Does Anyone Know the Rules?

Posted By BrokenClaw on December 15, 2008

This afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers took the lead and won the game over the Baltimore Ravens on a touchdown at the end of the game. However, there was considerable controversy over whether or not a touchdown was actually scored.

The play in question proceeded in the following manner: The receiver ran his route in the end zone. The quarterback threw the ball in his direction. The receiver had his feet in the endzone, but he had to reach back out onto the field of play to catch the ball. At essentially the same time, the defensive player tackled the reciever, forcing him even further back into the field of play.

Two officials on the field marked the ball down just outside the goal line, where the receiver made the catch. Since the game was inside the 2-minute warning, Pittsburgh could not challenge the call. Instead, they called time out, to give the officials the chance to make an official instant replay review, which they did. When the referee came back out onto the field, his official explanation was that “the receiver had both feet down in the end zone” when he made the catch, and it was therefore a touchdown.

There are two thing wrong with that outcome.

First of all, the referee never said that the call on the field was reversed. The whole concept of instant replay is based on the assumption that the call on the field stands, unless there is indisputable video evidence to the contrary. Instant replay does not replace the responsibility of the officials on the field to make a call. But in this case, the referee never even acknowledged the call on the field. Instead, he made it seem as though the video replay was used to determine whether or not it was a touchdown. There’s a significant difference.

The second thing wrong with the call is that the referee never even described a touchdown! Everyone knows that a touchdown is scored when any part of the ball, while in possession, touches/crosses the plane of the goal line. But the referee made it sound as though it was a touchdown simply because the receiver’s feet were down in the end zone. He never said anything about the ball reaching the end zone, and the video evidence was far from indisputable that it did. Now, the “two feet down in the end zone” thing often comes up with catches along the side of the end zone or the back of the end zone, but it doesn’t apply to the front of the end zone. If it did, then a runner with the ball could score a touchdown merely by sliding his feet across the goal line without ever getting the ball to the goal line!

After the game, the officials back-tracked on the explanation and stated that the football had reached the plane of the goal line. Nevertheless, they’d still have a hard time defending that conclusion with indisputable evidence.

I expect there will be a league review of this incident. Unfortunately, it will not be the first one this year. In September, a game-changing fumble recovery in the Denver vs San Diego game was disallowed because the official blew his whistle before it was recovered. In November, the whole officiating crew of the Pittsburgh vs San Diego game overturned a touchdown because they mistakenly ruled the ball dead.

Earlier in the same game today, Baltimore punted to Pittsburgh. The punt returner muffed the catch. The ball first rolled forward, then was finally picked up by another Pittsburgh player, who ran the ball about 18 more yards. The announcers said that the ball would be returned to the point at which the player picked up the ball, because you “can’t advance a muff.” Wrong. The kicking team can’t advance a muff, but the receiving team can. In fact, the officials had to huddle and then announce that it was okay for Pittsburgh to advance the ball, as if they weren’t sure themselves.

While I’m at it, I’m still waiting for clarification on the rule about a player coming back onto the field from out of bounds. How many times have we heard the announcers tell us that when a receiver runs out of bounds, he can’t be the “first person to touch it” when he comes back in bounds? Earlier this year (I don’t remember which game) a receiver inadvertently ran out of bounds. The pass came down and hit the defender, bounced up in the air, and then the receiver caught it. He was NOT the first person to touch it. It had obviously ricocheted off the defender. Nevertheless, the officials threw the flag and called it an illegal catch because the receiver had come in from out of bounds. I looked at the rule, and it specifically says the ball must be first “touched by an opponent,” which is was! The rule does not preclude the receiver from making the catch, but the officials did. Oh, well, I’ll probably never see that happen again.

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