It looked like a classic “recovery after the whistle” when Denver recovered Roethelisberger’s backwards pass in the third quarter (ruled incomplete). John Fox immediately threw the challenge flag, and we all expected the Hochuli Rule to be used, just like in the Lions – Saints game. However, the officials did not allow a challenge. Why not? Well, rules guru and aspiring lawyer Adrian the Canadian is better equipped to work through the arcane and contradictory NFL rule book than I am. Here’s his take for you enjoyment:
While many of you were watching yesterday’s Denver – Pittsburgh game and either reveling in the glory of the Tebow or cursing at your screen as he performed yet another “miracle,” I was watching for something else: another major NFL refereeing controversy. Fortunately (unfortunately?), Denver won the game and it didn’t matter. But if Pittsburgh had won, this is all that Skip Bayless and Co. would have talked about this morning. The issue, as always, is a bit more nuanced than the talking heads would have had us believe.
Midway through the third quarter, deep in his own half, Roethlisberger threw a backwards pass to his receiver, likely for one of Pittsburgh’s noted “gadget” plays. The receiver dropped the ball, the referee blew the whistle, and, just like in the Detroit – New Orleans game, the defense recovered in the action following the fumble. John Fox attempted to challenge the play and was told by the officials, according to Phil Simms, that the best he could get would be Pittsburgh ball at the spot where the referees blew the play dead. This ruling seems to be in tension with the Hochuli Rule as applied during the New Orleans/Detroit game yesterday. As I discussed yesterday, this rule allows a pass initially ruled “incomplete” to be challenged and ruled a fumble, although any return is nullified.
Moments after the Denver play, Former NFL Head of Officiating Mike Pereira did a good clean-up job on Pro Football Talk, trying to explain what Phil Simms and the officiating crew couldn’t: how to interpret the confusing, awkward NFL Rule Book. He distinguished between the two plays by saying that, in New Orleans, the Lions were challenging an incomplete forward pass as a fumble while, in Denver, the Broncos were challenging an incomplete forward pass as a backwards pass. This explanation sounds nice and tidy, but it’s a distinction without a difference; from the player’s perspective on the field, the consequences of both types of plays are exactly the same. Indeed, the NCAA does not draw a distinction here.
I think Pereira is doing a bad job of interpreting the NFL Rule Book here. To understand why, we need to engage in what lawyers call statutory interpretation – in normal people terms, we have to go to the Rule Book and figure out what it means. In order to do so, we also need some rules about how we are going to interpret the rules if things are unclear. I propose that when things seem contradictory or unclear we interpret the Rule Book using two principles that are relatively uncontested among lawyers: 1) we should seek to give force to the intent of the people who made that statute (the NFL Rule Book in our case) and 2) we should try and read the statute so that its rules are consistent and useable. So let’s go to the Rule Book:
The first thing that is important to note here is that Backwards Passes and Fumbles are both governed under Section 7 of the Rule Book. In Section 7, a backwards pass that isn’t caught is governed by the same rules as a fumble. From an enforcement perspective, they are nearly indistinguishable. I don’t think that the Rule Book should even mention backwards passes, they are just a type of “fumble,” but it does, so we have to deal with that.
So what happens if there is a backwards pass and it is blown dead early? Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 has our answer:
An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended … when an official sounds his whistle while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately;
(i) If the ball is in player possession, the team in possession may elect to put the ball in play where it has been declared dead or to replay the down.
(ii) If the ball is a loose ball resulting from a fumble, backward pass, or illegal forward pass, the team last in possession may elect to put the ball in play at the spot where possession was lost or to replay the down.
The Denver officials interpreted this portion of the Rule Book correctly. Furthermore, under Section 9, inadvertent whistles are not challengeable. So case closed? Not quite. This is where the Hochuli Rule comes in. This rule was designed to remedy situations where a fumble was improperly ruled an incomplete pass by allowing a coaches challenge. The text of the Hochuli Rule is found under Section 9, Reviewable Plays, (c):
(c) Other reviewable plays:
1. Runner ruled not down by defensive contact.
2. Runner ruled down by defensive contact when the recovery of a fumble by an opponent or a teammate occurs in the action that happens following the fumble.
3. Ruling of incomplete pass when the recovery of a passer’s fumble by an opponent or a teammate occurs in the action following the fumble.
This rule acts as an exception to the prohibition on the challenge of inadvertent whistles. In both the original Hochuli situation and the NO/Detroit game, the whistle clearly blew before the recovery but the recovery was allowed. Some have suggested that the ruling in the Denver game was correct because the whistle blew before the recovery. This interpretation cannot be correct (and Pereira does not reference it in his justification). To do so would be to violate our second rule of statutory interpretation. It would be nearly impossible to give effect to the Hochuli Rule as, almost by definition, incomplete passes will be blown dead as soon as the ball hits the ground. Similarly, the Hochuli Rule anticipates this by requiring that the recovery takes place “in the action that happens following the fumble.” This means that if the recovery does not take place during this action, the ball should be placed at the spot where possession was lost according to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1. Furthermore, the Hochuli Rule does not involve challenging an “inadvertent whistle.” Everyone admits there was a whistle, the question is whether the recovery of the fumble was sufficiently quick to justify awarding a change of possession. The question is simple; were the players still reacting to the play and not the whistle?
So we now have a consistent interpretation that seems to award possession to Denver. The recovery took place within a second of the backwards pass. It was pure reaction. However, the Hochuli Rule is poorly drafted. It only covers incomplete passes that were really “fumbles” but not incomplete passes that were really “backwards passes.” This is inconsistent because, as we’ve seen in Section 7, backwards passes are really just a subset of all fumbles. Lawyers call this “bad drafting.” According to Pereira officials should embrace this inconsistency even though it runs contrary to our intuition.
I think that there’s a better interpretation, although it involves looking beyond the “plain words” of the Rule Book and asking what the purpose of the Hochuli Rule was to begin with. For that answer, let’s ask Mike Pereira again. Speaking just after the original Hochuli controversy — involving a Jay Cutler fumble against San Diego in 2009 — Pereira says three interesting things. The first is that we can allow players to play through the whistle. No problem here. The second is that he wants be able to challenge an incomplete pass where the ball was actually loose on the field. Although he says “fumble” the ball wasn’t dislodged from Cutler by defensive contact; it was more akin to an inadvertent backwards pass!
Pereira seems to be more concerned with “loose balls” than some formal distinction between “fumbles” and “backwards passes.” Indeed, the third interesting thing is that Pereira suggests that this rule be extended to allow a change of possession where a play is incorrectly ruled a touchdown and there is a recovery immediately after. It is clear from Pereira’s comments that the intent of the rule is not to cover some narrow situation where an incomplete pass is ruled a fumble but to allow recovery in all situations where a loose ball is incorrectly blown dead and there is a recovery immediately after! This is the best interpretation of the Hochuli Rule: it allows for the challenge of all loose balls that were incorrectly blown dead and awards recovery where the recovery took place in the “action following the loose ball.”
Because of bad drafting, the NFL put itself in a difficult situation. Instead of using the best interpretation of the Rule Book, one that reads all the rules as consistent and enacts the interpretation of the drafters of the Rule Book, the NFL chose to interpret the exact language of the rule without regard to its actual meaning. This is understandable as the NFL has a strong preference for clear, precise rules that minimize referee discretion. However, this results in situations that seem both unfair and incorrect. I suggested yesterday that officials be reticent to blow borderline fumbles dead. This would have avoided this situation entirely. In the case where the play has been blown dead, I think that it’s important that the NFL gives consistent interpretation to its own rules so that they cover the situations they’re supposed to. Luckily for Denver, the magic of Tebow was much stronger than the murkiness of the NFL Rule Book.