Ask the Official: Who gets the ball after simultaneous possession?

By Brent Glasgow | Posted 9/25/2017

Welcome to Ask the Official, a weekly blog series from USA Football. We’ve teamed up with Bill LeMonnier, USA Football rules editor, who’s served as a college football referee and also works with ESPN as a rules analyst. Look for LeMonnier’s blog every week during football season, as we take reader-submitted questions or revisit a controversial play that took place the previous weekend. See below for information on how to submit your questions. Here’s today’s topic:

Q: While being tackled, a running back loses control of the ball and it pops into the air. The running back and a defensive player come down with it simultaneously. It appears the defensive player has control of it for a split second before the ball comes loose again, this time with both players falling to the ground with simultaneous possession. Is that split second enough to determine possession for the defensive player, or does the player need to take a step or something that is considered a “football move?” Who should have the ball once the pile unsettles?

A: If we rule this simultaneous possession, then the ball by rule belongs to the team losing possession due to the fumble.  

If we're splitting hairs on one player "touching" the ball a split second before the other player, then remember this ... touching is not possession. Possession of a pass, a kick or any other loose ball, in this case a fumble, requires three components:

1)  Control of the football

2)  Inbounds status

3)  Do you have time to make a football type move or do something common to the game?

When the play as described happens, this ball belongs to the fumbling team based on the simultaneous possession rule. Don't try and have the "greatest eyes" in the history of the game. If you see one player recover with control and inbounds, then you don't have simultaneous possession, you have an individual player possession. Limit your simultaneous possession ruling to the play that you have to split hairs on or can't tell who really controlled the ball first.

USA Football Rules Editor Bill LeMonnier is a former college referee who currently serves as an ESPN NCAA rules analyst. Click here to ask Bill a question. Make sure to put “Ask the Official” in the subject line.