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Browns missed momentum shift on an ‘incomplete backward pass’

Two officials see the same play from opposite angles. How is a lateral pass ruled forward or backwards?



Week 4: Bengals at Browns

The Browns were trailing 21-0 entering the third quarter, and needed a big break to potentially turn the game around. On a first down, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton fired a quick lateral pass that was broken up by Browns cornerback Jason McCourty. As soon as the pass was released, there was a question as to whether the pass was going forward or backward.

Obviously, if it was a backward pass it would have been a loose ball and recoverable by the Browns after McCourty blocked the pass. The Browns lost the opportunity to recover the ball and get a potential touchdown return when down judge Sarah Thomas blew the play dead waving the pass incomplete. The whistle came so quickly, it was questionable if there was enough time to evaluate whether or not it was a forward pass.

The drive continued, and the Bengals dominated throughout, so it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. However there is a possibility that a momentum-shifting play at the beginning of the second half may have altered the game. It’s a big what-if, but what-ifs are about all Browns fans can use right now.

The question is, was the play officiated properly?

On plays of this nature, it is a common officiating mechanic to let the play run out. If there is even a shade of doubt between a play that can be shut down vs. one that could run out, the official should favor letting the play run to a conclusion. The rationale is that in a conference at the conclusion of the play they can always go back to the spot where it would have been blown dead. However you can’t go back past a whistle. While that is an accepted mechanic, if an official is 100% certain they have a dead ball, they should absolutely make that call on the field and shut the play down.

We would have to assume that Thomas saw something on this play that was indisputably a forward pass and thus incomplete. Thomas was positioned at the line of scrimmage about 2½ yards away from the ball — which is the proper position for the down judge. In this case, she would have an odd angle to determine if the flight of the ball was forward, parallel to, or backwards in relation to the line of scrimmage. A quick whistle with little time to process the play might have people doubting Thomas on the call, but we should give her the benefit that she saw something.

However, the proper officiating mechanic is that the line judge rules on forward and backward passes. In college, a head linesman (sorry for the terminology crossover) can rule on a quick-fire pass right off the snap, but otherwise this is in the line judge’s jurisdiction.  No doubt the NFL has similar wording in their officiating manual, but here’s where a dilemma was raised.

In the NFL, the down judge remains on the line of scrimmage (when the goal line isn’t threatened), but the line judge does have the ability to float between the line of scrimmage and the spot of the ball, based on that official’s preference. And the problem is that line judge Mark Steinkerchner punched his hand to the right indicating a backward pass.

Between Steinkerchner signaling backward pass and Thomas signaling incomplete, there are dueling signals. Referee Ron Torbert had to conference with the officials to come up with the ruling on the play. In this case there’s not much to discuss because Thomas’s signal wins out as it kills the play. The only other ruling the crew can call is an inadvertent whistle, but instead Steinkerchner opted to defer on his call.

This was challenged by the Browns, hoping to get a change of possession, even though they wouldn’t be awarded any return yardage. The determination is made from the point where Dalton released the ball to where McCourty was the first to touch the pass; from there it is simple geometry of two points on a line. Replays showed the pass was parallel to the line of scrimmage, which, by rule, is considered backwards. The call from the officiating command center was “stands,” meaning the incomplete call is upheld. This is similar to how other close replays have been called this season, but it is also raises the specter from fans that feel it avoids telegraphing that one of those dueling signals was incorrect.

And, to address the inevitable from the Cleveland faithful: yes, there was another quick whistle by Thomas during the same week last year that apparently cost the Browns possession of the ball. Thomas had ruled possession prior to the ball disappearing into a fumble scrum, despite the fact that the Browns emerged from the pile with the ball. In that situation, we also said that Thomas gets the benefit of the doubt because no replay showed whether there was a recovery or not. That remains true: if she saw something definitive, shut it down and make the call. But it is also inescapable that there were two quick, somewhat unconventional calls by the same official.

Hopefully, this is not the case, but the takeaway for officials at all levels is slow and steady is always the best practice.

Rich Madrid and Patrick Weber contributed to this report.

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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