The NFL officiating department took the unusual, but not unprecedented, step of adding an approved ruling to the current casebook, effective for the postseason. Small tweaks have been made in the past entering the postseason, which is deemed to be equitable when everyone’s record resets to 0-0. Last season, we noted that the replay standards that were heavy-handed in the regular season showed signs of aligning closer to the expected standard in the Wild Card round. This was even more apparent when a catch was upheld in the Super Bowl that might have been incomplete in the regular season.
Last season, the reason for the interpretation tweak was obvious. This one is not so obvious, as there are no situations that are even closely analogous to the new approved ruling. An approved ruling (denoted A.R., sequentially numbered in each rule chapter) gives an example of how a rule is to be carried out, or how the wording of the rules can be interpreted to certain situations. The new approved ruling reads as follows:
A.R. 15.128 NO CLEAR RECOVERY IN END ZONE
Second-and-10 on A2. QBA1 is hit while attempting to throw a forward pass and the Referee rules it an incomplete pass. The ball hits the ground and bounces back into the end zone where it goes into a pile of players from both teams. The ball is clearly in the end zone. Replays show that it was a fumble. B challenges the play.
Ruling: Reviewable. Safety. There is no clear recovery by Team B, so a touchdown cannot be awarded. However, someone recovered the ball in the end zone, so it is at least a safety. The on-field ruling of incomplete is therefore reversed to a safety.
This is a situation where there are two elements that apply in replay and a potential paradox: (1) whether there is a fumble and a clear recovery and (2) the involvement of the end zone.
To pull this apart, let’s look at a play from 2010 where the offense is on the other side of the field, threatening the defense’s end zone (video). Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is ruled to have scored a touchdown, but replays show he lost the ball prior to the goal line. For a fumble recovery to be awarded in replay, the recovery must clearly be visible on video. Although a Dolphins player claimed to have the ball, this was not visible, as the ball disappeared in a pile of players.
In this case, there cannot be a reversal to a fumble and recovery by the Dolphins. However, this does not mean the touchdown stands. Since the goal line is a reviewable element as well, replay can reverse the touchdown, and return the ball to the fumble spot, which is addressed in an existing A.R. in the casebook.
Moving ahead to the new A.R. for the postseason, this applies to a review in the offense’s end zone. Without the A.R., a fumble without a clear recovery causes the initial call of incomplete to stand. However, this addresses the fact that there is end zone involvement, and we at least have a dead-ball in the end zone if the referee had not initially called it an incomplete pass. A dead ball in any end zone is either a touchdown, a touchback, or a safety. Since possession cannot be judged, the lower scoring option prevails, and it is a safety.
The difference with the Roethlisberger reversed touchdown is that we do not revert back to the fumble spot in the new A.R. The dead-ball spot via replay has to be clearly in the end zone in order to award the safety. If, in a similar situation, the ball goes into a pile in the field of play, originating from the end zone, it cannot be part of a fourth-down or 2-minute fumble under the Holy Roller Rule, because we are not actually ruling an offensive recovery here.
It is possible during a Week 14 botched fumble review in which the Eagles were not awarded a recovered fumble on an overly strict interpretation, it spurred a conversation as to how the same play is handled in the end zone. Rather than hope it doesn’t come up in the postseason, the A.R. was issued.