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Revoked replay review result of repeated rulebook revisions

Week 12: Texans at Lions (video)

It’s said that the penalty should fit the crime, but because of a continuously revised rulebook, a pair of rules that once made sense had combined into a seemingly harsh penalty.

The rule is simple, and Lions coach Jim Schwartz realized it when it was explained to him: if the play cannot be challenged because it is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the replay official, it’s an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. If the replay official has not committed to a review, the challenge flag then freezes the replay official’s ability to review the play for that team’s benefit. (This does not prevent the replay official from reviewing a play in the other team’s benefit. In this case, if the Lions didn’t throw a red flag, but the Texans did, the play would still be reviewable and overturned in the Lions’ benefit.)

As it happened in the third quarter, a touchdown run where Texans running back Justin Forsett was clearly down, clearly could not be overturned because Schwartz threw the challenge flag immediately, well before the replay official could even consider initiating the review. (The same happened to Falcons coach Mike Smith just four days earlier on a turnover challenge.)

But why such a harsh penalty? There are two separate revisions to the rulebook that have come crashing together to cause Schwartz to be denied a certain reversal.

Prior to all touchdowns and all turnover plays being reviewable only on the replay official’s discretion, a coach was able to challenge just about any play, as long as it wasn’t after the two-minute warning. (Also, challenges have never been permitted if a coach had used his available challenges or did not have a timeout remaining.) However, coaches were using the red flag to stop play to argue over calls. To avoid this misuse of the challenge system, it became a 15-yard penalty in 2005 to challenge when prohibited to do so. And at that time it was simple: put the red flag away at the two minute warning, after the second challenge, or after the final timeout was taken.

Also, a loophole in the rules allowed a team that took an intentional foul to buy extra time for a replay challenge — either for their own coach or the replay official. Mike Pereira, who was then the vice president of officiating, said in 2009 it would be legal to do so. Any penalty which prevented the snap from happening kept the previous play available for review, including intentional encroachment penalties to stop a hurry-up offense or delay of game penalties by the offense. The Competition Committee closed that loophole by declaring a team may not benefit from a challenge when a team has committed a foul to delay the next snap.

As the rule was written, the intent was to include any between-downs foul that afforded a team extra time to consider a challenge (or the replay official for that matter). And, so, the 15-yarder that was instituted in 2005 for an illegal challenge was lumped into this category.

By adding turnover plays and touchdowns to the mix of the replay official’s domain, now individual plays became unchallengeable. Instead of following the proviso that a coach loses his challenges at a fixed time in the game — the two-minute warning, the second challenge, the third timeout — the challenge window opens and shuts depending on the result of the play. It is like remembering i before e except after c in grade school, and then you misspell neighbor and weigh on the next test.

As long as coaches can keep that red flag under control for the remainder of the season and the postseason, they won’t have to worry about this rule next year. It is sure to be on the top of the Competition Committee agenda in March.

(We have added this item to the Competition Committee mock agenda, which we will discuss at the end of the season.)

Image removed at the request of the Pro Football Hall of Fame

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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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10 thoughts on “Revoked replay review result of repeated rulebook revisions

  1. If there is a foul that delays the next snap, the team committing that foul will no longer be able to challenge the previous ruling – NFL Rulebook 2012 – Rule 15 Section 9
    How was the next snap delayed if the touchdown is automatically reviewed?
    Bad Call!
    Also it dose not say anything about “team cannot benefit from illegal challenge” as I heard several commentators say was the reason for no review.

  2. To me, the ‘seemingly harsh penalty’ is somewhat important to the Lions organization / fans. That the coach went along with this ruling in post-game interview, shows that it isn’t a huge deal in the scheme of things, from a Lions perspective.

    But it is a ‘seemingly harsh penalty’ for all those who are fans of the NFL and who question or address the integrity of the game based on this ruling. For me, this has become the epitome of what current NFL fans are willing to go along with regardless of the outcome.

    In an effort to avoid misuse of the challenge system, the NFL officials have manifested a situation where, fairly clearly, the NFL is misusing the challenge system.

    I’ve reviewed portions of the rulebook as result of this play and cannot find any mention of “illegally throwing a challenge flag” hence that rule is not actually a rule. So, then one might search on “delay of game” and/or “unsportsmanlike” terms to see how these address the Schwartz situation. And as the rulebook is currently written, these do not. Instead Schwartz was throwing a challenge flag on a play that is legally reviewable (see Rule 15, sec. 9, (c) 1). Therefore, it can only be a technicality that would prevent a legally reviewable play from being reviewable.

    And in my reading / understanding of the NFL rulebook, this technicality ruling is a misapplication of the stated rules around both delay of game and unsportsmanlike violations.

    Proper officiating would be to tell this coach to pick up his flag and to give him a warning. A 15 yard penalty could be assessed, though even that is debatable. If a second incidence of this caliber were to occur in that same game, the proper ruling would be to disqualify this coach from the field of play. Some might argue, that it ought to occur on the first incident, and perhaps as a matter of setting precedence, it could go that way. But as the precedent has already been set that even the NFL is capable of misusing the challenge system, then I think a warning to a coach who is acting emotional, albeit reasonable, within such a situation is proper, as long as it is understood that a 2nd incident will result in that coach being ejected from the game.

  3. Proper officiating would follow the rulebook. Since the rulebook does not proscribe for a “warning” of the coach, this would have been a double downgrade for the crew: one for the call on the field and one for the replay ruling.

    The rule, which I left out of the article due to length, is the following:

    [The replay official] must initiate a review before the next legal snap or kick and cannot initiate a review of any ruling against a team that commits a foul that delays the next snap. …

    Penalty: For initiating a challenge when a team is prohibited from doing so: Loss of 15 yards

    Coaches are aware of this rule, because all the teams received a video from Carl Johnson, vp of officiating, in the preseason. This penalty is mentioned in the narration.

  4. The alleged foul didn’t delay the next snap.

    Or would delay the next snap to the same degree that an official review of that scoring play would delay the next snap. The exact same degree.

    Schwartz threw his challenge flag in response to a legally reviewable play (see Rule 15, sec. 9, (c) 1)

  5. As a technical matter it does delay the snap. Because the assessment of the 15-yard penalty keeps the Texans from kicking the extra point, it causes a delay. It may not be clear in the wording of the rule, but it is how it has been enforced consistently for the last 7 years.

    Rule 15-9 (c) (1) states that it is reviewable, but a coach cannot review a touchdown play. Period. It is only reviewable for the replay official.

  6. You answered my question that ‘it may not be clear in the wording of the rule’ for I have not found what you are saying is in the rules. I believe it is not.

    Coach was not throwing flag in response to a touchdown ruling. From all that I’ve heard / read, the challenge flag was either ready to be tossed or was tossed before a touchdown occurred. He is clearly challenging the non-call of runner down by defensive contact.

    The assessment of the 15 yard penalty would not cause a reasonable delay on the next snap (kicking of extra point).

    Proper officiating does allow for disqualification of players and non-players for violation of rules. If this rule was enough to freeze officials from reviewing a play that pretty much everyone knows would be overturned, and a warning is not allowed, then a disqualification is merited.

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