What is a Muff in Football? (Defined, Muff vs Fumble Compared)

During the course of a football game, the announcers will discuss many different football terms.  Some of these terms can seem to be synonymous with each other, but in actuality they’re not, and if you don’t understand these small differences, you might be left confused while watching the game. 

A perfect example of this is muff vs fumble. Even though a muff seems very similar to a fumble, there are important differences. What is a muff in football? 

A muff in football is when someone is attempting to gain possession of the football and doesn’t, but still comes into contact with the ball. Possession was never gained, but the ball became loose after being touched (source).

The most common type of muff in football is a muffed punt. As we will explain later in the article, if you just understood what a muffed punt was (and didn’t understand any of the other uses of muff in football), you would be just fine.

In this article we will compare and contrast muff vs fumble, and discuss what makes a muff unique and why it impacts the game of football.

What is a Muff in Football?

Again, a muff in football is when a player is attempting to gain control or possession of the football and fails, but in the process comes into contact with the football.

For many fans, muff and fumble seem life the same thing. Let’s take a deeper dive into the differences of a muff vs fumble.

Muff vs Fumble

To fumble a football, the player must have possession of the football. But what about the circumstances where the ball becomes loose before possession is gained? For example on a punt return, let’s say the player fielding the ball bobbles the catch.

In this example, the fielding player never gained possession of the punted ball, but what do we call it because the ball still was bobbled and became loose on the ground? Enter muff in football.

A muff in football is when someone is attempting to gain possession of the football and doesn’t, but still comes into contact with the ball. Possession was never gained, but the ball became loose after being touched.

A fumble, on the other hand, occurs when the ball is jarred loose AFTER possession has already been established. So when comparing muff vs fumble, the difference is for a fumble to occur there has to be possession at the time the ball is jarred loose, while a muff in football occurs when a player attempts to gain possession, fails, but still makes contact with the ball.

Here is the main difficulty when trying to understand a muff in football: there are different kinds of muffs in football that are handled in completely different ways (more on the types of muffs in football later in the article).

And if that wasn’t enough to already make you feel a bit confused, here is another curveball: some plays can be considered both a muff and a fumble (more on that later also).

Although there are many versions of a muff in football, the one that you will be most likely to encounter while watching a football game is a muffed punt. So let’s consider muff vs fumble under the scenario of a muffed punt. What makes it different and/or similar to a standard fumble?

Muff vs Fumble on a Punt

Without doing a deep 1000-word dive on every single version of a muff in football, let me just say this from the start: if you are new(ish) to football and trying to learn and understand muff, a muffed punt is really the only scenario in football where the term “muff” is relevant and needs to be understood. As advice, don’t worry about all the other scenarios. It’s technical rulebook nonsense that isn’t part of the common language of the game.

If you only understand a muffed punt and not all the other technical definitions, you will be fine. So, what is the difference between a muffed punt and a fumbled punt?

A muffed punt is not a fumble because possession was never gained by the player receiving the punt. To be a muff, the receiving player had to make contact with the ball. If he completely whiffed, it isn’t considered a muff or a fumble, instead the ball just rolls out and is marked down where it is stopped and possession is awarded to the receiving team at that spot.

But if the receiving player attempted to catch the football and failed but still made contact with the football (let’s say it bounced off his arm), and the ball ricocheted onto the ground, this is a muff (again, because possession was not gained but contact was made with the football).

If the receiving player had caught the ball and established possession, then had the ball jarred loosed, that would have been a fumble and not a muff.

Under this punt scenario, one other very important thing that is different about a muff vs a fumble is a muffed punt CANNOT be advanced by the kicking team (if they recover it), but a fumble CAN be advanced by the kicking team if they recover it.

Okay, there were a lot of moving parts there – did I lose you along the way? Let me explain this as if you were watching the game. Team Blue punts the football to Team Red. Team Red’s player bobbles the catch (before he ever had possession) and the ball becomes loose on the ground, so he “muffed the punt”.

An all out scramble for the football breaks loose, and Team Blue (who had punted the football) eventually recovers the loose ball. The play was a muffed punt recovered by the “kicking team” (Team Blue) and the ball is awarded to Team Blue 1st and 10 from the spot of the recovery.

Because it was a muffed punt, even though Team Blue recovered it, they were not allowed to advance the ball forward after recovery. If they had recovered a fumble instead, they could have advanced it before being tackled.

But remember, earlier, we said that some muffs are actually recorded as fumbles. Under this Team Blue scenario, despite it being a muff and not a fumble, when it is officially recorded as a statistic, it is recorded as a fumble loss for the receiving team and a fumble recovery by the kicking team.

That makes no sense, I know. There’s no real reason to overthink as to why it is this way, just know that it is. Muffs are muffs, until they hit the stat sheet, where they turn in to “fumbles lost” and “fumbles recovered”.

So when you are listening to a live broadcast, you will hear the commentator refer to a play like this as a “muff”, but then see it in the box score as a fumble. In fact, there are a several types of plays where muffs are known as different names and statistics.  We will discuss this in more detail later in the article.

Muff in Football: Examples

There are actually many plays throughout the game that are considered muffs, but many of them are rarely described as that.  You may have heard of a muffed punt – as we have already discussed, it is the most common example of a muff in football. But a muffed punt is not the only type of muff in football.

Keep in mind, for a play to be considered a muff the player must attempt to gain possession but fail to do so and actually touch the ball (if he completely whiffs it’s not a muff).  Also, it is important to remember what we discussed earlier: outside of a muffed punt, you won’t hear muff used much at all in the common language used by most fans and commentators. Much of these are just technical rulebook definitions, but most of these definitions are commonly just referred to as “fumbles” by commentators and fans.

Here is a list of plays that are technically considered muffs in football:

  • When a snap is either never received by the quarterback when under center or when they do not catch the snap when in shotgun.  This is considered a muffed snap because the quarterback never gains possession of the ball before the ball becomes loose.  If the offense recovers it, it would still be considered a muffed snap but not a fumble. If the defense recovers, it is considered a fumble recovery.
  • As we mentioned above, when a player attempts to receive a kick (either punt or kickoff), makes contact with the ball, but never gains possession, this is considered a muffed punt or muffed kick.  When a player is calling for a fair catch, a muffed punt actually has to hit the ground before the kicking team can attempt to recover it.  If a player muffs a punt but it bounces in the air, the defense has to give the receiving player space to catch the ball before it hits the ground or they will be penalized for kick catch interference. This small detail is not well-known among football fans and causes confusion when it occurs (it rarely happens).
  • When any player attempts to recover a live ball that is on the ground, touches the ball, but fails to gain possession, these failed attempts at a recovery are technically considered muffs.  So if the quarterback fumbles the ball and a defensive lineman goes to jump on it but doesn’t recover it, he technically muffed the recovery.
  • When there is a failed hand-off between two players and the ball hits the ground, this is considered a muff. This is actually considered a fumble and a muff – fumble by the player who has possession and is attempting to hand the ball off, and a muff by the player he is trying to hand it to.
  • When either an offensive or defensive player attempts to catch a forward pass but fails to gain possession, that is considered a muff. Although, from an offensive perspective, these are more commonly referred to as “dropped passes”, they are still technically considered muffs by definition.
  • When a player doesn’t catch a backwards pass and the ball hits the ground, this is considered a muff.

Muff in Football: How it is Recorded

What are plays that are muffs but are also considered other statistics? As we briefly discussed earlier, a muff can also end up being recorded as other statistics as well (usually a fumble).  In this section we will outline and explain these scenarios. 

As a reminder, a muff is simply a player legally touching the football while trying to gain possession but failing to actually gain possession.  Instances where these muffs become other statistics (in addition to being considered a muff) are:

  • When an offense muffs the snap and the defensive team recovers the ball, this will be recorded as a fumble lost and fumble recovered.  This can occur when a quarterback drops the ball when under center or shotgun, or if the center just never gets it to the quarterback (likely either slipping out of his hand or hitting another player’s leg or foot).  If the offensive team would recover the ball first, then this play would not be considered a fumble.  In these scenarios, the fumble is charged to the quarterback or the intended recipient of the snap.
  • When a player attempts to receive a kick, either a punt or a kickoff, and muffs it and the kicking team recovers it, then this will also be a fumble.  If the receiving team still recovers the ball though, it would only be a muff and not a fumble.
  • After receiving the snap, if the quarterback has a failed handoff with another player, this is considered both a muff and a fumble, even if the defense doesn’t recover it.  The quarterback in this case would be charged with a fumble and the player who was attempting to get the handoff would have muffed the handoff.  Though, if the offense does recover the fumble, then the quarterback wouldn’t get charged with fumble lost.
  • When a player intentionally muffs a ball, this is actually considered a batted ball and not a muff at all.  In some cases this can actually be a penalty, while in other situations it is completely legal; such as a defensive player knocking a pass down.  Players sometimes intentionally muff live, loose balls on the the ground to keep players from the other team from recovering the fumble.  For example, an offensive player purposely knocking the ball out of bounds when there has been a fumble. 
  • When a defensive or offensive player attempts to catch a pass, and drops it, these can be considered muff in football.  Keep in mind, these players must be trying to gain possession, so if they are just trying to bat the ball away it would not be a muff.  If an offensive player bats the ball away, it would just be an incomplete pass.  If a defensive player bats a ball away or if they muff the pass, both are considered deflections.  If an offensive player muffs a pass, then this will be recorded as an incomplete pass for the quarterback and a drop for the receiver. (Source)

Joshua Lloyd

Joshua is lead content creator for basketball and golf at Sports Fan Focus. Golf is a passion of his and he enjoys both playing and watching golf in his spare time. To read more about Joshua, visit the SFF About Us page.

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