Impetus rule. Cowboys defensive back J.J. Wilcox intercepted a first-quarter pass in the end zone and then subsequently fumbled the ball out of bounds in the end zone (video). When a ball is dead in the end zone, it is either a touchdown, a safety, or a touchback. We know what a touchdown is, but the safety/touchback decision can be murky. The call will rest on whose action placed the ball in the end zone, or in its non-physics sense, who provided the impetus to the ball going into the end zone. It does not hinge on which team created the dead ball.
In this case, the pass put the ball into the end zone, so Washington is responsible for putting it into the end zone. Even if Dallas tips the ball, redirecting it into the end zone, it is still a pass, and the offense is attributed to the impetus. Therefore, Wilcox’s fumble out of bounds is a touchback.
If Wilcox took the ball out of the end zone, retreated back into the end zone, and then fumbled, it would be a safety. In this case, the runner is charged with the impetus to make the ball re-enter the end zone.
Unsportsmanlike conduct/illegal substitution. Washington was penalized for an illegal substitution foul, typically a five-yard penalty. Referee Tony Corrente announced that it was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and subject to a 15-yard markoff. One of the incoming substitutes came into the huddle, but then did not participate in the down. Corrente’s crew assessed the harsher penalty under Rule 5-2-11:
Using entering substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players to confuse opponents, or lingering by players leaving the field when being replaced by a substitute, is unsportsmanlike conduct. … The offense is prevented from sending simulated substitutions onto the field toward its huddle and returning them to the sideline without completing the substitution in an attempt to confuse the defense.
There is, however, some discretion afforded by the officials to allow acts that are genuine confusion or legitimate changes in the play call.
Note: The intent of the rule is to prevent teams from using simulated substitutions to confuse an opponent, while still permitting a player (or players) to enter and leave without participating in a play in certain situations, such as a change in a coaching decision on fourth down, even though he has approached the huddle and communicated with a teammate. Similarly, if a player who participated in the previous play leaves the playing field by mistake, and returns to the playing field prior to the snap, he is not required to reach the inside of the field numerals, provided that the defense has the opportunity to match up with him.
Since the offense’s actions were not on screen for the duration, the play cannot be evaluated for that exception. (We will update if the NFL Game Rewind all-22 angle shows more.)
Missed holding for a safety? Near the end of regulation, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo evades a blitz and is able to complete a pass from his end zone. We will save this call for our Football Zebras Roundtable, but the initial thought is that there is not enough for an offensive holding foul. If a foul was called in the end zone, it would have been a safety.