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Final analysis of the Lions eligibility reporting scheme

A final look at what the 3 Lions linemen and referee Brad Allen did on the failed 2-point conversion

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A look at the Lions linemen and referee Brad Allen on the failed 2-point conversion

As we saw last week, the Lions had their go-ahead 2-point conversion nullified at the end of the game because lineman Taylor Decker (#68) was intended to be the eligible player, but was flagged when he caught the pass.

Before I examine the play, one thing that is worth pointing out. While I have been accused of everything from being the designated referee apologist to being on the officiating department payroll, this is going to be examined based on the facts we have learned since Saturday’s game. Additionally, I will point out that I don’t have tolerance for administrative errors, and this site has lowered the boom on officials who misapply a rule or lose track of downs or timeouts.

During the pregame meetings, members of the officiating crew meet with both coaches simultaneously to ask if there are any trick plays. Lions coach Dan Campbell said after the game that he “explained everything pregame to a ‘T’” in that meeting, although the specifics that were shared were not said.

Incoming lineman Dan Skipper was on a beeline to Allen and had his hand up. While that was happening, lineman Penei Sewell (#58) and Decker approached Allen, and all Decker said was “reporting.” Allen took this to mean that it was Skipper (with his hand up) and not Decker (assumed to be calling attention to Decker), and points to Skipper in acknowledgment. Allen announced Skipper (#70) to the defense and over the public address system as the eligible player. (Frequently, these announcements are not heard on TV.)

Lineman are always responsible for the clear communication of reporting eligible to the referee. A signal — brushing his chest with both hands as if “erasing” the number — is typically given by linemen, and there have been times that the referee didn’t see the signal. Again, it goes back to the lineman to get some acknowledgment from the referee.

While this might have been explained to a “T” to the officiating crew, there is no way the officials would leave that meeting without saying that Allen would not be an agent of subterfuge. With two linemen in Allen’s vicinity, with one saying “reporting” and not “I am reporting eligible” or “Number 68 reporting eligible,” the attempt to confuse the defense created a nebulous reporting situation. If Skipper was not reporting eligible, he would have gone straight to the huddle.

The purpose was to confuse the Cowboys and to avoid a single lineman approaching the referee which would give the Cowboys extra seconds to adjust or send in a substitute. Otherwise, there is no reason for three linemen to go to the referee between plays unless there are multiple reporting linemen. (Campbell was mistaken that more than one player cannot report. It is possible to have all six eligible players be linemen that are reporting.)

One other point that was mentioned was that there were actually 3 fouls on the play, but only one announced. Because #70 (announced eligible) and #68 (intended eligible) are on the interior and end of the line respectively, that is an illegal formation. Additionally, Decker was an ineligible player downfield on the pass. The one that was announced was illegal touching of the pass by a lineman. (This particular penalty is not a loss of down; if an eligible receiver steps out and back in, that penalty carries a loss of down, resulting in an immediate failure of the conversion.) The other fouls did not have to be announced in this situation because they are all borne out of the same situation. (As an example, if there was a play where there are 12 players on the field, and the exiting player is moving in a forward motion and crosses the line of scrimmage, the referee would just announce the too-many-men foul and not mention the illegal motion and offside.)

Senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson sent a video to the teams explaining the reporting procedure.

Some have pointed out that Allen assumed Skipper was reporting eligible and never saw the eligible signal. The signal is not required, but it is part of the lineman’s methods of communicating. Skipper raised his hand earlier in the game, and did the same on the 2-point conversion. It was an ambiguous signal by design.

What is Allen’s role in this mistaken reporting situation? We have confirmed with various officiating sources that this play was graded as correct. Mechanically, since the game clock is stopped and they are coming out of a Cowboys timeout, Allen could have slowed things down, and ensured that he understood the command “reporting” from one player and a signaling lineman entering the game. However, we must also consider that had Allen done that, it would have thwarted Campbell’s attempt to establish an air of confusion on the defense. In an alternate universe, this also could have been a controversy.

This isn’t cover mode for Allen’s sake. It was reported by ESPN that Allen’s crew was “downgraded” for Saturday’s game, which is implying some extra sanction, when a downgrade just means that particular play is marked as an incorrect call, incorrect no-call, or incorrect judgment. The crew would not be downgraded for this play in any event, because it only involves the referee, and the league supports the call that Allen made based on the principle that linemen must clearly communicate eligibility.

While there is some things that could have been done better, those are with the benefit of hindsight. I think going forward, all referees will slow down and process the reporting situation and even pump the play clock up to 25 if the play clock is running and there is an administrative delay.

This post was updated to reflect that the play clock was stopped at 25 because of a Cowboys timeout, and not 20 for the replay booth to confirm the touchdown.

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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