Referee Scott Novak and umpire Ramon George faced a difficult and potentially dangerous play in Week 14: a fumble scramble turned into a surprising touchdown run for the Miami Dolphins.
There a few mechanics things to unpack here.
When there’s a fumble and the ball disappears under a pile of several players, the ball has to be dead, right? 99 times out of 100, it is dead. Until it isn’t. That’s why the officials are taught to “see leather.” In other words see the ball in the possession of a player who is down. Then, and only then, blow the whistle.
When there is a fumble, pile up and scrum, the officials are eager to shut things down. The longer the scrum the bigger risk of a fight. The whistle helps settle things. But officials have to be sure the play is over before sounding the whistle.
Also, note that George and Novak were on the north end of the pile, and the ball came squirting out of the south end of the pile. About a half ton of players were between the officials and the ball. Novak and George could not see through the players, let alone to the bottom of the pile. An inadvertent whistle is one of the most embarrassing mistakes an official can make. Can you imagine an IW wiping out that Tyreek Hill touchdown?
Gold star to Novak and George for good whistle discipline.
When there is a fumble pile up, it is vital for the officials to determine possession as quickly as possible. Novak and George were doing the right thing on this play. While holding the whistle, both officials were hurrying to the pile (called “crashing the pile” in officiating jargon), and were ready to dig for the ball. Suddenly, the play continued and they had to avoid knocking Hill down (or more likely Hill trucking them).
Officials have to be wary of a fumble suddenly bouncing towards them and 22 players willing to knock over every living thing on earth to get that ball. Clete Blakeman can attest from Super Bowl 50.
The longer the fumble is loose the bigger the chance an official has to blow an IW or get run over. Novak, George and their crew mates got to call one of the biggest plays of the year. Good discipline, good mechanics and guardian angles helped them rise to the occasion and make a great call for a great play.