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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?

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)