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Did officials get touchback rule wrong in 49ers vs. Chargers? Why NBC’s Terry McAulay called out crew

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There is almost always some late call — or no-call — by officials that teams and fans look back on as the one that cost them a shot at a win. The “Sunday Night Football” matchup between the Chargers and 49ers was no different.

With just over two minutes remaining and San Francisco leading Los Angeles 19-16, 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowsky booted a towering kick that was caught by Samuel Womack III at the Chargers’ 1. Whistles blew as Womack stood, slowly teetering, in front of the goal line, before he was pushed into the end zone by teammates who had come to congratulate him.

LA ball at the 1, right? Wrong, says NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay. The former NFL referee said that because Womack continued to move backward into the end zone, the officiating crew should have called a touchback and given the Chargers the ball at their 20.

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What is the NFL touchback rule in question?

Here’s the rule McAulay cited:

If a player of the kicking team illegally catches or recovers a scrimmage kick in the field of play, and carries the ball across the goal line, or touches the goal line with any part of his body while in possession of the ball.

Watching the replay of the catch, Womack doesn’t appear to fully set his feet before the whistle is blown. McAulay said that because Womack’s feet aren’t set and he continues to step backward until he reaches the end zone, he carried the ball across the goal line.

Does the whistle matter? It doesn’t appear to in this case, at least according to McAulay. Based on the rule, the ball is dead as soon as it is touched by the defensive player, meaning that a whistle doesn’t actually signal a stoppage in play. But also by rule, Womack cannot, at any point, take the ball across the goal line. Even after the whistles blew, Womack entering the end zone means that the play should have been ruled a touchback.

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Has this NFL touchback rule been applied before?

McAulay said a similar ruling was made in the 2021 playoff game between Washington and Tampa Bay. Tress Way punted and Troy Apke, believing the ball had hit a Tampa Bay player, ran into the end zone after recovering at the Bucs’ 7. The play was ruled a touchback despite Apke taking possession of the ball 7 yards from the goal line.

While the rule is not exactly obscure, it is rarely called given that it does not often happen. Perhaps because of that, Chargers coach Brandon Staley said he received no indication that he should ask for the play to be reviewed. He said he did not receive a rule interpretation from the NFL.

“The people upstairs did not indicate that that would be a factor,” Staley said.

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The Chargers were unable to move the ball out of the shadow of their end zone, ultimately turning the ball over on downs at their 8. San Francisco turned that field position into just three points, giving the Chargers a shot at going on a game-winning drive, but Justin Herbert threw an interception on the first play to essentially end the game.


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