The officials lost control of the Monday Night Football Game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos on one play. The breakdown happened with :02 in the first quarter as Knowshon Moreno fumbled the ball and there was a huge pile up (video). What followed was six minutes of mayhem. The officials awarded the ball to Atlanta, even though a Denver player came out of the pile holding the ball. To make matters worse, tempers flared up on the periphery of the pile, and developed into a serious battle drawing personal foul flags. It took the officials six minutes to determine possession and enforce the penalty.
What should officials do when there is a fumble and pile-up? We’ve all heard stories about all the fighting, gouging, and biting that goes on in the pile. The ball may change hands several times before the officials get to the to bottom, so it is imperative for the officials to determine possession as soon as possible. Depending on the pile, the first two or three officials to arrive at the pile start peeling players off the top of the pile and dig to the bottom. The secondary officials make sure the recently peeled off players stay off the pile. It is also vital for at least one official to “orbit” the pile and make sure the players milling about don’t get into a fight. Once the officials see a player with the ball, they award that player’s team the possession, and try to get the game re-started as soon as possible.
The big break down in Atlanta was in two parts. First, why did the officials award Atlanta the ball when a Denver player came out of the pile? I don’t know, but it is possible the Atlanta player, once he heard the official declare Falcons possession, relaxed his hold on the ball and the Denver player snatched it away and tried to trick the officials into a different ruling. We probably will never know. The second, more egregious breakdown happened when an official didn’t orbit the pile watching out for trouble. Well, trouble broke out (see photo, an ESPN screen shot published online by USA Today), and players, coaches, and others mixed it up. It could have developed into a major brawl. When the smoke cleared, Atlanta was mad that it was penalized for a personal foul in the fight, and Denver Broncos coach, John Fox, was apoplectic over the ruling giving the ball to the Falcons. The replacement officials looked confused, unsure, and after that incident, it appeared they did not have credibility with either team.
Fumble pile-ups are one of the most intense moments in a football game. Possession and game momentum are on the line. Players are screaming that their team has the ball. Some might be trying to trick the officials into awarding possession to their team. All of those high emotions with both teams fighting for the ball can make for a potential physical confrontation. The fumble pile-up requires teamwork by the officials to decide possession as quickly as possible while trying to prevent a fight.
The replacement officials in Atlanta on Monday night did a poor job on both counts.