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Morelli crew gives Steelers 9-yd 1st down



Week 15: Jets at Steelers

A failure in basic officiating crew mechanics is rare in the NFL. While there is room for argument on a judgment call or a missed call, errors in mechanics are inexcusable.

In the second quarter on a first-and-10 play from the Jets 35, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall gained nine yards. Line judge John Hussey clearly spotted the ball at the 26, way short of the line to gain (video). The CBS yellow-line graphic is estimated by a technician outside of the stadium, so it cannot be counted on for accuracy. However, we don’t need the benefit of the first-down graphic; we can clearly see that the Steelers had to advance to the 25.

(A similar instance happened in Week 14 between the Redskins and Buccaneers, but ultimately it appears that there was confusion, not an incorrect call. We hope to have a post up on that soon.)

There are two first down markers: the 10-yard chain and a reference (or “auxilary”) marker placed on the first down line on the sideline opposite the chain. The chain is the official demarcation of a first down, and we can clearly see that both stakes are placed exactly on the 35- and 25-yard lines. That is what makes this even more troubling, because it is certainly easier to judge a first-down line that is on, rather than between, the five-yard intervals.

Although not seen in the video, referee Pete Morelli would have signaled first down after the run. Only then would the chain crew advance to mark a new set of downs. However, head linesman George Hayward has a responsibility for the chain crew, and in this case, should have been the first to step in to correct the error. Hussey, as line judge, and opposite the head linesman, should have been the second one to call out the error. In addition, umpire Ruben Fowler, while hovering over the ball to maintain the spot until the next play, should have noticed that the ball did not advance to the 25-yard stripe, when the previous down was dead on the 35-yard line.

The spot of the ball in relation to the first-down marker can be challenged in replay, but the Jets would have had to use one of their challenges.

The Steelers completed the drive with a touchdown. Following the erroneous first down, the Steelers had an incomplete pass and were sacked, which, not counting a different play selection based on the down, would have brought up a 4th-and-8.

An odd side effect of the phantom first down: fantasy football. Mendenhall rushed for exactly 100 yards, including the one yard the statisticians had to give him in order to credit him with the first down.