Week 11: Texans vs. Raiders
[Update: SVP/officiating Dean Blandino commented on these calls on NFL Network, which is at the bottom of this post.]
On Monday night in Mexico City, a few close calls went against the Texans that ruled players out of bounds and short of a first down. When it came time to potentially take another look at these situations in the game, replay was not able to overturn the calls.
Texans fans first got riled in the first quarter, when DeAndre Hopkins took off down the sideline for an apparent runaway score. At about the 36-yard line, line judge Bart Longson blew his whistle, killed the clock (which was mirrored by field judge Buddy Horton) and ruled Hopkins out of bounds.
Hopkins’ heel was clearly over the line — but the more difficult part to see is if it was touching the white. The sideline is not a plane, so the foot must actually contact the sideline to be ruled out of bounds. However, with the heel being far over that line, the official was obviously certain that it was touching as well, and shut it down accordingly.
Replay can’t step in on this play either. Once it is whistled dead, replay cannot make the play alive again or rule an obvious touchdown in the same form as it can on a review of an obvious fumble-recovery. If there was uncertainty that Hopkins stepped out, the protocol is to let the play run. Clearly, Longson had something to pin his call on — maybe a clump of white turf that we can’t see on TV — because he blew the play dead without equivocation.
Dean Blandino explained this further in his video below, including a reference to our inability to clearly see due to the camera angles.
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) November 22, 2016
The next controversial moment came in the fourth quarter in the midst of a tie game. The Texans were attempting to pass an elusive first down stake which was stationed at the 14-and-a-half yard-line.
Note that officials do not use this stake when spotting the ball. When watching each play, the official can be seen squaring off the spot, then walking in towards the action, facing the middle of the field the whole time. If facing the sideline, the view is of the players to prevent any dead-ball shenanigans, not to find the line to gain. Player control comes first, the spot comes next, and the result of the play with any reference to the line to gain happens last.
In cases such as these with the ball carrier being brought down in bounds, officials are paying very close attention to double action — or, what occurs when a player is down by rule at one point, but falls forward. For example, when a player’s knee hits the ground, but he then falls forward by a yard more, the ball is spotted where it was when the knee was down, not at the spot of the final fall.
This double action is the clear explanation on 2nd down in this series: Lamar Miller, with some key blocks, appears to have a hole but is tripped up and falls forward towards the line to gain.
When watched at full speed, Miller appears to fall just at or beyond the first down line. However as seen above, the right knee was down with the ball just beyond the 16. Thanks to effective observation of this double action, the head linesman spotted it exactly there.
If any play were to be challenged, the following effort on third down had the clearest frame of reference. Lamar Miller’s effort appeared to be enough for a first down, but it was spotted just short.
From the view above, it appears that the ball is almost touching the 14-yard-line, which would give the Texans a first down. ESPN only provided this still shot and not a full replay – it would have been up to the replay official to determine where the ball should have been marked. The Texans did not choose to challenge this play. The live camera shot below shows that the replay freeze frame was fairly generous, but it appeared to be enough for a first down.
In a later play, ESPN announcer Sean McDonough tells us, “We know from experience that yellow line is pretty accurate.” Contrary to this apparently popular belief, it’s clear to see given the spot of the red throw-down arrow (although also not official) and the first-down stake (the only official marker) that this line is off by about a ball length.
On the next play, there is much less of a frame of reference. On 4th down, Akim Hunt takes the handoff and plows through the middle. He was ruled short, a spot which Texans head coach Bill O’Brien challenged. It’s difficult to see from any angle a definitive view of where the ball should be placed, but the spot where the official marks the ball seems to be short of reality.
Whatever our speculation, once the red flag was thrown, replay found limitations. On this play, there’s nothing that gives the replay officials the ability to reposition the ball. There must be some physical field reference to do so (not the “pretty accurate” yellow line). With so many bodies in the frame, there is no hash mark or yard line to apply to the frame of reference. Other field markings may be used, but we see no other evidence besides grass and bodies. Given these limitations, conclusive evidence couldn’t be found, thus bringing about the ruling of “stands”.
In college and lower levels of football, it is common to spot the ball on a yard line when the first down is achieved to assist with the setting of the chains, but this is not the case in the NFL. Since statisticians would award an additional yard to the runner whenever the ball is touching a yard line, every yard can be a factor in lucrative contract incentives. Had the first down started exactly at the 24-yard line, there would be an extra visual cue on the initial spot and, if necessary, in replay.
Again, the official is not spotting the ball by comparing the spot to the first-down stake — he uses the ball, players, and field markings to make his determination on the field, and the position in relation to the line-to-gain comes later.
It is clear to see though that these third and fourth down spots aren’t perfectly accurate. Even with angled views, the ball appears to be closer to the 14-yard-line in both cases than where it was spotted just inside the 15. The views we have would suggest that the third down spot is about a half-yard short, and the fourth down spot is maybe a ball-length short. Officials rule on over a hundred spots per game, and inevitably some of those spots are off by small (yet sometimes significant) margins. In this case it happened to be significant with respect to a first down. Unfortunately, a spot in relation to a first down is one of the most elusive things to be changed via replay. Inches matter when the first down stake is in question, but when there is no reference point, replay has its hands tied.\
Update: Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino addressed these calls in the “Official Review” segment on NFL Network.
— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) November 23, 2016