Week 4: Lions at Seahawks (video)
So it is a Monday night, an early season game at Seattle’s CenturyLink field. Lions driving for the north end zone. And that’s when the Ghost of the Fail Mary had reared itself.
Calvin Johnson — not a stranger to the quirks of the rules — caught a pass from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and was running to the end zone. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor puncheed the ball out before it crossed the goal line in Johnson’s possession. Bounding around in the back of the end zone, linebacker K.J. Wright made an astute play and tapped the ball out of the end zone for a touchback, Seahawks ball.
Or was it a heads-up play?
Wright’s actions constitute illegally batting the ball. When a player is in either end zone, a player may not bat or punch a loose ball in any direction. (This differs slightly from the field of play, where a ball is batted towards the opponent’s end zone is a foul, but not so in any other direction.) Because football is a game of possession, it’s not natural to have players legally swat the ball around to prevent the opponent from recovering. This is not a new rule: illegal batting was added to the rulebook in 1941 as a 15-yard penalty, and reduced to 10 yards in 1982.
Back judge Greg Wilson was on the endline. He did not initially signal touchback, apparently recognizing the potential for an illegal bat. One of the two wing officials on the goal line signaled touchback; in that case, it wouldn’t be uncommon for those officials to do so when the ball is clearly beyond the end line, so they are not ruling on the batted ball. There was apparently a very brief conference before referee Tony Corrente announced himself it was a touchback. Wilson did not throw a flag, and the Seahawks were allowed to retain possession 1st-and-10 at the 20.
If the foul was called, it would not be a safety because the Seahawks were not in possession. The Lions are responsible for putting the ball in the end zone, under football’s impetus rule, so there cannot be a safety until the Seahawks possess the ball and commit a foul in their end zone. The Seahawks cannot get possession of the ball if they committed a foul, so the penalty enforcement then reverts to the spot of the fumble, in this case a half-distance enforcement, with the Lions keeping the ball. If the foul is called.
Shouldn’t this be an automatic flag? Why was there any discussion? Any illegal bat is a judgement call. Wilson, without benefit of replay, must process the action he saw. Officials on these type of plays will cycle this through their head quickly as an accident reconstructionist might do, but in the span of a second or two, longer for more complicated items. Was it possible that Wright may have been making a partial attempt to make play on the ball? If Wright ran “through” the ball over the end line, it would have been a muffed recovery. Rule 3-2-3 states, “A Bat is the intentional striking of the ball with any part of the hand or arm.” Although Wright did propel the ball out of bounds with intent, did he strike the ball?
Typically an illegal bat involves a swipe or punch at a loose ball, and it is an academic call. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino recognized this was a judgement call, as he spoke on NFL Network and according to the league-provided transcript.
The rule itself, a bat is an intentional act, so there is subjectivity to it. The official has to see it and then he has to rule whether it was intentional. It could be a muff, it could just hit the player and bounce out of bounds, so he has to make all of those decisions in that split second that he has on the field and he felt it wasn’t an intentional, overt act, and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag, so it certainly is subjective.
In the end, the call was not correct, even though Blandino equivocates on Wilson’s judgement and the rule:
In looking at the replays, it looks like a bat. It looks like he does take his right hand and he bats it intentionally. Again, judgment call on the field. The back judge felt it wasn’t overt and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag.
The full video with his comments is below.
NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino comments on the Lions-Seahawks ending. http://t.co/BO90lIlUl8
— NFL (@NFL) October 6, 2015
The play is reviewable because it was a fumble out of bounds in the end zone, and it occurred after the two-minute warning. However, there is no reviewable element, since the batting aspect is a judgement call. Replay rules are rigid to measure the objective calls by design. Had this been allowed in replay, this would be up to Corrente’s judgement (with replay official Howard Slavin and either Blandino or senior supervisor Al Riveron consulting). As we found in 2013 on an illegal bat in the Dolphins-Patriots game, the judgement call might be mixed. Although the call must be right, the situation was hardly one where the Lions could have expected relief. And, unfortunately, there is but one person who is taking this harder than the Lions.
Corrente and Wilson were not available for a pool reporter interview after the game. The league’s statement on the play is the transcript of Blandino’s comments with questions asked by employees on the league’s television network.
The Ghost of the Fail Mary has an extra twisted sense of multilayered irony. Golden Tate, the Seahawks receiver who caught the Fail Mary, is now on the Lions. His hands went up in celebration in the end zone as it was apparent that Johnson was going to score — in the same end zone Tate scored against the Packers.
But a more striking oddity caps this unusual play. During the officials lockout in 2012, the league kept two set of assignment schedules: one had the union officials and one had the replacement officials. On that fateful day, Tony Corrente was scheduled to work the Packers-Seahawks game. The covering official on the Fail Mary would have been — Greg Wilson.
Image: Gavin Smith/Detroit Lions
Transcript of Blandino’s comments on NFL Network
Spero Dedes: Take us through this play in terms of the rule, are you allowed to bat the football out once you are in the end zone as we saw from KJ Wright?
Dean Blandino: So you can’t bat the ball in any direction in the end zone, in either end zone. KJ Wright batted the football. That is a foul for an illegal bat. The back judge was on the play. In his judgement he didn’t feel it was an overt act, so he didn’t throw the flag. In looking at the replays, it did look like a bat, so the enforcement would be, basically we would go back to the spot of the fumble, and Detroit would keep the football.
Brian Baldinger: So the ball would be back at the one-yard line then, Dean?
Blandino: Yes, it would go back to the spot of the fumble. You would enforce the foul half the distance from that spot had we called an illegal bat on the field. It is not reviewable in replay. That is specific in the replay rule. You can’t rule on an illegal bat in replay because again, it is a judgment call, it is an intentional act, and you can’t rule on that intent, so that is something that has to be called on the field.
Dedes: Dean, just hearing it in your voice, you’ve seen this video I’m sure a couple of times already, in your opinion, was it enough to warrant the penalty? Should the flag have been thrown?
Blandino: Yes, in looking at the replays, it looks like a bat. It looks like he does take his right hand and he bats it intentionally. Again, judgment call on the field. The back judge felt it wasn’t overt and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag.
Dedes: What can you say at this point to Detroit? Obviously it’s a great ending, it’s exciting, people are riveted at the end of the game, and this obviously is not the way you want to see the night end in terms of your officials, right?
Blandino: Absolutely not. We certainly want the game to be decided on the field. You know you can make a case, did that really have an effect, was that ball going out of bounds anyway, but still, it’s a foul, we have to make that call, and the enforcement would have given the ball back to Detroit.
Baldinger: Dean, you’re saying that the back judge didn’t feel like it was an overt act, so is it a subjective rule then?
Blandino: It is.
Baldinger: Is it really effecting the play? Does that come into play with it?
Blandino: The rule itself, a bat is an intentional act, so there is subjectivity to it. The official has to see it and then he has to rule whether it was intentional. It could be a muff, it could just hit the player and bounce out of bounds, so he has to make all of those decisions in that split second that he has on the field and he felt it wasn’t an intentional, overt act, and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag, so it certainly is subjective.
Dedes: Dean, this is such a crazy play, one that I have never seen before, I can’t speak for the guys, but this goes to the argument that there are certain plays that when they affect the outcome of the game at the end that should be reviewable that maybe aren’t at this point, is a play like this looking forward something that will be looked at, plays at the end that affect games should be reviewable?
Blandino: Sure, we look at all of these situations at the end of a game and decided whether it is reviewable or not. So this will be something that the Competition Committee takes a look at. Again, we try to stay away from subjective fouls, and this being one of them, similar to pass interference or offensive holding, so that’s why it hasn’t been reviewable, so I think it’s fair to say that the committee will look at this just like we look at other situations that occur throughout the year and decide if we need to add it to the list of reviewable plays.
Dedes: What’s the protocol now that something like this happens? Do you speak to both teams? Do you speak to Detroit? What’s the protocol in terms of talking to your own officials that were involved in the play?
Blandino: Sure, we’ll talk to the crew and we’ll get their input, certainly talk to the back judge, and then communicate with the teams, and give them the rundown of what happened and what we think should have happened and go from there.