What is the definition of Muff in American Football?

In the world of American football, there are many terms and rules that spectators and fans often wonder about. One such term is a “muff.” It is an action noticed on the field during specific circumstances, and it may come as a surprise to some that it has significant consequences in the game.

A muff in football refers to a situation where a player touches the ball without successfully gaining possession, resulting in a live ball that can be picked up by either team. This typically occurs when a player fails to have full control over the football, such as during punt or kickoff returns. Unlike a fumble, which happens after a player has already gained possession of the ball, a muff happens when possession has not yet been established.

Key Takeaways

  • A muff is a situation in football when a player touches the ball without gaining possession
  • Muffs usually occur during punt or kickoff returns and differ from fumbles, where possession is lost
  • Understanding the concept of a muff can enhance the game-watching experience for fans

Definition of a Muff

A muff in American football is a specific type of play where a player touches the ball but fails to gain possession, resulting in a live ball that can be picked up by either team. The term muff is used to describe situations in which a player does not have full possession of the football, and the dropped ball is live.

The most common type of muff occurs during special teams plays, such as punts and kickoffs. When a player attempts to catch the ball in these scenarios, they might accidentally come into contact with it, causing the ball to become loose on the field. The defensive team may recover the muff but cannot advance the ball after recovering it.

It is important to note that a muff is different from a fumble. During a fumble, the player has gained possession of the ball and then loses it. In contrast, a muff involves an unsuccessful attempt to gain possession of the ball in the first place while still coming into contact with it.

The distinction between a muff and a fumble has implications in the rules and the game’s strategy. In college football, NCAA rules define a muff as an unsuccessful attempt to catch or recover a ball that is touched during the attempt, thus not changing the ball’s status. This distinction affects the way the possession is allocated and the potential gain or loss of yards for the team that recovers the ball.

Muff vs. Fumble


In American football, a muff refers to a situation where a player touches the ball but fails to gain possession, resulting in a live ball that can be recovered by either team. Muffs typically occur in plays involving kicks or punts when the receiving player is attempting to catch the ball but mishandles it. On the other hand, a fumble happens when a player who already has possession of the ball loses it due to a hit from an opponent or other mishap. The significant distinction between the two is that for a fumble to occur, the player must have had possession at one point, while a muff involves a failed attempt to gain possession in the first place.

Implications on the Game

Both muffs and fumbles have implications on gameplay:

  • When a muff occurs, the ball remains live, and either team can recover it. If the receiving team secures the ball, they retain possession, and the down and distance situation resumes from where the player first muffed it. However, if the kicking team recovers the muff, it’s considered a turnover, and they acquire a new set of downs at the spot of the recovery.
  • In the case of a fumble, if the offensive team recovers the ball, they maintain possession and continue the down and distance situation from the spot of the recovery. If the defensive team recovers the fumble, it’s considered a turnover, and they take possession from the recovery spot.

Both muffs and fumbles introduce an element of uncertainty on the field, as the change in possession can shift the momentum of the game. Coaches and players must be aware of these situations, as proper technique and decision-making can minimize the risk of turnovers and potentially impact the outcome of the game.

Causes of Muffs


Muffs in American football often occur due to mishandling of the ball by the receiving player. Players may fail to properly catch or recover a ball, resulting in a live ball that can be picked up by either team. Such scenarios are frequently witnessed during punts and kickoffs when players struggle with ball security. Solid fundamentals, such as catching the ball with their hands instead of letting it bounce off their body, can help prevent muffs.

Weather Conditions

Another contributing factor to muffs in football is adverse weather conditions. Rain, snow, and windy conditions can make it difficult for players to maintain a secure grip on the ball. In such situations, footballs become slippery and challenging to catch, increasing the likelihood of a muff. Players must adjust their techniques and focus on maintaining proper grip during unfavorable weather conditions to minimize the risk of muffs.

External Factors

External factors, such as player collisions, distractions, or pressure from the kicking team, can also result in muffs. For instance, a receiving player may become overwhelmed by the opposing team’s incoming coverage, leading to a rushed or failed attempt to secure the ball. Furthermore, players may be distracted by on-field events or crowd noise, causing them to lose focus and muff the ball. To avoid such situations, it is crucial for players to maintain concentration and practice effective communication during high-pressure situations.

Recovering a Muff

Who Can Recover?

A muff in American football occurs when a player touches a loose ball, such as a punt or kickoff, but fails to gain possession, resulting in a live ball that can be picked up by either team. When a muff happens, both the offensive and defensive teams have a chance to recover the ball. The key aspect to keep in mind is that the defensive team cannot advance a muff; however, they can recover it and gain possession.

Down and Possession Rules

When a muff occurs during a punt or kickoff, several rules come into play, which dictate the continuation of the game. For instance, if the receiving team muffs the ball and the kicking team recovers it, the kicking team gets a new first down and takes possession of the ball at the spot of recovery. On the other hand, if the receiving team manages to recover the muff, they retain possession and continue the game from the spot of the recovery.

In most cases, the down and possession rules are similar for both kickoffs and punts. However, in certain situations, specific guidelines apply to each type of play.

  • Kickoffs: When a receiving team player muffs the kickoff and the kicking team recovers, the down is recorded as a first down for the kicking team at the spot of recovery.
  • Punts: If the receiving team muffs the punt and the kicking team recovers, the down is recorded as a first down for the kicking team at the spot of recovery.

These rules ensure that, when a muff occurs, the game can continue in a fair and consistent manner for both teams involved.

Notable Muff Instances

One notable instance of a muff in American football occurred in the 2012 NFC Wild Card game between the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers. Kyle Williams of the 49ers muffed a punt late in the game, which led to a crucial touchdown by the Saints. This play was significant because it played a major role in determining the outcome of the game, as the 49ers ultimately won by a narrow margin.

Another memorable muff took place in 2015 when Dwayne Harris of the New York Giants muffed a punt against the Dallas Cowboys. This error allowed the Cowboys to recover the ball within field goal range, ultimately leading to a game-winning field goal. The muff not only cost the Giants the game but also had implications for their position in the standings, as they missed the playoffs that season by a single win.

In 2019, Cyrus Jones of the Baltimore Ravens muffed a punt return against the Buffalo Bills during a crucial play. The Bills recovered the ball and capitalized on the opportunity by scoring a touchdown on the subsequent drive. While the Ravens secured a win in the end, the muff could have cost them the game as the final score was close.

The “Mile High Miracle” from the 2012 AFC Divisional game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos also featured a notable muff. With just over a minute left in regulation, the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday muffed a punt, resulting in a turnover that the Ravens capitalized on by scoring the game-tying touchdown. This led to an exhilarating overtime period where the Ravens eventually emerged victorious, propelling them to the AFC Championship game.

These instances highlight the significance of muffed plays in American football. A single muff can change the course of a game and, in some cases, a team’s entire season.