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Week 4

Cleveland’s rage against the replay machine is justified

The euphoria quickly dispersed after a long week, and it all culminated on two calls that could have sealed a second victory for the Browns.



Week 4: Browns at Raiders

With the futility of the Browns franchise still strong despite a fleeting moment of jubilation last week. The euphoria quickly dispersed after a long week, and it all culminated on two calls that could have sealed a second victory for the Browns.

Near the end of regulation, the Browns were able to get a first down by just the nose of the football on a run by Carlos Hyde. There was a question if there was a favorable spot on the play, and being under two minutes in the half, it was sent to the replay command center in New York.

On a review for the line-to-gain, replay is looking for a definitive spot on the field to place the ball. When the play ends near the hashmarks, it is more of an academic exercise. But, any marking on the field can be used to mark a spot in replay, and even to subsequently measure if needed. In this case, we are in an empty grass area between the major yard stripes, and so there is nothing to provide a good reference point. The one exception would be a direct camera angle down the line-to-gain, in which case the ball can be moved back without an actual reference spot on the field. There was no angle shown that demonstrated this.

With that in mind, Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino — the former senior vice president of NFL officiating who essentially was part of the establishment the first-down replay mechanics — was rendered dumbfounded on live television when the replay center moved the ball back, bringing up fourth down. 

(After the punt, the Raiders tied the game and won in overtime.)

Many times the reviews of short/beyond first down wind up keeping the call on the field. The specifics outlined above to establish the required evidence are what makes a reversal so hard to come by. Replay determined in its judgement that the ball was short, using the position of the ball related to the elbow, even though that elbow was about 3 feet from a yard line. Or was it 3½?

It is possible that the spot on the field was determined when Hyde’s shoulder was down, when conferencing with the wing officials. By seeing Hyde’s elbow down, replay could have determined that the ball must come back from the original spot by the length of a forearm, but in doing so they would be forging completely new territory. That could be used when a knee is down well before a reach for the line, but not for different ends of the same body part.

Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Browns had what had the appearances of a fumble recovery and a likely touchdown return. It was whistled dead, however.

Obviously, referee Walt Anderson does not have a view on the ball popping out with players swarming the quarterback. So, on the assumption that Carr has the ball — and no other evidence to show otherwise — Anderson rules forward progress by Carr has been stopped. A forward progress call cannot be reviewed as a general matter.

Could this technically be an inadvertent whistle? You can make that argument, although it doesn’t help the Browns, as the only remedy is to replay the down, and inadvertent whistles are not reviewable.

Despite these restrictions, I would argue that it is still a reviewable play; replay can review an aspect of the play prior to a forward progress ruling or an inadvertent whistle. This would have to be challenged by the Browns, and might still face some resistance from Anderson on being “unreviewable.” If the coach persists, I think that the Browns can get awarded possession on the fumble recovery, however there would be no return.

In this case, we cannot get hung up on why the play was whistled dead. A fumble that is clearly a live ball can be reversed to a fumble recovery after the play is dead, provided the recovery is immediate. The rule does not care how the play was called dead.

An opposing argument is that the initial contact is a point that forward progress could be ruled, having nothing to do with when the forward progress is actually ruled. Since forward progress is a judgment call, you can’t put a marker on when it starts in a review, which is why it’s unreviewable. However, since the contact and the loose ball are simultaneous, there is a strong case that “simultaneous” overrides, because continued possession beyond initial contact is needed to rule progress.

It’s an unfortunate collection of circumstances to hit a team that has amassed a trove of unfortunate circumstances.

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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