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A batted ball and a judgement call decide fortunes in Lions-Seahawks game

kjwright bat

Week 4: Lions at Seahawks (video)

So it is a Monday night, an early season game at Seattle’s CenturyLink field. Lions driving for the north end zone. And that’s when the Ghost of the Fail Mary had reared itself.

Calvin Johnson — not a stranger to the quirks of the rules — caught a pass from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and was running to the end zone. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor puncheed the ball out before it crossed the goal line in Johnson’s possession. Bounding around in the back of the end zone, linebacker K.J. Wright made an astute play and tapped the ball out of the end zone for a touchback, Seahawks ball.

Or was it a heads-up play?

Wright’s actions constitute illegally batting the ball. When a player is in either end zone, a player may not bat or punch a loose ball in any direction. (This differs slightly from the field of play, where a ball is batted towards the opponent’s end zone is a foul, but not so in any other direction.) Because football is a game of possession, it’s not natural to have players legally swat the ball around to prevent the opponent from recovering. This is not a new rule: illegal batting was added to the rulebook in 1941 as a 15-yard penalty, and reduced to 10 yards in 1982.

Back judge Greg Wilson was on the endline. He did not initially signal touchback, apparently recognizing the potential for an illegal bat. One of the two wing officials on the goal line signaled touchback; in that case, it wouldn’t be uncommon for those officials to do so when the ball is clearly beyond the end line, so they are not ruling on the batted ball. There was apparently a very brief conference before referee Tony Corrente announced himself it was a touchback. Wilson did not throw a flag, and the Seahawks were allowed to retain possession 1st-and-10 at the 20.

If the foul was called, it would not be a safety because the Seahawks were not in possession. The Lions are responsible for putting the ball in the end zone, under football’s impetus rule, so there cannot be a safety until the Seahawks possess the ball and commit a foul in their end zone. The Seahawks cannot get possession of the ball if they committed a foul, so the penalty enforcement then reverts to the spot of the fumble, in this case a half-distance enforcement, with the Lions keeping the ball. If the foul is called.

Shouldn’t this be an automatic flag? Why was there any discussion? Any illegal bat is a judgement call. Wilson, without benefit of replay, must process the action he saw. Officials on these type of plays will cycle this through their head quickly as an accident reconstructionist might do, but in the span of a second or two, longer for more complicated items. Was it possible that Wright may have been making a partial attempt to make play on the ball? If Wright ran “through” the ball over the end line, it would have been a muffed recovery. Rule 3-2-3 states, “A Bat is the intentional striking of the ball with any part of the hand or arm.” Although Wright did propel the ball out of bounds with intent, did he strike the ball?

Typically an illegal bat involves a swipe or punch at a loose ball, and it is an academic call. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino recognized this was a judgement call, as he spoke on NFL Network and according to the league-provided transcript.

The rule itself, a bat is an intentional act, so there is subjectivity to it.   The official has to see it and then he has to rule whether it was intentional.   It could be a muff, it could just hit the player and bounce out of bounds, so he has to make all of those decisions in that split second that he has on the field and he felt it wasn’t an intentional, overt act, and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag, so it certainly is subjective.

In the end, the call was not correct, even though Blandino equivocates on Wilson’s judgement and the rule:

In looking at the replays, it looks like a bat.   It looks like he does take his right hand and he bats it intentionally.   Again, judgment call on the field.   The back judge felt it wasn’t overt and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag.

The full video with his comments is below.

The play is reviewable because it was a fumble out of bounds in the end zone, and it occurred after the two-minute warning. However, there is no reviewable element, since the batting aspect is a judgement call. Replay rules are rigid to measure the objective calls by design. Had this been allowed in replay, this would be up to Corrente’s judgement (with replay official Howard Slavin and either Blandino or senior supervisor Al Riveron consulting). As we found in 2013 on an illegal bat in the Dolphins-Patriots game, the judgement call might be mixed. Although the call must be right, the situation was hardly one where the Lions could have expected relief. And, unfortunately, there is but one person who is taking this harder than the Lions.

Corrente and Wilson were not available for a pool reporter interview after the game. The league’s statement on the play is the transcript of Blandino’s comments with questions asked by employees on the league’s television network.

The Ghost of the Fail Mary has an extra twisted sense of multilayered irony. Golden Tate, the Seahawks receiver who caught the Fail Mary, is now on the Lions. His hands went up in celebration in the end zone as it was apparent that Johnson was going to score — in the same end zone Tate scored against the Packers.

But a more striking oddity caps this unusual play. During the officials lockout in 2012, the league kept two set of assignment schedules: one had the union officials and one had the replacement officials. On that fateful day, Tony Corrente was scheduled to work the Packers-Seahawks game. The covering official on the Fail Mary would have been — Greg Wilson.

Image: Gavin Smith/Detroit Lions

Transcript of Blandino’s comments on NFL Network

Spero Dedes:   Take us through this play in terms of the rule, are you allowed to bat the football out once you are in the end zone as we saw from KJ Wright?

Dean Blandino:   So you can’t bat the ball in any direction in the end zone, in either end zone.   KJ Wright batted the football.   That is a foul for an illegal bat.   The back judge was on the play. In his judgement he didn’t feel it was an overt act, so he didn’t throw the flag.   In looking at the replays, it did look like a bat, so the enforcement would be, basically we would go back to the spot of the fumble, and Detroit would keep the football.

Brian Baldinger: So the ball would be back at the one-yard line then, Dean?

Blandino: Yes, it would go back to the spot of the fumble.   You would enforce the foul half the distance from that spot had we called an illegal bat on the field.   It is not reviewable in replay.   That is specific in the replay rule. You can’t rule on an illegal bat in replay because again, it is a judgment call, it is an intentional act, and you can’t rule on that intent, so that is something that has to be called on the field.

Dedes:   Dean, just hearing it in your voice, you’ve seen this video I’m sure a couple of times already, in your opinion, was it enough to warrant the penalty? Should the flag have been thrown?

Blandino:   Yes, in looking at the replays, it looks like a bat.   It looks like he does take his right hand and he bats it intentionally.   Again, judgment call on the field.   The back judge felt it wasn’t overt and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag.

Dedes:   What can you say at this point to Detroit?   Obviously it’s a great ending, it’s exciting, people are riveted at the end of the game, and this obviously is not the way you want to see the night end in terms of your officials, right?

Blandino:   Absolutely not.   We certainly want the game to be decided on the field.   You know you can make a case, did that really have an effect, was that ball going out of bounds anyway, but still, it’s a foul, we have to make that call, and the enforcement would have given the ball back to Detroit.

Baldinger:   Dean, you’re saying that the back judge didn’t feel like it was an overt act, so is it a subjective rule then?

Blandino:   It is.

Baldinger:   Is it really effecting the play?   Does that come into play with it?

Blandino:   The rule itself, a bat is an intentional act, so there is subjectivity to it.   The official has to see it and then he has to rule whether it was intentional.   It could be a muff, it could just hit the player and bounce out of bounds, so he has to make all of those decisions in that split second that he has on the field and he felt it wasn’t an intentional, overt act, and that’s why he didn’t throw the flag, so it certainly is subjective.

Dedes:   Dean, this is such a crazy play, one that I have never seen before, I can’t speak for the guys, but this goes to the argument that there are certain plays that when they affect the outcome of the game at the end that should be reviewable that maybe aren’t at this point, is a play like this looking forward something that will be looked at, plays at the end that affect games should be reviewable?

Blandino: Sure, we look at all of these situations at the end of a game and decided whether it is reviewable or not.   So this will be something that the Competition Committee takes a look at. Again, we try to stay away from subjective fouls, and this being one of them, similar to pass interference or offensive holding, so that’s why it hasn’t been reviewable, so I think it’s fair to say that the committee will look at this just like we look at other situations that occur throughout the year and decide if we need to add it to the list of reviewable plays.

Dedes: What’s the protocol now that something like this happens?   Do you speak to both teams?   Do you speak to Detroit? What’s the protocol in terms of talking to your own officials that were involved in the play?

Blandino: Sure, we’ll talk to the crew and we’ll get their input, certainly talk to the back judge, and then communicate with the teams, and give them the rundown of what happened and what we think should have happened and go from there.

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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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29 thoughts on “A batted ball and a judgement call decide fortunes in Lions-Seahawks game

  1. What a sad pathetic joke the officiating in the NFL has become. The Back Judge was looking right at the play and he didn’t feel what the Seattle defender did was intentionally batting the ball out of bounds?! That is just not a believable excuse and besides, a dozen or more times a game you see the officials huddle, discuss the play and help the guy out on the call, why not get in a huddle here and tell the Back Judge to get the call right? I was watching a game this weekend where no flag was thrown on the play but it was an obvious penalty so the officials huddled up, discussed it, got the call right in the end and dropped the flag. Why not do that here? And the play can’t be reviewed because it is a “judgement call”? Yet all turn overs are supposed to be reviewable. Oh…..wait….only the START of the turn over part of the play is reviewable, not the END of the turn over play where the guy batts the ball out of bounds. What did the Detroit Lions ever do to the NFL and its pathetic officiating crews to deserve such treatment? Maybe Cam Newton can tell them? They must be “too young” to get that call?

  2. Honestly, I don’t think this was a terrible call. It was a bad call, because it was an intentional bat, but in real time it’s an easy thing to miss or misinterpret, and I don’t think it’s any worse than missing a holding call or a pass interference call which happen every week. Detroit shouldn’t have put themselves in a situation where they had to depend upon the referees to pull out a technicality to give Detroit another chance. This isn’t a fail mary atrociously bad call where the referee didn’t understand the rule for simultaneous catch. It was just a small thing that was missed that the Lions can whine about.

  3. JW–

    It was a terrible call for this reason, it’s apparent in real time that the player made no attempt to recover the fumble. He pushed one arm out and batted the ball. If both arms had come out and there was the appearance of an attempted recovery, you would have a great point.

  4. JW Your comment makes you appear as a Seattle fan trying to rationalize a win under questionable circumstances. I like this site because it looks through an unbiased lens and discusses the rules and the facts as they are not as what our emotions think they are. This was a bad call. Bad for the Lions, bad for the crew and bad for the integrity of the Shield

  5. I think football should change the possession rule to match basketball: when a fumbled ball goes out of bounds, possession is awarded to the team that did not touch the ball last. That would solve all these problems.

    In addition, every rule that involves intent or the judgment of the referee should be reviewed to see if the rule can be rewritten so that enforcement is purely mechanical and does not involve intent or judgement. That would ultimately make the game more fair.

  6. Watch the Back Judge in the video, he does place his hand on the flag as though he wants to throw it. He definitely “thought” about it and I think as he processed the “big” picture he thought that the ball was going to go out of bounds. The additional force of the bat may have helped the ball, but that’s what I think I would have ruled.

  7. First of all, thanks to whoever puts the time into this site. I love NFL football, and was a longtime hockey referee–so this scratches two itches for me. I love it–thanks!

    Now onto my comment: Part of the problem here is the stupid football rule that fumbles in the end zone result in touchbacks. What did Seattle do to deserve to get the ball on their own 20?

    If that fumble had bounced out of bounds on the 1-yard line it would Detroit ball and goal-to-go. Because it went slightly further it’s a change in possession and a gift of 20 yards. This makes no sense.

    If the rule were changed to give the ball to the fumbling team at the point of the fumble (can’t gain yardage via fumble idea), batting would become irrelevant–no defender would want to deliberately bat the ball out of bounds.

    As a Detroit fan, it’s hard to watch as the NFL has to apologize AGAIN for an obvious officiating error that materially affected an important game. We are certainly due for a gift “fail Mary” or two going our way…

    And finally a question: It seems like the league has decided that this was a boo-boo. Does that result in a downgrade just for the back judge, or does it fall on the referee too? (In other words, could this affect Tony Corrente’s (or any other crew member’s) postseason opportunities?)

  8. My question is why is this not a safety. The article suggests that “Lions are responsible for putting the ball in the end zone” but isn’t the push by the defender the “force” that sends the ball from the field of play into and out of the end zone???? If it goes out the backline then isn’t it a safety?

  9. Judgement call? Really? … I knew in real time, from 3000 miles away, on a crappy internet feed that that was an intentional batting of the ball. I’ve got no dog in this hunt as I’m not a fan of either team, but the Lions took one in the shorts last night. I agree with Mike V’s comment, the rule as it is currently implemented made that play a gift for the Seahawks, even if there were no batting.

  10. Coaches get fired for things going wrong in games.
    NFL officials? Not so much.

    Replay? Just more evidence that replay has never been about getting the call right – or it would be allowed in every situation, without penalty.

    I thought these were the best officials in sports? Or does this group of overpaid part-timers just have the best PR department?

  11. BPM you hit the nail on the head. These are overpaid part timers working in a union which imposes zero accountability. This call, as just about every call in the game, is a judgment call. Here, the judgment was clearly and unequivocally poor judgment. Even in real time, this is not a difficult call, such as would be an “illegal hit on a player in a defenseless posture” type call – did he hit the head neck area? Was it shoulder to shoulder? Etc. On this play, the BJ was looking right at it. Kudos to him for being where he needed to be. (See the internet for many of the close up videos/still shots.) But I refuse to accept the excuses propounded that this was a “judgment call” which bails the official out. He blew it. A better prepared official would not have blown this call. The defender smacked the ball OOB. There is no doubt. Having been there/done that and knowing what goes into the process? This was quite simply a lack of preparation for this play contingency. A top level official who truly practices his craft and wants to be the best (even though this type work ethic rarely gets you into the upper echelons of football officiating) knows what I mean. Many D2/D3 football officials who will never get the opportunity to advance, know what I am talking about. Those guys are the ones who deserve the opportunity, but because of lack of kinship and other baseless reasons, will toil at these levels for the rest of their careers. Anyway, what I mean by lack of preparation? A truly great official runs through scenarios in his mind all the time. A truly great official has an arsenal of “what if” plays in his head, ready to revert to the play situation when it happens in real time. A truly great official shares these scenarios in the weekly pre-game with his crew. Scenario, scenario and another scenario. These officials are earning tens of thousands of dollars and they need to spend more time in preparation. Then, the mistakes won’t be as rampant as they are today. And I won’t hear the excuse that the game is too fast. It is not too fast, for the superior official. The superior official is able to slow the play down in his mind, as it occurs. Pause. Reflect. React. All in seconds. That is how it is done. If this BJ had ever in his career thought about this play occurring (and it is a very possible play so the BJ should have this situation cemented in the recesses of his mind), the entire process would have slowed down for him. He would have seen the loose ball in the EZ. He would have immediately considered the possibilities – ball goes OOB I have a TB. Ball forced OOB I have an illegal bat and flag. Was it 4th down? Who recovered? Etc etc etc. Here? Defender clearly smacks the loose ball OOB. This prevents the offense from recovering in the EZ for a TD (precisely why the rule is in effect). Yes, there was an illegal bat. Yes, I reach for the flag. Yes, I pull the trigger. Yes, I reacted according to my preparation. And finally? We aren’t having this discussion.
    Unfortunately, with the union, these officials are able to keep their day job, and not devote 100% of their time to becoming great at their craft. Every other pro sports league has professional, full time officials. You don’t see this many botched calls in any other sport. Part of the reason is because the other sports have full time officials who have no other commitments taking time away from preparation. The league had the right idea in 2012. Bust up the cronyism in the union ranks, and make the officials accountable. Just like Major League Baseball did 20 or so years ago. It would have made a better product. Instead, we have to watch mistake after mistake after mistake by officials who not only are not the best in the country, but will not improve because there is no incentive to be great. Once you are in? You are in for life no matter how many calls you botch.

  12. Just to clarify: I think it was a bad call, I just don’t think it was any worse of a call than many bad calls that happen each week because of the speed of the game. It was a small technicality that should have been called and was missed.

    Truth be told, I think we’re all disappointed as football fans because everyone messed up here. The Seahawks messed up by letting the Lions back in the game. The Lions messed up by fumbling. The officials messed up by missing the overt bat. The announcers messed up by missing the officials’ mistake. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. And for the record, I’m a Green Bay fan who wanted Seattle to lose.

  13. Remember that when an official lets a holding call go because he didn’t “think” it was “bad enough” and it costs a team a game.

    Its a rule. Its a clear violation of said rule done directly in front of an official who KNEW the rule. And yet it wasn’t called and had a (very strong potentially) effect on the outcome of the game.

  14. @The Glenn:

    Agreed 100% with your comment.

    My analog is to “my” sport – Soccer, when a referee is empowered to, even in the face of a clear rule violation, choose not to call same (actually dismiss the foul, not a continuation) if it provides an “unjust result.”

    SEA made a spectacular play on the fumble and to take that away with the batting seems horribly unjust. It is a rule, and it was broken, we agree.

    If the foul was called, would justice to the game have been done with DET getting another bite of the apple?

    I think the BJ saw it, knew it, and let it go, knowing what was on the line, in a spectacular display of professional refereeing.


  15. Yes there would be justice as it is an obvious violation on the rule, in clear view of the official.

    If he “let it go” for any reason other than he didn’t think it was as obvious as everyone else in the world with at least one good eye did.

    I don’t see it as “professional” to allow that at all.

  16. @The Glenn, here is where we agree to disagree.

    It is easy to simply “call them as we see them.” I submit however, this would make any game unwatchable.

    It is the discerning referee who looks at the bigger picture and does what is right for the particular game, even in the face of a rule being broken.

    It happens all the time at the professional level where managing players and the game as a whole is what is paramount to come to a just result … and frankly is good for the product. That is the beautiful art of refereeing at the professional level.


  17. The beauty should be doing your job correctly. One good play doesn’t mean you just overlook everything else.

    Had there be a personal foul should it just be ignored since Kam made a heads up play?

    The “beauty” is that there are rules…and each team has to play by them…not that an official can say “Well gosh team A made a great play and then made a dumb one so I’m not going to call it”. Because then you have what many believe anyway…a league that decides what is best for the league and not what is actually happening on the field.

    That is nothing short of asinine.

  18. @The Glenn, I appreciate the sentiment and you are right that logically it does not make any sense.
    Rightly or wrongly, it is the way it works at that level however, as I know from experience.

    Be well.


  19. I think the significant point here is that the director of officiating of the NFL said publicly the foul should have been called. If the NFL wanted its officials to “play the advantage,” this would have been a superb opportunity to “defend the shield” and to praise the excellent judgment of the official.

    The league officer responsible, however, did not do that.

    I think the back judge just made a boo-boo. Had this been in the third quarter of a non-televised 45-0 game it would have gone forever unnoticed. Sometimes, though, refs make bad calls at the “wrong” time.

    It doesn’t mean this individual is a bad ref–in fact it sounds like he’s quite good. It was just a goof at a bad time. (Grrr, says that Lions fan.) But let’s not make up excuses for something that the league itself says was wrong.

  20. KB, but in my opinion, your logic is flawed. Your explanation is simply trying to explain away/justify a terrible no-call. You failed to follow your thoughtful analysis to the very end. First, as I stated above: If the process was followed (i.e. pause, reflect, react) and had this BJ gone over this very possible scenario in his mind by way of constant preparation/constant contemplating scenarios, he would not have frozen on this call but rather, per crystal clear rule, pulled the trigger.
    KB, your analysis is thoughtful, but it stops halfway through. Let’s take a moment to follow it through completely, to its logical end. You speak of Chancellor’s great play. It was. But continuing, should not a Detroit Lion have been permitted the opportunity to follow up with another great play? Of course. What you have completely missed in your analysis is that the defender’s actions by illegally batting the ball out of the EZ prevented any possibility of a Lion’s player from “making a great play” by recovering the ball for the go-ahead (and in all likelihood game winning) TD. This is the precise reason for the rule; and the precise reason the rule is in place. Chancellor made a great play knocking it out, but now that the ball is loose in the EZ? Each player has to have the unfettered right to recover the ball for either a score or a touchback. The illegal act (bat) by the Seahawk’s defender prevented any Lion’s player from making the second “great play. “ It’s an oblong ball and can bounce in any direction. The defender prevented this. Let’s call a spade a spade. This was a monumental blown call, akin to the botched call in the EZ 3 seasons ago which absent that would have ended the run of the union officials. The BJ here saw it, grabbed the flag, but froze when he should by all accounts have pulled the trigger. The rules (and equity) demanded this. Pure and simple, he froze when he should have thrown. His excuses immediately after the game are just that – excuses. If he truly wanted to be respected, he would have stepped up and said “I made a mistake.” As John Wooden said many years ago, “Never make excuses. Your friends don’t need them and your foes won’t believe them. “ We all remember our mistakes. To this day, and it still bothers me, I recall failing to pull the trigger on a hold by a defender against a hall of fame tight end, which resulted in a huge incompletion/drive stopping play. The evaluator said “You had your hand on the flag but you didn’t pull the trigger?” All I could say was “I blew the call.” It happens. Own it and move on. That is the key to success. This what this BJ should have done, rather than hide behind a flimsy excuse clearly prepared before he saw the replay. Perhaps if he saw the replay before making up an excuse, he would have owned his mistake. But I doubt it.

  21. CRV, please don’t bad mouth the officials. They’re more experienced in their craft than you ever were (assuming you aren’t lying). Please be more positive in your posting next time. Thank you.

  22. Why does the NFL make excuses for missed calls? The Back Judge had his hand on the flag and knew that it was an illegal bat but didn’t pull the trigger. What about the Field Judge, he had a good look at it also. This was a big game changer. Detroit fumbled the ball and the officials fumbled the call!

  23. The biggest issue I have is the integrity of Greg Wilson, the Back Judge. He knew it was a penalty, refused to call it for whatever reason, and lied by saying he thought it wasn’t “overt.” It was clearly batted out of bounds with a hand no matter what speed you are watching this game! Of course, he will not be held accountable and the mediocrity and cheating will continue!

  24. Anon: I am being truthful, not that it matters. Anyone with some modicum of knowledge regarding football officiating understands the foregoing analysis and critique. Only one uninformed would call critique/analysis “bad mouthing.” I provided an in-depth critical analysis of a blown call. Step by step, as any evaluator worth his salt would do. I have evaluated over 30,000 football plays over the past several years – NCAA and up, from a football officiating perspective. Clearly, you are unable to comprehend critique. Rather, you resort to name-calling. Re-read the post. Nothing but constructive critique on the how the call(s) was/were blown. If you can’t see this? Clearly you are not an official. Nor would you survive as an official.

  25. this was a bad no call no doubt, real sad thing this is a typical way seattle wins games seen it to many times missed calls, bad calls, stupid plays be other team ie packers championship game. So not very suprised

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