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A backward pass can be ruled forward, but wasn’t for Packers

The Packers found themselves in a deep hole on the scoreboard that hinged on a judgement call that allowed a Falcons defensive touchdown to stand.

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Week 2: Packers at Falcons (video)

On the opening drive of the second half, the Packers found themselves in a deep hole on the scoreboard that hinged on a judgement call that allowed a Falcons defensive touchdown to stand.

With an imminent sack, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers floated a pass towards the sideline. There was momentary confusion and no whistle, so Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant scooped up the loose ball and ran in for a score. The officials determined it was a backward pass, making it a free ball, and returned for a touchdown. Replay did not change the ruling, opting for “stands.”

The call does raise a few question marks, which then hampered the ability for replay to properly review the call.

When a quarterback is contacted in the act of passing, it is ruled a forward pass if the quarterback’s arm is moving forward, even if the flight of the ball goes backwards. This is a judgement call by the referee, but frequently the quarterback is given deference that it was intended to go forward, especially if it could go either way. In this case, Rodgers was clearly being contacted when he released the errant pass. One factor that can be a small part of the equation is that there was no player behind Rodgers, so why would there be an intent to throw backward pass to no one?

There was no eligible receiver anywhere near the flight of the pass, so if a forward pass was ruled, it would be intentional grounding. While this rule also has a judgement for a quarterback being contacted, there was no favorable trajectory for Rodgers if there wasn’t defensive contact. Therefore, it would be appropriate to not grant deference to the quarterback and rule intentional grounding.

Replay cannot rule on either of these judgement calls, it may only decide if the ball went forward or backwards/laterally. There is a bit of a hedge in there: if referee Walt Anderson had announced something like “there is no intentional grounding because it was a backwards pass,” and if replay ruled it was a forward pass, it allows the grounding call to be made by “reversing” the announcement. There was no such announcement, so a reversal would only be an incomplete pass — intentional grounding cannot be added on in replay.

The replay showed that the ball traveled laterally with no conclusive shot showing that the ball went forward from the point of Rodgers’ release to the spot where it touched the ground. Both points were between the same hash marks, so no reversal could be ruled.

It very hard to defend the call that this was a backward pass without granting the defensive-contact exception to the forward pass rule. 

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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