OAKLAND, Calif. — Derek Carr would do it all over again: stretch the ball toward the goal line for a potential winning touchdown, even though he knows the extra effort backfired and cost the Oakland Raiders a chance to win.
Carr’s dramatic fumble that rolled through the end zone for a touchback ended Oakland’s comeback hopes and most of its playoff chances in the closing seconds of a 20-17 Week 15 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
He scrambled toward the end zone, stretched the ball forward as he dived only to have it jostled loose by Dallas safety Jeff Heath and roll out of the end zone for a turnover on a somewhat esoteric rule that has been used more than usual this year.
“I always think of it in basketball terms: I’d rather take the last shot and miss it than pass it off and try and do it another way,” Carr said. “From a competitive standpoint, I’d try it but with better technique, two hands, I don’t know, but something to where we don’t lose the game.”
Carr’s play was just the latest example of a costly fumble near the goal line. Fumbles that go out of bounds on the field of play revert to the last team that had possession. If it goes through the end zone, it becomes a touchback and turnover.
Several coaches last week said they used Oakland’s pain as a teaching tool for their players.
“As coaches it is important for us to talk about is this goal-to-go or like in last night’s game, if you were watching it, you knew that Carr had gained the first down. He is trying to score, and yet at what cost?” Saints coach Sean Payton asked. “You could make a strong point to say ‘Hey, the two scenarios are: desperate and I need to get in here, as opposed to it is not at all cost, then maybe it is not worth the risk of extending the ball. Because every weekend, we see great plays … where players are diving for that landmark and extending the ball and getting a touchdown, but there is that balance of at what cost.”
While there are countless examples of a player getting rewarded with a touchdown for stretching the ball over the goal line, the aggressive play has backfired more than ever this year.
Carr’s fumble was the seventh that went through the end zone for a touchback, the most league-wide for a season since at least 2000, according to Sportradar. There had been an average of just over two a year in that span before it plagued several teams this year.
“I just think it’s too risky to do something like that,” Jets offensive coordinator John Morton said. “I always try to say, ‘Just lower your head and finish with the ball through the end zone.’ That’s the best thing to do to protect it, otherwise you might fumble it through and now it’s a touchback. What good does that do you? Then they have the ball and it could cost you, but it’s hard. Guys are competing and they’re trying to score, and it just happens.”
The Jets were hurt by the rule earlier in the season against New England when tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins had the ball knocked loose just short of the end zone and recovered it while out of bounds, leading to a touchback.
Seferian-Jenkins didn’t stretch the ball but Tennessee’s Corey Davis , Arizona’s JJ Nelson, Todd Gurley of the Rams and Chicago’s Bennie Cunningham all lost the ball while trying to extend it over the goal line in a similar fashion to Carr.
Washington coach Jay Gruden said it’s difficult for players not to try to do everything they can to get into the end zone when they see an opportunity.
“You just got to hope they hold on to the ball if they do it,” he said. “You’ve just got to tell them to be very careful and protect the ball. I know that if I was running and I was getting tackled and I saw that goal line, it’s so important to score a touchdown.”
Some teams are very strict on this play, with former Patriots executive Michael Lombardi saying coach Bill Belichick threatened to bench players who tried it.
But there are several examples of Patriots players successfully stretching for touchdowns with no ramifications from their coach. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels says it’s a matter of knowing the situation and when a risk is worthwhile.
“Awareness, I think is the most important thing,” he said. “Because there’s a time and a place you may have to try and do that. And then there’s a time and a place where it’s not really worth the risk. Whether that’s an early down play, a 2-point conversion, a fourth-and-goal — all those scenarios are different.”
Players are very aware of the rule, with Detroit receiver Golden Tate saying fumbling while reaching for the end zone is one of his “biggest fears” as a receiver, especially after a fumble at the goal line by Calvin Johnson cost Detroit a game against Seattle in 2015, even if the Lions should have kept possession because the Seahawks illegally batted the ball out of the end zone.
But the lure of the touchdown is so great that players still try it even when they know better. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins got away with it earlier this year against Minnesota when he reached across the goal line just before the ball was knocked loose
“I was always coached, going back to college, never reach out unless it’s fourth-and-goal, never reach out,” Cousins said. “But it is tempting when you have it there to just reach out and get the six points. I go back to situational awareness. When he had already gotten the first down, it was going to be first-and-goal, there was enough time on the clock, those kinds of things start to factor in … you don’t need to reach out quite as much as if that was third- or fourth-and-goal, there was no time left, those kinds of things start to affect the decision you make in that moment. But, a tough play.”
Many have questioned why a fumble through the end zone is treated so differently than one that goes out of bounds in the field of play. NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron said earlier in the year that the idea of a rule change has been raised by the competition committee before and he expects it will be discussed again.
But for now, it remains a turnover even if it might not seem logical.
“There are a few rules that are in the playbook that maybe should be relooked at,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think whenever the competition committee has brought it, they didn’t have a really good answer, so they kind of left it how it is. It’s kind of on the responsibility of the runner. I’d have to agree that it shouldn’t count so much against you when you’re that close to the goal line. If you were a yard back, it would have been fine. You would have kept the ball. I’d say you don’t get a touchdown, but you have to go back to where you fumbled it.”
AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker, Andrew Seligman, Stephen Whyno, Brett Martel, John Wawrow, Kyle Hightower, Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed to this report.
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