The illegal-push call from the Patriots' overtime loss to the New York Jets is well-documented (just Google "illegal push"). Although, as Phil Perry of CSNNE.com reports, the NFL quietly admitted that the Jets got away with an illegal push of their own.
This week, the unusual call was "illegal batting," as the NFL.com clip of the play correctly notes. The Patriots had the ball on 2nd-and-7 at the Miami 23. They were leading 20–17 with nine minutes and 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
As Tom Brady looked for a receiver, Marcus Cannon released his block too soon, allowing defensive back Jimmy Wilson to hit Brady, knocking the ball out of his hands at the Miami 30.
The ball moves slowly at first, and is at the Miami 31 when Olivier Vernon makes contact. It then suddenly accelerates toward New England's side of the field; note that it travels from the Miami 31 to the Miami 35 in less than a second. Patriots left tackle Nate Solder finally recovers the ball around the Miami 46.
In theory, this should have been a 23-yard loss, giving the Patriots 3rd-and-30. Unfortunately for Miami, the referees correctly characterized Vernon's action as an illegal bat. The NFL rule book describes an illegal bat:
Illegal Bat. It is an illegal bat if: (a) a player of either team bats or punches a loose ball in the field of play toward his opponent’s goal line[. . .]
Penalty: For illegal batting or punching the ball: Loss of 10 yards. For enforcement, treat as a foul during a backward pass or fumble (see 8-7-7). If the foul is by the defense, it is an automatic first down.
Rule 8-7-7 states that if a foul is called on a fumble behind the line of scrimmage, as is the case here, the ball is returned to the line of scrimmage before the foul is marked off. Thus, instead of facing 3rd-and-30 from the 46, or even 3rd-and-15 from the 31, the Patriots received the ball at the Miami 13 with a fresh set of downs. They subsequently went on to score the game-sealing touchdown on that drive.
The call was correct here. Obviously, the defense has the right to try and recover a fumble by the offense. And just as obviously, footballs can do funny things at times, so an attempt to recover a football will occasionally cause it to travel several yards.
Had Vernon actually tried to do so, it is unlikely that he would have been called for a foul. Vernon didn't, however; broadcast announcers Phil Simms and Jim Nantz noted, before the flag was thrown, that Vernon could be penalized, and he was.
Is the penalty too harsh?
A National Football Post article by Jason Cole quotes some anonymous coaches who say that yes, it is: "That’s not what should happen,” one coach said Sunday night. “The good play by the defense shouldn’t be wiped out completely and the Patriots really shouldn’t benefit from that. It’s not a personal foul or situation where you’re trying to protect a player. We have to look at that.”
Another coach said, “I don’t get how the offensive team should benefit on that play. Take it back to the spot of the fumble and give the ball to the Patriots, but don’t give them a 10-yard gain.”
Why shouldn't it get wiped out completely? A fumble caused by roughing the passer results in the offense getting closer to the end zone and a fresh set of downs.
And the argument that it's not "trying to protect a player" isn't really correct either: Fumble recoveries are often chaotic, resulting in piles of players or players chasing after the football. Both can lead to injuries and should be prevented. Blatant attempts to bat the ball should remain a penalty.
Moreover, the second coach's suggestion is a poor one, since it would require distinguishing illegal bats from other fouls on fumbles, all of which take the ball back to the line of scrimmage.
In other words, the call was correct, and the penalty is fair.