American football term for when a player loses possession of the ball and it hits the ground. From this point, the first player to gain possession ("recover the fumble") gets control of the ball for his team.

In order for a receiver to fumble the ball, he must be in complete control of the ball first. In other words, if a quarterback passes to a receiver, and the receiver is juggling the ball and does not have control, then gets hit and loses the ball, it would not be a fumble (it would instead be an incomplete pass).
However, on non-passing plays, the offensive player does not need to have control of the ball for there to be a fumble (for example, a botched snap from the center to the quarterback would be a fumble).

If the ball is fumbled out of bounds, the team who fumbled it retains offensive possession. If the offensive team fumbles the ball out of their own endzone, the defensive team would earn a safety (two points). If the offensive team fumbles the ball out of the defensive team's endzone or if the defensive team recovers the ball in their own endzone, the result would be a touchback (the defensive team getting the ball on their own 20 yard line).

As with most sports rules, it's harder to explain than it is to understand when actually watching or playing...

Fum"ble (?), v. i. [imp. & p. p. Fumbled (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Fumbling (?).] [Akin to D. fommelen to crumple, fumble, Sw. fumla to fusuble, famla to grope, Dan. famle to grope, fumble, Icel. falme, AS. folm palm of the hand. See Feel, and cf. Fanble, Palm.]

1.

To feel or grope about; to make awkward attempts to do or find something.

Adams now began to fumble in his pockets. Fielding.

2.

To grope about in perplexity; to seek awkwardly; as, to fumble for an excuse.

Dryden.

My understanding flutters and my memory fumbles. Chesterfield.

Alas! how he fumbles about the domains. Wordsworth.

3.

To handle much; to play childishly; to turn over and over.

I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers. Shak.

 

© Webster 1913.


Fum"ble, v. t.

To handle or manage awkwardly; to crowd or tumble together.

Shak.

 

© Webster 1913.

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