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Leavy’s empty-hand ruling close. Correct?

Week 13: Falcons at Texans

1st Quarter | 8:24 remaining | no score | Texans ball | 3rd & 7 @ ATL 14 | video

Well, this one is weird, to say the least.

Texans quarterback T.J. Yates throws an apparent incomplete pass while he is being hit. As the ball rolls without a whistle being blown, Falcons safety James Sanders astutely grabs the ball and runs 90 yards for a touchdown. Since the play was not ruled dead, Sanders correctly played it as a fumble, not an incompletion.

The matter of the touchdown became moot, because players from both benches began to enter the field, believing the play to be over. This resulted in offsetting illegal substitution penalties, but the fumble still counted. The ball was returned to the spot when the fouls occurred, at the Falcons’ 35-yard line.

Because of the penalty, the touchdown came off the board, and thus the rule that all scoring plays are subject to video review did not apply. Houston had to use a coach’s challenge in order to have the play reviewed.

Referee Bill Leavy ruled that the play was confirmed, even though it seemed to be a forward-throwing motion. I had to replay this several times, and there was no clear evidence that the pass preceded the hit. Yes, Yates’ arm was going forward, but if it is coincidental with a defensive tackle, then it becomes a forced fumble, not a forward pass.

I would have ruled it a pass, but I can see that there is not enough passing motion visible to rule so on a replay.  Also, keep in mind that Leavy has 60 seconds to review the play, so there are only so many shuttles of the tape that can be done in that time, while also reviewing all other aspects of the full play.

Incidentally, the Falcons were intercepted three plays later. The Texans kicked a field goal; if there was a replay reversal, it would have been fourth down, and presumably it would have also resulted in a field goal.

What is your opinion? Should the play have been reversed to an incomplete pass?

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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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4 thoughts on “Leavy’s empty-hand ruling close. Correct?

  1. Ben,

    To say you understand why the referee didn’t overturn the call is pretty outrageous. All hyperbole aside, that was the worst instant replay review I have seen in my entire life. Not one person in the sports bar felt any other way. They screamed “fire him” and “that’s outrageous”, and the majority of these bar patrons were unbiased observers there to watch their own team.

    The reason both benches cleared is because it was so over the top obvious that it was a forward pass attempt. Every single replay shows that the arm was going forward as part of his throwing motion and not as a result of being hit, so I have no clue where that hypothesis came from. How could the ball have gone that far forward without being part of a throwing motion to begin with. Every time I think of it a little anger boils inside of me. Unfortunately, it is just one more case of a sports official’s arrogance leading him to over-analyzing a rule.

  2. I don’t dispute that Yates was intending to pass. However, his throwing motion must commence before his arm is hit, otherwise it is a fumble. From the rulebook, Rule 1, Section 22, Article 2:

    Note 1: When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional movement forward of his hand starts a forward pass. If a [defensive] player contacts the passer or the ball after forward movement begins, and the ball leaves the passer’s hand, a forward pass is ruled, regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player.

    The so-called “empty hand” rule is derived from this, as the key words are “after forward movement begins.” The ball may go forward by your deliberate action, however that forward motion must precede being stuffed by the defender.

    When it is a bang-bang play like that, there is no evidence of an existing forward motion first, so it counts as a fumble, even though the ball was mostly propelled by a half-hearted effort to launch a pass.

    You are correct. It very much looked like an incomplete pass. The fact that it was being ruled a fumble may not have been obvious to most, but at least one person, James Sanders of the Falcons, realized otherwise. It is why you play to the whistle.

    However, according to the rules, and not by gut reaction, I have yet to see any definitive forward motion of the ball prior to the arm being hit.

  3. Ben,
    This is silly, Physics say things at rest tend to stay at rest and objects in motion tend to stay in motion. If his arm and hand and ball were not in motion (Forward Pass) then the ball will not have traveled 20 yards down the field, it would have fallen in the backfield to be recovered, no replay should even had been required. What makes this so senseless and stupid of a call is the pure obvious nature that it was a forward pass that was blocked or in this case hampered the compete throwing motion. I defy you or anyone else to throw a ball 20 yards without your arm with the ball moving forward. This is why in all cases, but this one, the refs just goes and picks up the ball and moves on to the next play.

  4. I also would like to point out that this inability in the refs to make accurate calls has increased the length of the games. Now every incomplete pass is picked up and ran with until you hear a whistle, since no one knows what the refs might call. Also not pointed out was the ref on the side lines waving his arms for an incomplete pass. Of course he never came forward to say sorry I blew it dead. Since I TIVO’ed the game I could go back and analyze each part..

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