A slight tweak to the instant replay casebook has modified a previous rule regarding the reversal of an incomplete pass to a catch and subsequent fumble. Under the new interpretation, when an official rules incomplete pass on the field and there is no clear recovery of the ball as players begin to disperse, the ball will be awarded to the offense at the spot of the catch if the replay review results in a reversal to a catch and fumble. Under the previous rule, there could be no reversal if no clear recovery was made, so even if the ruling of incomplete pass was incorrect, the catch would not be awarded.
The text below is the clause in the instant replay casebook that allows a reversal even in the absence of a clear recovery.
When a pass is ruled incomplete, either team can challenge that it was a catch and fumble and that they gained possession of the ball. If replays show that it was a catch and fumble, the ball will be awarded at the spot of recovery to the team that recovers the ball in the immediate continuing action. If on-field officials make a preliminary ruling of which team recovered the ball, that preliminary ruling constitutes a clear recovery. If there is no clear recovery, the ball will be awarded to the team last in possession at the spot where possession was lost. On fourth down or inside two minutes, the ball will be brought back to the spot of the fumble if recovered beyond it.
This section tucked deep into the bowels of the instant replay casebook came to light during the 2018 Wild Card Playoff between the Eagles and Bears. Late in the second quarter, a play which back judge Todd Prukop ruled as an incomplete pass was subject to review, and although referee Tony Corrente indicated (without actually saying it) that the ball was caught and then fumbled, he stated that no clear recovery of the ball meant that the ruling of incomplete pass would stand. Video of the play appears below.
The ruling baffled NBC television broadcasters Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, as well as the network’s rules analyst, former referee Terry McAulay, who was in his first season with the network after retiring from the field following the 2017 season. McAulay explained during the replay review that the ball should have been awarded to Chicago at the spot of the fumble, and that a reversal to a completed pass should not have been disallowed. Seemingly unaware of the exception in the casebook, Michaels even joked with McAulay, suggesting that the league may have been making rulings up on the fly, to which McAulay hesitantly agreed.
The rationale behind the previous iteration of the rule stemmed from the 2014 rule change which added the recovery of a loose ball to the list of reviewable plays. Traditionally, prior to the 2014 season, the complete vs. incomplete portion and the play and the recovery of the ball were considered two separate acts, but since 2014, it became possible to reverse an incomplete pass to catch, fumble, and recovery. The rule in its previous form basically said the reversal cannot be completed unless all three of the requirements are met: a catch, a fumble, and a recovery.
Under the new rule, McAulay’s reasoning in the 2018 Wild Card game prevails, and even without a clear recovery, an incomplete pass reversed to a catch/fumble will now go to the offense at the spot where the ball was fumbled. While this tweak may not come up often in NFL games this season, it is certainly a fix to the old rule where long gains could have been ignored if the ball lied on the field without anyone picking it up.