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Unusual substitution call brings forth a substitute judgment call

Sources show conflicting information is coming from the league office over the Cowboys unusual substitution foul.



This past Sunday during the playoff game between Dallas and Green Bay, there was a somewhat controversial substitution infraction called against the Cowboys. The penalty was called because Cowboys receiver Brice Butler came off the sideline, entered the huddle, and left the field without participating in the play. This is not a typical 5-yard infraction, but a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. This is a somewhat rare call as the last one was in a 2014 game that coincidentally also featured the Cowboys and referee Tony Corrente.

Corrente explained the call after the game to a pool reporter:

They brought in a two-receiver set on a substitution, and number 19 [Butler] was one of those two players and came into the huddle, stayed in the huddle, then departed. He was substituted for. He has to stay either in the game or they can call a timeout to get out of it. Of course, he went out. It’s not an obscure rule, it’s just part of the substitution mechanics and part of the substitution rule.

This seemed to have been fine, until former football executive and current Fox Sports 1 contributor Michael Lombardi dropped a tweet that says the Cowboys an error by the crew.

Of course, this had huge ramifications on the game, and an alleged misapplication of this nature in a Divisional Playoff game, especially one that was decided by a field goal, would be a tremendous problem. Then, the league’s vice president of football communications contradicted the report, and said the call was correct.

According to Rule 5-2-5(b), if a substitute player approaches the huddle and communicates with a teammate, he must participate for at least one play. The penalty for this infraction — found in 5-2-8(e), mentioned by Signora — is a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. While the intent of the rule is to prevent deceptive substitution tactics by the offense, intent is not required for a foul to occur. There is a note that specifies an exception for a 4th down play where the special teams unit my initially come on the field and be replaced if the coach changes his mind and decides to go for it. 

During the play in question, Butler (number 19) clearly approaches the huddle before leaving the field (video). Since the play was then run, the call for unsportsmanlike conduct by Corrente was correct.  (The Cowboys could also call a timeout to prior to the snap to avoid the foul, which is why the flag is held until the snap.) 

Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino went further to state that he had no discussions with any of the teams over the call.

This effectively shuts the door on the the issue, if Blandino hasn’t had any conversation with the team, right? Not so fast.

So this means that someone from the league said to an unnamed team’s front office that the call was wrong. It would seem that such a discussion would have come from someone at an executive level in the league office, if a team was asking such a question over a rules interpretation.

This is strangely similar to a situation in 2014, where an executive had given a ruling before consulting the officiating arm of the NFL. After a game between Philadelphia and Washington, executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent came out and said that a penalty for unnecessary roughness on Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker was a legal hit. While he was speaking about whether a fine should be assessed, his comments implied that the referee (coincidentally, Corrente as well) erred on the call, when, in fact he was not marked down for an incorrect call. 

It seems that, yet again, someone in the league office — perhaps Vincent, perhaps another executive — has not learned from that misstep, and is speaking on rules matters, rather than deferring to the person who is authoritative in those discussions.

Patrick Weber is a four sport official working at the high school and college levels in football, baseball, basketball and soccer. He currently resides near Chicago, Illinois.

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