Were the Lions screwed by the officials? Adrian the Canadian speaks!

Fox has Rules Guru Mike Pereira, but he’s got nothing on my lawyer friend Adrian the Canadian. Here is my personal rules guru’s take on two key calls in the Lions – Saints game last night:

Don’t be surprised if Tyler takes a few days off blogging about football — last night’s Detroit/New Orleans Wild Card playoff game had to be tough on him. Not only did New Orleans pull away from his beloved Lions late, but they won in part due to two questionable pieces of officiating. The first call, the more obvious of the two, involves a misuse of discretion on behalf of the officials. The second seems to me to have been a flat out bad call. And who better to analyze the officiating of America’s Game than a Canadian? Here’s your rouge-free guide to the questionable calls in last night’s game.

Brees’s fumble

At the end of the second quarter, with New Orleans down by seven points, Willie Young hit Drew Brees while he was in the process of throwing, dislodging the ball. The ball landed in a pile of Detroit defenders one of whom proceeded to pick up the ball and run for a touchdown. Since the ball had gone forward from Brees’s hand, however, the referee blew the whistle and called the ball dead as an incomplete pass, negating the touchdown and change of possession. After a brief post-play conference, the officials got together and determined, correctly, that the ball had been dislodged before Brees’s hand was moving forward.

This was a appropriate invocation of the so-called “Hochuli Rule.” The Hochuli rule was instituted in 2009 after referee Ed Hochuli incorrectly blew a similar play dead in a game between Denver and San Diego as an incomplete pass when replay revealed that the play was, in fact, a fumble. At the time, because the ball was considered dead once the whistle was blown, the play was non-reviewable. Subsequently, the NFL instituted a rule allowing for replay review of incomplete passes. Should an incomplete pass turn out to be a fumble, the ball is placed at the spot where the fumble is recovered. There can be no return.

Here, the referees made the correct call in reversing the decision on the field, but should have used better discretion in blowing the play dead to begin with. Referees know that if they blow a potential fumble dead as an incomplete pass, the recovering team is denied the benefit of the return if the referees turn out to be wrong. But, if they err on the side of calling the pass a fumble, the recovering team gets full advantage of the return while the fumbling team is free to challenge the call on the field (as an aside, this is where I think the NFL should expand automatic replay review). In this case, by being quick to blow the play dead, the referees likely deprived the Lions of a touchdown.

The “Hochuli Rule” is therefore asymmetrical. Where most challenges leave things as they otherwise would have been (did Stafford reach the ball across the line? Did Meechum maintain control?), Hochuli challenges leave the recovering team worse off than they would have been if the referee did not blow the whistle. Officials need to understand this and call the game with this in mind so that their enforcement of the rules has the smallest impact possible on the result of the game. Quick whistles on incomplete passes actually affect the substance of the game in ways that most challengeable calls do not.

People charged with enforcing rules need to understand the effects their enforcement of the rules will have on behavior. Think about a police officer who catches you speeding by 5 mph. He knows not to pull you over – 5 mph is within the margin of error for a radar gun and pulling you over will cost both you and the cop time and money. Thus, police exercise discretion in not pulling over marginal speeders. Here, the misuse of official discretion cost the Detroit Lions more than time and money; it cost them a 14 point lead over football’s most potent offense.

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Quick edit from Tyler:

Adrian is working up further discourse on this topic after the Broncos were nearly done in by a modified Hochuli Rule in the late game. In the 3rd quarter Roethlisberger made a slightly (but clearly) backwards throw that was dropped, but the referees blew the whistle for an incomplete, and even though the Broncos recovered cleanly, the Hochuli Rule does not apply to potentially backwards passes. It only applies when the quarterback may have fumbled the ball by having it slip out of his hand. Luckily, the Broncos still won (in over time). Tune in tomorrow for Adrian’s opinions about all of this. Now back to the post.

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Brees’s First Down

A less obvious, but no less significant, play took place when on 4th and 1 with New Orleans up 17-14. Drew Brees leapt over his offensive line and extended the ball to get a first down. This sustained a drive that would result in a Jimmy Graham touchdown. While I spent much of the game commending Brees and Sean Peyton for being rational and going for it on 4th down in mid-field (teams often punt in these situations even though punting actually decreases their win probability), here New Orleans should have turned the ball over. When Brees leapt over the pile, he extended the ball out past the first down marker, pulled it back when a Detroit defender lunged at the ball, and landed on top of the pile with the ball well short of the first down line. So, we have two questions here: 1) where was Brees “down” and 2) if you cross the first down line and are then ruled down behind it, do you still get the first down?

To answer both questions, let’s turn to the NFL Rule Book. On the first question, the book says:

Rule 2, Section 2, Article 1: Dead Ball Declared. An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended…

(b) when a runner is held or otherwise restrained so that his forward progress ends.

So we have the rule, let’s go to the video (the play in question starts at about five minutes). Brees clearly brings the ball back before his body stops moving forward. Even if Brees was hit by a Detroit lineman while he was at full extension the ball should not have been considered dead under the rule because the hit did not “hold or restrain” Brees’s forward progress. Brees pulled the ball back of his own volition, unimpeded by the defender.

Next, did the first down “attach” as soon as Brees crossed the first down line? The NFL rule book is pretty explicit about this: no.

Rule 2, Section 3, Article 1: New Series for Team A. A new series of four scrimmage downs is awarded to team A when…

(a)   During a given series, the ball is declared dead in possession of Team A while at or beyond the line to gain

Simply, even if Brees was beyond the first down line at one point, if he was declared down behind the line, he does not get the first down. This is a slight variation on an example in the NFL rule book (AR 7.6 for those so inclined) where a receiver catches a pass beyond the first down line, breaks a tackle, runs back, and then is tackled behind the line. The book states that he does not get the first down.

Phew. That took a while. The point of this is not to say that the Lions would have won the game but for the zebras; they likely still would have lost. Sorry Tyler, they were outplayed in nearly every facet of the game. What these plays show is that the official’s job is tough. The first situation shows a failure of the officiating crew to understand that it’s not enough for them to merely “call it as they see it” but that they must take into account the potential results of their decisions when blowing the whistle. The second play shows how even officials can get caught up in the tension of the situation. So wait until next year Lions fans! Suh and Fairley will be even better, Stafford and Megatron will continue to light up the scoreboard. But if you want to grumble about the result, those two calls made things much more difficult for your team.

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8 responses to “Were the Lions screwed by the officials? Adrian the Canadian speaks!

  1. “This is a slight variation on an example in the NFL rule book (AR 7.6 for those so inclined) where a receiver catches a pass beyond the first down line, breaks a tackle, runs back, and then is tackled behind the line. The book states that he does not get the first down.”

    The Brees play is different from the example in one significant aspect. In the NFL rule book, the receiver is “giving ground” in order to try to gain more yardage. In that case, the forward progress resets. But Brees’ pulling the ball in was only to avoid a fumble in the pileup — not to gain more yardage. Now, you may argue that risking a fumble is the price you pay for leaping over the line — but I could also argue that a player is allowed to “declare himself down” at various points during a play. And pulling the ball back was exactly that — after getting the first down, Brees was simply indicating that the play was over.

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  4. Interesting thought, although from a cursory search, the concept of “giving ground” doesn’t appear in the NFL rule book. This makes a lot of sense. We don’t want referees making judgments about player’s intent without an explicit signal. What if Brees intended to stick the ball out again? How is “giving ground” to avoid a tackle different from “giving ground” (by pulling the ball in to avoid the fumble)? In fact, the NFL rule book contemplates these problems – players who dive feet first are treated as though they have declared themselves down, and the ball is spotted at the start of the slide, while players who dive head first are afforded no such protection.

  5. Well, refs need to determine players’ intent all the time (intentional grounding, personal foul, facemask, running into the kicker) so I don’t agree with that statement.

    I personally don’t like the idea of quarterbacks sneaking over and back again. But I think that rule clarification is needed here and I still think that a case can be made for interpreting “forward progress” as it was ruled (whether implicitly or explicitly) with Brees on Saturday night:

    If Brees had tried to stick the ball out again, and it went further the 2nd time, I’d claim that the play should over with the forward progress reached the first time. To me, pulling the ball in is a pretty explicit signal, in that scenario, that the QB wants the play to be over where the forward progress was achieved. Besides “giving ground”, I’ll state another argument — the idea of forward progress (in my opinion) is supposed to 1) prevent defense from picking the guy up and carrying him backwards and 2) prevent defense from holding the guy up while another strips the ball. So per the latter argument, since all Brees wants is to prevent the ball from being stripped, then he should be allowed to use the forward progress rule to do that.

    In the case of a ball carrier in the grasp of a defender who sticks the ball out before being dragged backwards by defenders — you would agree that forward progress goes to the point where the ball was stuck out? In the case with Brees, I don’t see what difference it makes that a defender hadn’t yet emerged from the pile to drag him backwards — by pulling in the ball, Brees was giving himself up and stopping the play by granting the defense with a stop at that point of forward progress.

  6. Looking at the rules cited, it seems like the crux of the argument is whether Brees’s forward progress is defined by his body or the ball. If it’s defined by the ball and he was being held by the legs by a defender, then his forward progress presumably could have ended with the ball fully extended. If it’s defined by his body, then his forward progress was not stopped, as Adrian argues. It seems like referees use the position of the ball, but this could be clarified in the rules. Does that seem fair?

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