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Week 15

Riveron reverses Cowboys botched coin toss, setting a dangerous precedent for intervention

It’s a philosophical choice. Do we skirt or out-and-out break the rules to make sure the common sense thing happens, or do we enforce the rules and make a stupid mistake have a consequence to the team who committed the stupid mistake?



It’s a philosophical choice. Do we skirt or out-and-out break the rules to make sure the common sense thing happens, or do we enforce the rules and make a stupid mistake have a consequence to the team who committed the stupid mistake?

The Rams lost the coin toss, and quarterback Dak Prescott had to select the Cowboys option for the first half. There are two options, noted in the book as “privileges”:

  1. Receive or kick
  2. Which goal to defend

Because they won the toss, they are allowed to either defer their first choice of privileges to the second half, or declare an option #1 or #2 for the first half. The rule on the coin flip options is the same at all levels of football, and the option to select “kick” is older than the NFL itself. The defer option was added to the NFL rules in 2008.

The choice from Prescott did not go smoothly. The exchange with referee Walt Anderson went this way.

Prescott: We want to play defense. We want to kick it. Kicking it that way.

Anderson: You want to kick.

Prescott: We defer to the second half.

Anderson: Okay, you’re gonna kick.

By doing so, the Cowboys were resign to the fact that they would kick off both halves. This is reminiscent of the Abner Haynes in the 1962 AFL championship game, where he famously said “we’ll kick to the clock.” Referee Harold Bourne accepted the word kick without regard to field position.

In this case Prescott clearly said kick twice, even though he added “that way” on his second utterance. But the rule is clear and unambiguous. The captain’s first choice cannot be changed, under Rule 4-2-2:

A captain’s first choice from any alternative privileges listed above is final and not subject to change.

Obviously, what Prescott wanted to do, by any measure of strategy, is “defer.” This means the Rams get the first choice of #1 or #2 for the first half, and the Cowboys get first choice at the second half. Basically, it is reversing the result of the coin toss to get the choice after halftime. But, Prescott said he would kick, which is Option #1. That gives the Rams the #2 choice in the first half. Rams will then have first choice in the second half, and likely will elect to receive. The Cowboys won the toss, and have the honor of kicking off for both halves!

Or so we thought.

Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron used very questionable reasoning to intervene and give the Cowboys the ball in the second half. (We only know that centralized replay intervened, and a decision of this magnitude would be made by Riveron and not one of the replay deputies. We do not know if Riveron was pressured by someone else above him.) Rams coach Sean McVay was unaware of this reversal when the team emerged for the second half, according to Fox Sports reporter Erin Andrews, which obviously disadvantages the Rams halftime strategy. This is an extraordinary use of powers that he doesn’t even have and sets a dangerous precedent in Riveron’s ability to insert himself into the game. 

As relayed on the game broadcast by Mike Pereira, the rules analyst who once had Riveron’s position, Riveron used the following justification that the coin flip is a “game administration” aspect, as listed under Rule 15-3-9:

The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating department may consult with on-field officials, or conduct a replay review, of game administration issues, including: (a) penalty enforcement; (b) the proper down; (c) spot of a foul; and (d) the game clock.

This is a marginal opening for Riveron, but one that’s loosely parallel to the unwritten procedure that allows replay to get involved in spotting aggressors in fights that occur during pregame warmups. However, the authority of replay comes to an end once a play has been run. Not only is this egregious exercise of authority not supported by the rules, but it leaves the league in a precarious position, long after Riveron leaves his post, of having the ability to retroactively apply judgment.

What happens when a crew drops a down, and it’s not discovered until three plays later? 

What if there should be time left on the clock on the next-to-last down of the game?

How much pine tar was on that bat?

What happens when in a conference championship game — ?

Anderson was correct to take the clear choice of kick, although in the case of Haynes, a case can be made that “we’ll kick to the clock” is not a valid choice, since it presents two answers. Literally, the word kick came first for Haynes, which is what the referee went with on that day. Here, Prescott said he would kick, then kick in a direction, then defer after questioned by the referee. Even though the first choice is irrevocable, should a referee exercise preventative officiating and clarify an unusual choice? If a referee is placed in a position to make these decisions, should his boss parachute into the game and make an apparent equity decision that actually creates other inequities?

All of the above considered, the game finished without Riveron commenting through a press release or tweet how or why this change was made. This is completely unacceptable, and exceeds the poor decision to remain silent following the 2018 NFC Conference Championship controversy. In the fourth quarter of the Sunday night game, the NFL released the pool report that Riveron conducted with Calvin Watkins of the Dallas Morning News. Riveron did not address the irrevocability of the first choice nor when he interceded in reversing the coin-toss option.

The intervention from Riveron aside, the weirdness is usually found in the overtime flip, when teams sometimes opt to kick off in overtime, and it is another entry in a historical list of coin toss flubs.

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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