NFL Rules of Possession


There are various interpretations of the term "possession" when it comes to the rules of the National Football League. In one sense possession refers to which team has the ball, while another way to define possession is in regards to a player actually legally possessing the ball. Either way, the term is used the NFL has specific rules regarding possession.

Change of possession

  • In the NFL, a change of possession can occur in a number of ways. One of those is when a team fails to get a first down, which means they were not able to advance the football ten yards from the point where they recorded their last first down. A team gets four downs to get a first down, but they typically will punt the ball away if after three downs they have not gained the ten yards. Possession of the football changes if a team cannot get a first down on a fourth down play, punts the ball to the other team or scores a touchdown or a field goal.

Fumbles, interceptions and field goals

  • If the offense fumbles the ball and it is recovered by the defense, then there is a change of possession. Likewise, if the offense attempts a pass and the defensive side intercepts, then possession changes. Possession also changes if the offensive team attempts a field goal and fails. The spot where the ball is placed is covered by possession rules. A missed field goal from inside the 20-yard line is placed at the 20 and the defensive team takes over possession. Those kicks that are tried from outside the 20-yard line and missed allow the defensive team to then take possession at the spot where the ball was snapped for the kick. A blocked field goal or punt results in a change of possession, as long as the team kicking does not recover the ball for a first down.

Possession on receptions

  • The other definition of possession in the NFL concerns itself with whether a player has possession of the ball during a play. On passing plays, the NFL rule of possession states that the receiver must have possession of the ball with both feet down in bounds before a catch can be ruled legal. The rule further describes possession as the player having clear control of the football before going out of bounds. Receivers are ruled not to have possession of the ball legally if they are bobbling the football before going out of bounds.

Possession before a fumble

  • One of the plays most often reviewed in the NFL by the instant replay official concerns whether a player has possession of the ball before fumbling it. The rule that governs such a situation clearly dictates that a player catching the ball must have possession of the ball with both feet down and be in the process of making a "football-related move" for the player to be ruled to have possession. A football-related move means that the player is attempting to evade a tackler. A fumble after the receiver has been ruled to have possession is a live ball that can be recovered by either team.

Tuck rule

  • One of the least understood NFL rules concerning possession is known as the "tuck rule." The rule says that if a player makes an attempt to pass the ball and moves his hand forward--even if this player decides not to pass the ball--and loses possession of the football while trying to tuck it back near his body, the play will be ruled an incomplete pass. The offensive team maintains possession of the football even though at first glance many would consider the quarterback to have fumbled the ball. This rule came into play late in a playoff game between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders on January 19th, 2002. Quarterback Tom Brady of the Patriots was ruled to have thrown an incomplete pass when it looked as if he had fumbled and New England maintained possession of the ball. They later kicked a tying field goal and won the contest in overtime.

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