Ultimately would be 4th down again, not automatic 1st down
Week 9: Colts at Texans (video at :53)
“The Texans looked to have got away with one,” said NBC announcer Al Michaels, as the Texans snap the ball to eliminate the possibility of the previous play being challenged.
On a 4th-and-9 punt, Colts punter Pat McAfee plunked a wobbly punt that appeared to be partially blocked by linebacker Bryan Braman. The replay shown on TV revealed that Braman did not touch the ball but did run into the kicking foot of McAfee, which was what gave the punted ball the appearance of being blocked. Referee Bill Vinovich did not penalize Braman for contacting the punter, because it is not a foul as long as the rushing defender touches the ball. It is a real-time judgement call, but the Colts have no recourse to change the ruling.
Or, do they? Colts coach Chuck Pagano sure thinks so:
So, you ask those guys and I asked and was told that it wasn’t challengeable, but apparently it is a challengeable play. … I guess [the league] came back and talking to our people and looking back on it, there is something in the rule book there that says you can apparently. We’re going to investigate it further and make sure I don’t miss that.
The replay system is specifically limited to situations that mostly involve two categories: the lines (boundaries, goal, first down, scrimmage) and status of loose balls (recovered, caught, touched, and tipped passes, kicks, and fumbles). Penalties are not generally under review, although penalties can be called or voided in limited circumstances, for example, 12 players on the field or a foul related to one of the two major categories (such as illegally touching a pass after stepping out of bounds). It cannot be used to determine personal fouls or pass interference for good reason.
If the opposite play result happened — if Braman was penalized and he touched the ball — replay could certainly use the reviewable play labeled (d)(3): “whether a kick has been touched” to reverse the foul. I contended that when the phantom punt block occurred, the penalty could not come out of replay. Not only would the referee have to determine the kick was touched, but also that the contact with the kicker was a foul, which places it outside of the scope of replay, even if obvious.
Officiating sources are telling Football Zebras that this is an approved replay usage: to call a foul for running into or roughing the kicker in precisely this situation. “This has not always been the case,” according to one source. Because the referee is the one judging the actions against the punter, the officiating department has determined he can then assess a 5- or 15-yard penalty for the contact. In this case, it was contact to the kicking leg, so it would have only been a 5-yard penalty, and the Colts would have had 4th-and-4. (See Sunday’s quick calls for details and the rules citation.)
This is a particular concern: as someone who writes about the rules, I was surprised that I was not aware this was reviewable. Former officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos told me he was not aware of this until after the game. And Vinovich or a member of his crew was also not aware when Pagano was given misleading information.
Part of this is an organizational symptom as all of the replay rules are contained in Rule 15, which largely enumerates the officials’ duties and jurisdictions, but doesn’t have much in the way of playing rules. The descriptions of reviewable plays are sparse at best, which may be deliberate to allow for unusual circumstances. There was an effort to clarify the wording of the replay section of Rule 15 in the offseason, which was helpful. But the true “rules” of replay are not clearly articulated, relegated to so-called margin notes by the officials, and leaving coaches uninformed of their options.
Perhaps the Competition Committee or the officiating office will consider placing replay in a dedicated Rule chapter, just like there is for the wonky specifications of the game ball, the fair catch rules (only two pages), and the guidelines for team captains. When the game pivots on such crucial interpretations, it should not be shoehorned in by way of fragmented sentences and bullet lists.
Or maybe the NFL needs to assign 32 rules parliamentarians to hang out on the sidelines.
Image: NFL/NBC Sports/Game Rewind