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Don’t fix inadvertent whistle by pretending it never happened


Week 7: Vikings at Giants (video)

The Arkansas Association of High School Officials gets it. The NFL does not. If you are an official at any level, may I suggest you print this tweet, cut it out, and laminate it:

When one of the Big Five is missed, however, Rule Zero kicks in: “own your mistakes.”

On the second-worst Monday Night Football game in history, Marcus Sherels fielded a punt for the Vikings. On the return, he fell at the 12-yard line without being contacted by a Giants player and lost the ball. Since Sherels is not down by contact, this is a fumble. Back judge Greg Wilson ruled him down, and blew his whistle as the ball rolled to the 4-yard line. Field judge Gary Cavaletto ruled a fumble, as he threw his hat to mark the second change of possession, and marked a dead ball at the 4. Despite there being a recovery for the Giants, the officials on the field cannot give the Giants the ball. (Hold on, don’t get too far ahead of me.)

Because we have two decisions, there must be a consensus of the covering officials. They could rule the ball down at the 12 if they believe the erroneous down-by-contact ruling was correct. If the crew believes that there was a fumble, then it is an inadvertent whistle. And that’s where it gets a little complicated. If an inadvertent whistle comes during a loose ball (as it was here), the Vikings (being last in control of the ball) get two options: take the ball at the 12 (when they last had possession) or replay the down.

The crew may only spot the ball in one of two places — down at the 12 for the Vikings or repeat 4th down for the Giants. (Hold on, I’m getting to it.)

Corrente’s crew made a mistake that was not backed up in the rulebook: they declared Giants ball on the 4. That is fair, but it is not the rule. The whistle blew prior to the Giants recovering the ball, so they cannot be ruled in possession of it. It also means that Wilson did not own up to his whistle.

Replay can correct in limited circumstances. Now, I know that you are saying that a fumble recovery can be awarded after the whistle. That is correct, but it can only be done in replay. Officials on the field have to stick to the dead-ball ruling.

In the game, Corrente confirmed the call on the field because they went with the fumble recovery ruling, and the replay official can call for a review on a turnover. But, with an inadvertent whistle, the fumble never happened on the field, so Giants coach Tom Coughlin would have been required to use a coach’s challenge to get the ball.

The review would have reversed the Vikings possession, because the replay rules allow a fumble with clear and immediate recovery to continue past the whistle. It is the only action after a whistle (inadvertent or otherwise) that replay can consider.

There is no replay review allowed for the inadvertent whistle by itself, by Rule 15, Section 9:

Note: Non-reviewable plays include but are not limited to: …

8. Inadvertent/Erroneous Whistle

In the end, no matter what ruling was made on the field or whichever option the Vikings took under the inadvertent whistle rule, replay would have placed the ball at the 4, just like the play was ruled on the field. However, the Giants would have one less coach’s challenge available. It seems like warped reasoning, but inadvertent whistles are handled consistently, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Own up to your mistakes. Because the net result was the same, it doesn’t take away from the fact that a crew member decided to not come clean. Even venerable referee Jim Tunney had it happen to him, and he took responsibility for it.

Last year there were two high-profile inadvertent whistle situations. In one, the official covered it up awarding a   touchdown incorrectly, prompting his former boss to write that this is a terminable offense. In the second case, not only did the official own up to it, but he was then tasked to admit his error to the offending coach.

Perhaps there are some future officiating recruits from Arkansas now being scouted by the NFL.

Image: Ric Tapia/NFL

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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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2 thoughts on “Don’t fix inadvertent whistle by pretending it never happened

  1. I disagree with the portion in your posting that says recovery and thus continuation of the play can be made after an inadvertant whistle. Reason being that players are instructed and trained to play to the whistle. Once the whistle has blown play is dead. The reason it is dead is that most players let up or stop play upon hearing a whistle. Thus if the Viking players gave up on the fumble recovery due to the inadvertant whistle, the play cannot unfairly continue. You cannot speculate what would have happened on the play when some players hear a whistle and some don’t. A few years back you may recall this exact scenario with ref Ed Hoculi during the end of an important Broncos Chargers game… Even though replay showed the Chargers recovering a fumble the Broncos retained possesion due to inadvertant whistle.

  2. You actually lay out the circumstances perfectly for the opposite. Here’s why:

    The play that you referenced in the Broncos-Chargers game was the impetus for a rule modification. They wanted to allow replay to correct that, and the Competition Committee decided (after much deliberation) to allow replay to accept a post-whistle recovery in the action following the fumble.

    They were mindful of the fact that players routinely scoop up the loose ball regardless of the whistles. Now, every player is coached to consider a loose ball at the end of a play to be recoverable. So, players are not “letting up” in this situation.

    The rule as it is written allows an indisputable recovery (no piles or fumble scrums) to come after the whistle. But, this may only be done in a replay situation.

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