With 18 seconds remaining in the second quarter of Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Oakland Raiders, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco took a third-down snap and dropped back to pass, not knowing that the footsteps he made in the ensuing six seconds would potentially change the NFL's use of instant replay in future seasons.
Flacco evaded pressure from the Raiders defense and started to scramble toward the line of scrimmage, seemingly intending to advance the ball a few yards across the line of scrimmage with a short run. As he approached the line, Flacco spotted running back Ray Rice alone in the end zone. Flacco then rifled the ball to Rice in an attempt to score a touchdown in the waning moments of the half, but the pass sailed over Rice's head and fell incomplete.
The problem with Flacco's decision was that he had already passed the line of scrimmage at the moment he released the ball. According to NFL rules, such a play constitutes an illegal forward pass, a penalty that demands a five-yard penalty on the Ravens and a loss of down; additionally, because the action occurred within the last two minutes of the game, it required a deduction of ten seconds off the game clock.
Everyone watching the game knew Flacco had committed a penalty. In spite of the obvious infraction, no official called a penalty on the play.
There is a general understanding among football fans that instant replay cannot be used as a tool to call penalties that are not originally called during the course of the play. The next five minutes of television shattered this understanding entirely.
Knowing that Flacco almost certainly committed a penalty, the NFL officials in the replay booth took the play into their own hands, calling for an official video review of the play, which they are legally allowed to do with any controversial play within the final two minutes of the half. After reviewing the play, the officials determined that an illegal forward pass did occur and penalized the Ravens for down and distance in relation to the previous play.
Under league rules, the wording of the instant replay policy allows the instant replay process to be used in helping determine whether or not an illegal forward pass occurred; in the spirit of the law, however, this application was probably intended to clarify whether or not an illegal forward pass is made during an attempted lateral, not when the pass was intended for a down-field target.
When a play like that occurs, such as the famed Music City Miracle , then the penalty is appropriate, but in this situation, the results could have been disastrous for the Ravens.
The outcome of the play was an incomplete pass, leaving 12 seconds on the game clock before halftime with the ball on the Oakland 15-yard line. Because of the penalty instituted by the replay booth, the field goal attempt ended up being snapped from the 20-yard line, meaning it was 37 yards long. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed the attempt wide to the right side, meaning the Ravens had less than a one-touchdown lead (14-10 rather than 17-10) heading into halftime.
Did Cundiff's miss ultimately affect the end result of the game? No. But the significant role that the officials played in altering the circumstances of the kick could be crucial in future games. The way in which the penalty was called, even if it was the correct call, sets a precedent that is dangerous if not counter-productive to the review process.
Imagine a similar situation in which there are less than two minutes left in the game and the ball is spotted just inside field goal range. Then imagine that the offense throws an incomplete pass, but the booth chooses to review how many people were on the field at the snap of the ball. (This assumes that the excess of people was an accident, as it is unlikely that an NFL team would actually try to run a play with 12 players.)
After review, the officials agree that there were 12 offensive players on the field at the time of the snap. The offense is penalized five yards and is now out of field goal range, despite the fact that the result of the play did not help them at all.
It's scary to think that officials who aren't on the field can have such an impact on the game, but that potential is now on the table. Just don't blame Joe Flacco.