Lions vs. Saints: Officials Make Correct Call on Drew Brees' Fumble
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For all the criticism levied against NFL officials this Wild Card Saturday, perhaps the strongest round of scoffing took place during the second quarter of the Detroit Lions vs. New Orleans Saints game.
In a span of mere seconds, Brees was on the ground, the ball was loose past the original line of scrimmage and at least one whistle was being blown.
The Lions picked up the loose football and started running it towards the far end zone before being arrested by the familiar sounds of the pea-less mouthpiece.
At least one official had ruled the sequence an incomplete pass while another ruled a fumble and subsequent recovery by Detroit's Justin Durant.
After conferring, the officials correctly determined a fumble had occurred, rendering the premature whistle an inadvertent one.
As I discussed during a Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee inadvertent whistle situation which occurred in November, inadvertent whistles cannot be reviewed much less overturned (NFL Rule 15-9). This rule exists both in NCAA and in the NFL.
Upon consulting his fourth or fifth replay of the play in question, NBC broadcaster Al Michaels declared, "[the whistle] ended the play, the Saints should have had the football."
Unfortunately and as is the case with a majority of rules-related commentary on television and the radio during sporting events, Michaels' interpretation was dead wrong.
The rules clearly confirm the officials' handling of the situation as correct. If you could rewrite the rule, what should the outcome have been?
An inadvertent whistle which occurs during the course of a fumble does not prevent a player from recovering the football in the immediate aftermath of said whistle. This rule is different in the NFL than at some other levels—such as high school—and came into existence in the wake of referee Ed Hochuli's well known inadvertent whistle gaffe in 2008.
The Lions' Durant clearly recovered the football while the Saints were not in any position to pounce on the loose ball—employing the new Hochuli/Cutler rule, the officials correctly awarded possession to the Detroit Lions.
The officials were also correct to prevent Detroit's advance, as the inadvertent whistle prevents subsequent action not related to securing possession of a loose ball in the immediate aftermath of a fumble play.
Replays indicate at least one Saints player was in the area where the fumble was recovered and had given up on the play upon hearing a whistle.
Though there is a great chance that in the absence of the inadvertent whistle, Durant could have returned the fumble for a touchdown, it is also possible that Durant would have been tackled short of the goal line.
Football is not based on hypothetical scenarios, which is why the officials couldn't merely assume Durant would have scored.
So while Saturday's Lions-Saints play was very similar to the Vanderbilt-Tennessee inadvertent whistle, the two differed in one key aspect: the Vanderbilt-Tennessee crew got the call wrong while referee Tony Corrente's Lions-Saints crew got the call right.
Gil Imber is a Rules Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to analyzing and explaining controversial calls across all sports.
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