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It’s no good; it’s a runback; it’s a safety; no, it’s not: Unraveling Austin’s missed field-goal return



Week 9: Rams at 49ers (video at :57)

[Post updated to include pool reporter interview with referee Jerome Boger]

The 49ers missed a field goal attempt, and Rams receiver Tavon Austin caught the ball in bounds. He attempted to return the kick, and the entire ball exited the end zone. Austin was tackled in the end zone, but the officials ruled this down at the 1-yard line.

Austin caught a huge break on this play. Once the ball leaves the end zone, if Austin subsequently retreats into the end zone, then the Rams provided the impetus to put the ball into the end zone. (Compare to the Cowboys impetus ruling from Monday night.) The ruling on the field was that the ball was dead at the 1 due to Austin’s forward progress. This is reviewable even though forward progress is generally not, since the determination of a dead ball at the goal line is reviewable.

Under review, if any part of the ball breaks the plane of the goal, it would be a safety. However, there is no definitive angle, because the cameras were set for a field-goal attempt, and not a potential goal-line play. Therefore, the ruling stands as called, with the Austin’s forward progress puts the ball at the 1.

Let us run down a series of what-ifs (which we will assume time remains on the clock for the sake of illustration):

  • If Austin lunges back for the field of play after being wrapped up at the 1-yard line, his forward progress spot could be reset in the end zone and ruled a safety
  • If Austin was tackled in the end zone before the ball fully left the end zone, then it is a touchback.
  • If Austin kneels without leaving the end zone, then it is a touchback.
  • If Austin catches the ball with his foot on the end line or if he catches the ball before he establishes two feet in bounds, it is a missed field goal, and returns to the spot of the kick.
  • If Austin is out of bounds during the kick and reestablishes himself in the end zone, the play continues. Illegal touching does not apply to the receiving team.

Post-game interview

A pool reporter asked referee Jerome Boger about this play, a challenge by Rams coach Jeff Fisher, and the fumble by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the end of the game.

Q: What was the ruling on the field?

Boger: The ruling on the field was that the ball carrier brought the ball out onto the field of play, and there was contact by the defender that forced him back into the end zone.

Q: So he was on the field of play. He was forced back in. Did the replay show you anything conclusive?

Boger: Not really because there was no shot down the actual goal line. It was off the goal line. So maybe if we had a shot right down the goal line we could have looked at that aspect, but there was no shot available.

Q: So basically the call was not confirmed, it just wasn’t conclusive enough.

Boger: It stands.

Q: Now, can we ask about the Fisher challenge call?

Boger: Well, on the Fisher challenge where it wasn’t allowed because he didn’t understand that the rule on the field was forward progress. He thought we were ruling on down by contact and a clear recovery that could be challenged. But actually he couldn’t hear the announcement that the ruling on the field was that forward progress had been stopped prior after the ball coming loose. That is not challengeable.

Q: Is it common courtesy to clarify if there is a miscommunication or he couldn’t hear?

Boger: Yes it is. That’s right, as to what he thinks he is challenging. Because he is on the competition committee, he knew as soon as I said that the ruling was forward progress. He said that is not what he understood. He thought it was down by contact.

Q: [About the replay review] on the last play of the game?

Boger: On the last play it went into a pile, and there was nothing we could see that could change the ruling on the field.

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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