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Why do football players keep dropping the ball before the end zone?

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Players keep willingly losing touchdowns in a way that seems really, really, really easy to avoid.

Early in the 2016 season, Clemson’s Ray-Ray McCloud had a punt return for a touchdown against Troy, only to have the score overturned due to a premature drop:

That took six points off the board in a surprisingly close game between the No. 2 team and their Sun Belt foes.

College football fans laughed at what they assumed would be the lone instance of a play so dumb, but it happened twice in the next weekend’s games. First, Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon failed to get across the line on a kickoff return, which counted as a touchdown anyway:

Later, Vic Enwere scored to give Cal a 14-point late lead on Texas, but officials realized he didn’t make it across the plane:

If Enwere had scored, nobody would’ve thought twice about Texas’ loss. But the drop and its controversial management by the game’s replay officials left many feeling the Longhorns should’ve had one final shot to tie.

When you combine the loss of six points and the loss of possession, this play is costlier than almost anything in football. But while a pick-six involves every player on the field, this is just one person being thoughtless for an instant.

It’s the most confounding mistake imaginable. These players work so hard to score touchdowns. They study their opponents’ weaknesses, train their bodies, and risk every part of those bodies as they hurl themselves at the opposition. And when they get to the point where they can score a touchdown, some jeopardize it for an extra split second of celebration.

Why is this suddenly happening all the time?

This isn’t a sudden outburst at all. A steady stream of players have made this mistake over the past 10 years.

Whenever this happens, we say the player has “pulled a DeSean Jackson.” After all, he’s the most prominent player to screw up in this way. Just two weeks into Jackson’s rookie season in 2009, the second-round pick made himself a household name during Monday Night Football:

And then people realized a high school Jackson performed a pre-touchdown flip during the U.S. Army All-American Game, leaving the ball on the 1-yard line:

But Jackson didn’t invent it. Here’s Oregon State’s Chad Johnson (later Chad Ochocinco) in the 2000 season’s Fiesta Bowl (via commenter AU_Jonesy) against Notre Dame. The touchdown counted, and on the broadcast, you can hear Irish fans booing at the stadium replay.

Two years after Jackson’s 2008 blunder, Marshall WR Aaron Dobson scored a 96-yard TD to give Marshall a 14-3 lead on West Virginia, but well after it was already counted, everybody noticed he dropped the ball early:

The day after Dobson’s mistake, it happened again. Notre Dame’s T.J. Jones while scoring on Michigan:

Tyrann Mathieu threw the ball to the ref a second early in the 2011 SEC Championship. It wasn’t called, but Mike Pereira noted it should’ve been considered an illegal forward pass, giving LSU the ball with a 5-yard penalty.

In 2012, Broncos return man Trindon Holliday flipped the ball while scoring on a punt return. Nobody noticed his error live, so the touchdown stood.

But the next year, another Bronco wouldn’t be so lucky. Linebacker Danny Trevathan got caught on a premature drop during the opening game of the 2013 NFL season. The refs noticed the blunder and awarded possession to the Ravens when it dawdled out of the end zone.

Later that year, Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington gave his team a lead against TCU, only to have the score overturned on replay. Nobody recovered the ball, so Texas Tech got it back, but the Red Raiders’ celebration of the non-touchdown earned them a 15-yard penalty.

In the 2014 Outback Bowl, Iowa’s John Lowdermilk’s pick-six actually wasn’t a touchdown:

The TD was overturned and Iowa punched the ball in a few plays later.

In perhaps the most famous college example, Kaelin Clay did it on a play that should’ve given Utah a 14-0 lead against Oregon — and the Ducks ran the ball back 100 yards to tie the game at 7, a brutal two-touchdown swing.

But the Ducks had no reason to act all high and mighty; their RB Byron Marshall had dropped the ball before scoring in the team’s season opener against South Dakota. The play was scored a touchdown but overturned on review, resulting in a South Dakota touchback. Marshall vowed to improve after an embarrassing error, but he almost made the same mistake in the National Championship.

In 2015, Kendell Anderson of William & Mary dropped the ball on the dang 4-yard line, earning a spot on top of ESPN’s Not Top Ten. This was noticed by just about everybody, because HE DROPPED IT ON THE DANG 4, and easily recovered by Hampton.

This is my best attempt at assembling a comprehensive list.

It’s possible nobody had ever done this before 2000, but that’s like assuming frogs only started mating a certain way in 2011 because that’s when some Planet Earth cinematographer waited for 18 months in a tree stump to capture it. My guess is players have been doing this for decades. It’s just that now we have excellent cameras focusing on every instant of the game and officials have a mandate to review every scoring play.

How do officials miss this and still award touchdowns?

Up above we have 16 plays, all of which feature a player discarding the ball before scoring a touchdown; 13 were ruled touchdowns by the referees on the field.

This is actually a tough thing to notice live. Even if a player runs a 5-second 40 and lets go of the ball at the 1-yard line, he’s dropping the ball .125 seconds before crossing the end zone. Most of these players are faster than that, and most are dropping the ball closer than that.

So we’re asking referees to notice something that takes place in under a 10th of a second. But this has happened enough that when a player is en route to the end zone, officials should be on the lookout for a drop.

If the on-field officials mess up, it’s the replay officials’ job to step in. They’re ... not doing so great either. Sometimes, they haven’t picked up the slack. In four of the plays above, they failed to review the faux touchdown. They’re supposed to review every scoring play.

But the missed on-field call makes the replay official’s job a bit harder. When the on-field official signals touchdown in these scenarios, that ends the play with a loose ball unclaimed by either team.

That makes things complicated. Even if someone recovers it, the replay official can only recognize that recovery if it took place “in the immediate course of action.” The reasoning: We only want to recognize actions that took place when all 22 players had reason to believe the play was alive. But in practice, it causes an awkward scenario. It forces the replay official to determine what an “immediate” recovery is.

This was the problem in Texas-Cal. Texas recovered the ball within three seconds, and no whistles blew until after the ball was in Texas’ hands. But the Texas players slowed down a bit before picking up the ball, so their recovery was deemed not to be immediate.

But most of the time this play happens, that recovery is not going to be “immediate.” For example, on the Oregon-Utah play, Oregon’s Erick Dargan specified that he did take a moment to consider whether the ball was live or not:

Me and the ref made eye contact. It was an awkward moment like, 'I'm just going to pick the ball up and try to go with it.”

If Oregon had made a big ruckus clamoring for the ball and drawing Utah’s attention, the Ducks probably wouldn’t have been able to return it 100 yards for a touchdown. Their subtlety was critical to the play, as was the attentive eye of the on-field official, who was correct to let the play continue.

What can teams do to prevent this?

Coaches think they’re going to be able to tell players not to make this mistake anymore. Cal head coach Sonny Dykes put a rule in place:

“Every time we score a touchdown from now on, we will hand the ball directly to an official,” Dykes said.

“I don’t understand it. But I can assure you it won’t ever happen to us again. We’ll get it fixed.”

He’s not alone. Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema say they’ve put rules in place, and Boise State coach Bryan Harsin is confident the Broncos won’t do it.

Telling your players not to do this does not mean they won’t do it. This is not a conscious decision. It’s a split-second lapse in thought when the players think they’re done playing football.

Oregon’s Mark Helfrich taught his players not to do this with a big, meaningful preseason meeting in 2014:

"(In the preseason) there's a meeting where (head coach Mark Helfrich) is talking to the offense about crossing the line and giving the ball to the official. If you cross the line and give the ball to the official there's no chance to drop it prematurely.”

How’d that go? If you remember, a Duck dropped the ball before the end zone in the first damn game of the season.

So why do players do this?

I dunno.