If you haven’t seen the fiasco from the end of Sunday night’s Washington-New York game, Deadspin has an excellent rundown of events. (As always, Deadspin has some R-rated text; I’m new at this, and I don’t want to get anyone fired.) In brief: down seven and driving late in the fourth quarter, Washington completed a second down pass that was spotted just shy of the necessary first down yardage, setting up third-and-short. Except the head linesman signaled for the chains to move; they did, and Washington proceeded to call a play as if it was first-and-ten, a 20-yard pass that was dropped. Following THAT play, referee Jeff Triplette announced that it was actually fourth down, as Washington hadn’t actually picked up a first down two plays prior.
Mike Shanahan was, shall we say, displeased; his face turned from the normal gameday tomato red to a deep and angry magenta, and rightfully so. There’s no way they make the same play call on third-and-one that they made on what they had presumed to be first-and-ten. It was the very definition of incompetence, and Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth pulled no punches with their criticism. It was eerily reminiscent of ESPN’s coverage of the replacement ref-induced Fail Mary on Monday Night Football last season. (Captured above there in one of my favorite sports pictures.)
There’s not a football fan alive (nor, indeed, a sports fan) who hasn’t bemoaned an official’s ruling at least once. I myself have been known to be quite vocal in my displeasure, whether I’m watching on TV, from the cheap seats, or from 15 feet away at my brother’s high school baseball game. That’s an acceptable part of fandom, even though it’s generally understood that over time the calls even out. Some calls are certainly blown, but it is a very, very difficult job that I would never want, so I tend to give officials the benefit of the doubt on judgment calls.
I have very little patience, though, for errors like the one above. When Triplette realized he was the only person in the stadium who knew it was third down, he should have blown things dead, allowed a quick reset, and resumed play. Failing to do so, and then failing to come close to correcting the mistake, would infuriate me as a Washington fan. Heck, it bothers me a lot as a neutral observer. Errors like that are second only to errors born of rule book ignorance on my list of maddening officiating mistakes.
Which is a nice segue, as I’ve spent the past day or so trying to determine if the Bears were a victim of referee ignorance on Sunday. Near the end of the first half, the Bears were driving. With :30 seconds remaining, and facing a second-and-ten from their own 47, Josh McCown completed a pass to Alshon Jeffery down the right sideline for what appeared to be a first down. Jeffery was pushed out of bounds, the clock stopped, the chains moved, and the Bears lined up for a first-and-ten at the Vikings 43, a timeout in hand, and a chance at a half-ending field goal (or more) seemingly imminent.
Then the whistle blew for a review. Watching it on replay Monday, it seemed fairly clear to me that Jeffery caught the ball nearly two yards beyond the yellow line. (That line is obviously not official, but it wasn’t off by two yards.) He was coming back to catch it, but it seems like his forward progress should have still been beyond the line to gain. That means a first down. Granted, the clock shouldn’t have stopped, since Jeffery was pushed out of bounds behind where his forward progress was awarded, but the first down really wasn’t in question. (Want further proof? Look no further than Fox NFL officiating guru Mike Pereira’s Twitter feed from Sunday.)
The officials, though, overturned the call, ruling that Jeffery’s forward progress was short of the line to gain, spotting the ball on the Minnesota 44, and leaving the Bears facing a third-and-one with :25 seconds left before halftime. Still doable. But then, referee Carl Cheffers announced that there would be a ten second runoff unless the Bears used their third timeout. Watching live, I think I shouted “What?” at the television, and then promptly scanned for the applicable rule on my phone. I’d never heard of a runoff being applied in a situation like this. It’s a rule designed to prevent teams from faking injuries or committing intentional penalties to gain free timeouts late in halves. I didn’t find it at first, but upon further review Monday, I came upon Rule 4-7-4, which reads:
“If a replay review inside of one minute of either half results in the on-field ruling being reversed and the correct ruling would not have stopped the game clock, then the officials will run 10 seconds off the game clock before permitting the ball to be put in play on the ready-for-play signal. All normal rules regarding 10-second runoffs will apply.”
(Note: the entire NFL rule book is available here.)
So my original thought was incorrect; the runoff rule can apply in a specific situation such as this one. However, the other factors still seemed to be misinterpreted. When a first down spot is reviewed, the only way a reversal takes place is if the first down is going to be reversed. That is, if a play is originally spotted two yards beyond the line to gain, but a review shows it should have been spotted just one yard beyond, that isn’t a reversal. The ball remains at the original spot, pursuant to Rule 15-9-5. That means had the replay official correctly ruled that Jeffery’s progress was beyond the first down marker (and again, that seemed very clear, even to Pereira) the original play should not have been reversed, meaning the original (though inaccurate) ruling of a clock stoppage would have remained in place, preserving the full :25 seconds as well as the final timeout.
Instead, they somehow ruled that his forward progress was short of the line to gain, but still in bounds. Yet watching the replay, Jeffery is forced out of bounds just short of that line. The forward progress was no longer in the field of play at that point, and once again the clock should have stopped, preventing the runoff rule from coming into play. I’m not sure how they settled on the decision they ended up making, but in retrospect, it was more an error in judgment than an ignorance of the rule. (In fact, Cheffers showed a fairly Hochulian grasp of the rule book by busting out Rule 4-7-4 in that spot.) The fact remains, though, that an incorrect replay ruling cost the Bears a first down and a timeout; McCown’s ensuing third-and-short pass was batted down, leading to a punt.
There’s no guarantee that the rest of the game would have played out the same way had the Bears scored just before halftime. But when an officiating error costs the Bears a chance at points, in a game that ends up going to overtime, it stings just a little bit more.