Texans-Lions Controversial Touchdown Fiasco Shows Peril of Instant Replay System
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Withhold your whistle, keep the play alive, let it go. After all, you can always fix it with instant replay.
The premise is straightforward—NFL Rule 15-9 [Replay Official's Request for Review] makes sense: A replay official shall initiate an instant replay review "after all scoring plays, interceptions, fumbles, backwards passes recovered by the opponent and muffed scrimmage kicks recovered by the kicking team."
The same rule's replay restriction also is logical: "[The booth] cannot initiate a review of any ruling against a team that commits a foul that delays the next snap."
In other words, if a player loses his cool and draws an unsportsmanlike conduct or other delay or dead ball flag, the booth shall not reward his team with a review: crime should not pay.
It makes sense.
To cover its bases, the NFL also has written in Rule 15-9 [Coaches' Challenge] that "a coach is prohibited from challenging scoring plays, interceptions, fumbles, backwards passes and muffed kicks recovered by the opposition—all plays which, as specified above, are to be initiated by the replay official."
The purpose of this prohibition is to prevent an opportunity where, in a play that is reviewed by the booth regardless, a team is put in jeopardy of losing a timeout if the result doesn't go its way.
It makes sense.
Penalty: For initiating a challenge when a team is prohibited from doing so: Loss of 15 yards.
Ah, there's the kink in the road.
With 6:50 in the third quarter of Thanksgiving Day's Houston Texans vs. Detroit Lions affair, Houston's Justin Forsett appeared to have been tackled and downed at the Texans' 26-yard line, his knee touching the ground as Detroit free safety Louis Delmas touched Forsett's arm.
However, officials allowed the play to proceed and as the herd of defensive Lions stood around thinking the play was over, Forsett continued unimpeded toward and into the far end zone for an apparent Texans touchdown.
Cue the replay rules wreck.
Who is most at fault for the Lions' loss?
As the replay booth reviewed the scoring play and prepared to presumably initiate the instant replay review process, Lions coach Jim Schwartz threw his challenge flag, drawing a mandatory penalty flag for unsportsmanlike conduct: initiating a challenge when a team is prohibited from doing so.
However, because Rule 15-9 [Replay Official's Request for Review] also specifies that the booth cannot initiate a review when a team commits a foul that delays the next snap—which includes Schwartz's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty—the Lions were left in a world of football limbo: The ruling on the field would very likely have been overturned via instant replay review, yet that same rule that would have helped Detroit ended up hurting the club, prohibiting the review process because of Schwartz's miscue.
Separately and on their own merits, the league's rules regarding the instant replay review procedure are well-reasoned, cogent and certainly consistent.
Yet put together, this same set of provisions can leave some football fans scratching their collective heads—if the goal is to get the call right, why disallow a replay review when it is fairly obvious a call will be overturned?
Well, according to NFL rules, officials did get the call right—the goal was satisfied. Though the original ruling may have been incorrect, the 15-yard penalty and corresponding instant replay review moratorium was manifestly correct.
By rule, of course.
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.
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