Week 17: Packers at Vikings
Fortunately, there are likely only 11 more games where the rule for prohibited coach’s challenges is in effect. The Competition Committee is all but certain to modify the rule in the offseason.
Basically, the rule has two aspects, which we have already explained in detail. If a coach challenges a play that is under the exclusive domain of the replay official to challenge, the coach is assessed a 15-yard penalty. The enforcement nightmare is on the second aspect: if the coach’s challenge flag is thrown before the replay official has called for a review, then the replay official is at that point prohibited from reviewing the play for a call benefiting that coach’s team. (This leads to a slew of what-ifs, but, simply, no reversal can favor that team.)
In the final week of the regular season, Packers coach Mike McCarthy threw a challenge flag on a fumble play (video). But did McCarthy throw the flag prior to the replay official buzzing the pager worn by referee Mike Carey?
“We can’t tell specifically when those happened,” said Carey in a post-game interview with a pool reporter. “[Coach McCarthy] is at my back, and I got a buzz and about the same time they said that he threw the flag. I can’t tell which one happened first. The replay [official] said he buzzed right away. In that situation, we’re allowed to review the play.”
And therein lies another problematic layer to the rule. Carey has the replay pager which will vibrate when there is a challenge from the replay booth. The head linesman and line judge are on the sidelines, and are usually the first to observe the challenge flag. Since Carey did not see a flag prior to being paged, he must call what he observed: pager first, then the flag. The sideline officials cannot overrule his judgement, because neither knows when the pager was buzzed. They may only give Carey a frame of reference to make a determination (such as, “the flag came while you were huddled with the back judge,” or “I blew my whistle when the flag was down”). There is no protocol for the replay official to intervene in a non-replay judgement, so the replay official could not say that he buzzed the field before the red flag.
In this case, McCarthy was lucky it only cost his team 15 yards and not seven points. And it is quite problematic that Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson knew the rules better than his own coach, when Nelson tried to scoop up the challenge flag before the officials noticed. (Nelson was not successful in that endeavor.)
Until then, the twelve playoff-bound coaches must use their discretion and their brains before throwing a challenge flag, which includes McCarthy.
Image removed at the request of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Media pool report with Mike Carey
Q: Can you take us through the touchdown, the review of the fumble and the sequence of reviewing when the challenge flag comes out from McCarthy and when the buzz comes out from up top?
Carey: We can’t tell specifically when those happened. He’s at my back, and I got a buzz and about the same time they said that he threw the flag. I can’t tell which one happened first. The replay said he buzzed right away. In that situation, we’re allowed to review the play. He was still penalized 15 yards, but we’re allowed to review the play.
Q: So you feel the buzz? And at that point, nothing that comes from the sideline matters as much?
Carey: It matters as far as a penalty is concerned. If the buzz comes before the flag, then we’re allowed to review the play.
Q: At what point would the play become unreviewable?
Carey: If the flag came well before the buzz.
Q: Did you guys have to discuss which came first there?
Carey: No, because they’re telling me and I feel it. I can’t distinguish, but it felt like the buzz came before it. They’re telling me that the flag came first.
Q: What was your explanation to Coach Frazier?
Carey: Precisely that.
Q: So the difference between this and the Houston vs. Detroit (Thanksgiving) game would have been that the challenge came before the buzz?
Carey: It came immediately before it at Detroit. Here I think there was a time delay, and the buzz came before. It’s an automatically reviewable play.