With just under seven minutes left in the 3rd quarter, the Houston Texans found themselves trailing the Detroit Lions 24-14 in their Thanksgiving match-up. Then Justin Forsett took a handoff from Matt Schaub and ran the ball for a six yard gain. Or what appeared to be a six yard gain. Or what should have been a six yard gain. Instead, after Forsett’s knee and and elbow contacted the ground (and thus ended the play) he kept running, going 81 yards for a touchdown.
Of course what should have happened is that a review of the play should have reversed the field decision and given the Texans the ball at their own 25 yard line, because all scoring plays are subject to booth review. Instead, the play was declared non-reviewable, and a touchdown that should never have been was allowed to stand.
How did this happen? Simply because Lions’ Head Coach Jim Schwartz threw the challenge flag on the play. In previous years such a play would have had to have been challenged from the sideline, but this year is the first season of reviewing all scoring plays. None the less, Schwartz’s emotions got the best of him, and the challenge flag was on the field before the play was even over.The officials then determined, as is outlined in NFL rules, that the challenge was illegal and unsportsmanlike, requiring a penalty against the Lions. Further, the rules state that the Lions then cannot benefit from a challenge, even one normally scheduled to take place, and the play was therefore deemed non-reviewable. To add insult to injury, Detroit was assessed a 15 yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff for the illegal challenge.
The Texans would go on to win the game 34-31 in overtime, leaving Lions’ fans outraged over the egregious call on the field that sparked the controversy. It was an error more befitting the replacement officials that we began the year with than the “real” officials, but they are human and screwed the call up on the field. And it only got worse from there.
I am not arguing that the call made the difference in the game. There was still well over a quarter of football to play, and both teams squandered opportunities to win the game in overtime before Shayne Graham finally connected on a 32 yard field goal with 2:21 left in the extra session to give the Texans the victory. The mistake simply became a part of the game, and the Lions had numerous opportunities to make sure that the play did not cost the Lions the game. The loss itself is on the Lions.
Nor am I arguing that the officials made the wrong call in their enforcement of replay rules. Point in fact, they enforced the rules exactly as they are written.
And that brings us to the real culprit; the rule itself.
Presumably, the NFL changed the rule this year to review all scoring plays in order to make sure that the officials got calls right on the plays that had the greatest impact on the game. Secondarily, I imagine that the rule was changed because the challenge system is inherently flawed; why is it the Head Coach’s responsibility to seek to correct the mistakes of the officials? Ever since the challenge system was created, I have advocated for booth review of all plays, buzzing down to the referees for further review whenever necessary. After all, if the emphasis is on getting it right, then let’s remove the doubt. Instead, the NFL created a ridiculous challenge system whereby coaches were given two challenges over the course of the game and, if they were better at officiating than the officials, they could earn a third for two successful challenges. So what if the officials make four mistakes against the same team? This arbitrary and illogical system seemed to straddle some strange concern over whether or not officials would be offended by the use of replay. My advice to the NFL? Get over it already. If we’re going to have replay, which only makes sense given the speed of the game and the technology available to us, then let’s use it to make sure that all calls are correct.
Even worse, instead of creating rules that reinforced the idea of getting calls right, the NFL adopted a rule penalizing a coach and team for an illegal challenge and then making plays non-reviewable. The only possible conclusion to the NFL’s logic is that it is more important to make sure that the Head Coach doesn’t throw a weighted red bag onto the field than it is to get the call right. Right? On what planet does it make sense to prioritize the convenience of the officials over the need to call the game right?
Jim Schwarz was overly gracious in taking full responsibility for the mistake by saying, “Yeah, I know that rule,” Schwartz said. “You can’t challenge a turnover or a scoring play and I overreacted. I was so mad that they didn’t call him down ’cause he was obviously down on the field. I had the flag out of my pocket before he even scored the touchdown. That’s all my fault. I overreacted in that situation and I cost us a touchdown.” No, Jim. It’s really not all your fault, at least not yours alone. This is also the fault of a system that was not very well thought out, and that considered getting the call right to be a secondary concern.
This rule is one that is likely to be changed, and the biggest wrangling seems to be over whether or not the change will occur during this season or if it will wait until after the season. In any event, it is unfortunate that a game as good as the one yesterday had to be tainted with such a horrible call on the field, and a ridiculous league rule that prevented a correction of the mistake. The call itself is no better, and probably worse, than the one made by replacement officials that awarded a touchdown to Golden Tate in the Seahawks’ win over the Packers. And this one was created by the guys we trust. At least in this case Forsett at least had the decency to later admit that he was down even if he didn’t think so at the time.
Ironically, this call was made by a field crew headed by Walt Coleman. Coleman is famous (or infamous) for being the referee who reversed his own decision in the famous 2002 “Tuck Rule” game (more appropriately referred to by Patriots’ fans as the Snow Bowl) which awarded the ball to the Patriots after Tom Brady had appeared to fumble. The Patriots, of course, went on to win due to two clutch field goals by Adam Vinatieri, and then went on to beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship before beating the St. Louis Rams to claim their first Super Bowl title. A huge difference, of course, was that the call on the field in the game yesterday was dead wrong, a major mistake by the officials on the field. In the 2002 game, the call on the field seemed to make sense from initial visible evidence (even Brady thought it was a fumble), but the replay was used to correct the call on the field to match NFL rules, whether or not one agreed with the rule. In the case of the tuck rule, eleven years later the rule is still in effect, is used at least a couple of times each season, and makes sense as a rule even if people disagree with its enforcement. In yesterday’s game, the officials were prevented from correcting their own mistake and conforming to league rules, because someone, somewhere was more worried about officials having to deal with an occasional bean bag being thrown out of order. And that rule gets our tag for being the dumbest rule ever.