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Steelers get second chance after replay erases TD, but turnover never happened

The rulebook exists to lay out a protocol for the game of football. It never claims to be fair.

The Dolphins found as much when they apparently sealed a victory, only to have replay give the Steelers a second chance to win the game.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scored a go-ahead touchdown, but fumbled the ball. The play was ruled a touchdown, but replay determined that Roethlisberger, indeed, fumbled prior to scoring the touchdown (video). The Dolphins claimed a recovery of the loose ball.

However, we could not explain the ultimate ruling any better than referee Gene Steratore, trying to channel the voluminous descriptions of some of his colleagues:

After review, it has been determined that prior to the ball crossing the goal line, the runner did lose possession of the ball. However, by rule in replay, two aspects of this play must be available to be viewed. Not only did we have to view the fumble being a fumble, we also have to have clear evidence of the team recovering the ball.

After review, we do not have clear evidence of the defense recovering the football. Therefore, Pittsburgh will have the ball, fourth and goal at the half-yard line. Miami will not be charged with a timeout, and the clock will start on the ready-for-play [signal].

My initial reaction is that the spot of the ball is incorrect. We know the ball was determined to have been fumbled, because the touchdown was overturned. Since we don’t have a conclusive recovery (according to replay rules), the ball is ruled dead at the point when there was a touchdown signal, regardless if there was a whistle. So the loose ball is ruled dead in the end zone, and the offense is responsible for putting the loose ball in the end zone, therefore, the correct ruling should be touchback, Dolphins ball.

There was a similar circumstance last year where replay determined the ball to be dead after touching an out-of-bounds player in the end zone. The result was a touchback for the other team.

Apparently, that reasoning only applies when the ball is out of bounds, not loose and dead in the end zone. Also, if you don’t recover your own team’s forward fumble (like when it goes out of bounds), the ball goes back to the spot of the fumble. (Update 10/30: Specific rules are cited in the comments by popular demand.)

And credit to Steratore for making the correct call, even though your gut might tell you the ruling would be otherwise.

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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3 thoughts on “Steelers get second chance after replay erases TD, but turnover never happened

  1. I don’t understand why the rule regarding spot of a dead ball only applies if the ball goes out of bounds and not when it’s in the end zone. You said, “Apparently”, but cited no rule.

    It would seem to me the two incidents are directly comparable. And if the Steelers-Dolphins ruling were correct than Jeff Triplette’s ruling was incorrect last year.

    Can you please clarify?

  2. Thank you for sharing an interesting new perspective on the play in question. My friend and I have been having a lively debate on the topic since the game ended. We are curious why you lay out an argument against the ruling made on the field, then dismiss it with an “apparently.” Are there conflicting rules in the rulebook?

    Lastly, and this is meant in no way to be a knock on your credibility, but why should we believe you are correct? Sorry, your bio is not available on the blog.

    Enjoyable reading- look forward to your response.

  3. The reason I laid out an argument for a particular ruling, and then deconstructed it, was to demonstrate a new interpretation to the play. I didn’t cite rules, because I was not going to overload the article, but I see there is a demand for it.

    Initially, my reason to award Miami the touchback was based on Rule 11, Section 6, Article 1 of the rulebook:

    Definition. It is a Touchback if the ball is dead on or behind the goal line a team is defending, provided that the impetus comes from an opponent, and that it is not a touchdown or an incomplete forward pass.

    By definition, Roethlisberger “put” the ball in the end zone (he provided the impetus) and that it was subsequently declared dead (7–4–1: An official shall declare dead ball and the down ended … (l) when a touchdown, touchback, safety, field goal, or Try has been made. Once a signal for a touchdown is made, the ball is dead, regardless if the touchdown call is overturned.)

    However, after the definition of a touchback, the next article in the rulebook illustrates certain situations that are touchbacks:

    When a team provides the impetus that sends a loose ball behind its opponent’s goal line, it is a touchback: (a) if the ball is dead in the opponent’s possession in its end zone; or (b) if the ball is out of bounds behind the goal line … [and a list of other situations related to kicking plays].

    There is no mention of a loose ball declared dead ball in the end zone, so therefore my touchback ruling, which matches the general definition, is not listed as applicable.

    The ruling that Steratore used is 7–4–5, which reverts the ball back to the spot of the fumble:

    A fumble by the offensive team cannot result in an advance by that team if the ball is not recovered in the field of play or end zone.

    As for those who wonder about my credibility, I complement or criticize the calls made just as any other fan. I don’t rest my opinions on any credentials other than those given to me by having watched the game from my favorite chair.

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