing the ball out of his endzone.


I believe most of the confusion on this play comes from how Taiwan Jones reacts when he recovers the ball. He is very clearly trying to take the ball out of the endzone. His efforts, along with being tackled in the endzone, naturally, would make you think he is trying to escape some consequence for being tackled in the endzone (i.e. a safety or touchdown). Whether he understood the situation or not, this is not the case.

The confusion starts with Murphy. He is not ruled by the back judge to have had possession of the ball. So when he loses the ball, the punt has been muffed, not fumbled. This is important because it has bearing on the recovery.

From the NFL Rulebook, Rule 9, Section 4, Article 1:

Starting with (c), this would have been a touchdown if the Chargers had gotten the ball, but they didn’t. Part (b) better describes the situation, but doesn’t answer the question other than to state it would have been legal for Jones to advance the ball in that situation.


Most Chargers fans (myself included) were screaming at the TV that it should have been a Safety. A Bills player was tackled in his own end zone; that has to be a safety, right?

From the NFL Rulebook, Rule 11, Section 5, Article 1:

Part (b) and Note (2) are the important bits here. Impetus is a very physics-sounding word for the motion of the ball when not in the possession of a player. The assumption is that the offense is the one providing the impetus. Kaser provides the initial impetus when he kicks the ball downfield. Later, Davis provides further impetus by knocking the ball away from Murphy. This is the impetus that moves the ball into the endzone.

Part (b) is very clear that the impetus needs to have come from the Bills for this to qualify as a safety. I do not think that anyone can say that the Bills caused the ball to end up in the end zone. Imagine a very similar situation we see from time to time: A punt returner muffs (does not catch) a punt, the ball rolls into the end zone, where they recover the ball. This is a touchback, not a safety. The play with Jones is not that much different, just more complicated.


From the NFL Rulebook, Rule 11, Section 6, Articles 1-2:

Section 6 complements 5, as it defines what is a touchback, rather than what is not a safety. Jones being tackled in his own endzone with a ball whose impetus originated with the Chargers is completely in-line with Article 2(a).

Penalties on Punts

You all will recall that a play is dead as soon as a player’s helmet comes off. Even if the refs miss the whistle.

From the NFL Rulebook, Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1:

NFL Rulebook Rule 12, Section 2, Articles 6-7 have a lot of situations covering defenseless players and unnecessary roughness. While striking a player without a helmet is not mentioned, striking someone in the head without a helmet has to be worse than a helmet to helmet hit (which is covered) as a personal foul.

From the NFL Rulebook, Rule 9, Section 5, Article 1:

The above rules state that a foul on a scrimmage kick (read: punt), when the dead-ball spot results in a touchback, can be assessed at the 20-yard line or force a re-kick after the penalty assessment.


Much the to the chagrin of Chargers’ fans, the refs got this call right.

  • There was no fumble, but rather a muffed punt recovered by the receiving team in its’ own endzone.
  • The impetus for the ball entering the endzone came from the kicking team, so the receiving team does not commit a safety.
  • The play would have ended on the tackle of Jones, but instead ended on the dead ball call for a player losing their helmet.
  • The Bills maintained possession of the ball, with the dead ball spot occurring in their own endzone: a touchback.
  • Striking a defenseless player warrants a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul.
  • The Bills opted to have the penalty assessed at the touchback spot: the 20-yard line.
  • Bills ball at their 35 yard line.


It appears that Taiwan Jones escaped without a concussion, though a rather nasty gash.

It also appears that Nwosu reached out to Jones: