The 2013 version of the NFL Rule Book is over 100 pages of a crazy tangled mess that only gets worse with each passing year. I'm going to look at how it pertains to a specific play from this past Sunday's game, the Bengals advancing the ball after a blocked field goal attempt by the Lions.
Bear with me - this takes a while to cover!
First off, here's a replay...even with the poor camera work, it gives enough information.
From the Detroit Free Press:
In a statement, the NFL said the play was reviewable under Rule 15, Section 9, Article 4(d) of its Official Playing Rules, which covers reviewable plays including "when the on-field ruling is a runner not down by defensive contact.
So the league in its infinite wisdom cites the specific rule, but as we'll see the rule only addresses one dimension of what took place. And the coach is supposed to specify the dimension of the play that he wants to challenge. So if he challenges that the player was down by contact before trying to pass it, that can be challenged by a coach. But he wanted to challenge that the player threw a forward pass, the ref may have been right that it couldn't be. (I imagine, but have no way of being sure, that this is what happened. ie. Schwartz wanted to challenge the "forward lateral" as he called it, but if he had indicated he wanted to challenge the "down by contact" then presumably he would have been told that it's challengeable)
Let's take a closer look at the 2013 rulebook:
The rule affecting the illegal forward pass is Rule 8, Section 1, "The direction taken by a fumbled or muffed ball does not affect the application of the rules specific to such acts, unless it is ruled that they are intentional." Ok, so that sounds a bit tricky. A referee has to rule on intention here, just as he has to rule on intention with facemask or helmet contact or on pass interference calls.
Then there is Rule 11, Section 4, Article 2, Exception 2: "If a field-goal attempt from anywhere on the field is blocked, and the ball has not been beyond the line, general rules for scrimmage kicks apply, and the special rules pertaining to field goals in (a) and (b) are not applicable."
But these "general rules for scrimmage kicks" don't really have anything to say about the matter.
Farther down the rabbit hole, we have the definition of a fumble in Rule 3, Section 2, Article 4:
"A Fumble is any act, other than a pass or kick, which results in loss of player possession. The term Fumble always implies possession. (8-7-3). Note: If a player pretends to fumble and causes the ball to go forward, it is a forward pass and may be illegal (8-1-2-Pen. a, c)."
But wait, what's this? When we go to the 8-7-3 spot referred to above, there's this:
"Article 3 Fumble. A fumble is any act, other than a pass or kick, which results in a loss of player possession.
Exception: If a runner intentionally fumbles forward, it is a forward pass (3-23-2)."
So Reggie Nelson, intentionally fumbling it forward, was actually completing a forward pass? If that's permitted, could he just chuck it to the end zone legally? Nothing in the rules seem to tell me otherwise. Also, the ball hit the ground when Nelson flipped it in Dunlap's direction. Ergo, an incomplete pass? Intentionally or not...hard to judge...it then went from Dunlap's hands right to Kirkpatrick, who gained the final 9 yards on the play.
Still with me? Ok, we're nearing the end of this investigation.
And the last applicable rule section relates to a legal forward pass:
Rule 8 Section 1, Article 2, Item 1: "Illegal Passes. Any other forward pass by either team is illegal and is a foul by the passing team, including:
(d) A forward pass thrown after there has been a change of possession.
(c) For a forward pass that is thrown by Team B, or for a forward pass that is thrown by Team A after a change of
possession: Loss of five yards from the spot of the pass."
lapdog former VP of Officiating Mike Pereira:
DET looks like forward lateral after a change which could've been challenged. CIN would keep ball after 5 yd penalty from the spot of pass— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) October 20, 2013
Frankly, he's wrong. The specific list of non-reviewable plays in Rule 15, Section 9, Article 5 includes (5) "penalty administration". So even if it is deemed a passing play that is reviewed and found to be an illegal forward pass, the penalty cannot be applied. (Think about it, have you ever seen a penalty applied after a booth review or referee's review? Now you know why.)
Here's Rule 15, Section 9, Article 3, Note 2: "All reviewable aspects of the play may be examined and are subject to reversal, even if not identified in a coach’s challenge or if not the specific reason for a Replay Official’s request for review."
So the ref that Schwartz consulted could have - or perhaps should have - stated that if he throws the flag, all reviewable aspects of the play may be examined. A coaches challenge flag thrown there would certainly have brought the ball back 16 yards, and if not for the "penalty administration" not being reviewable, it would have been brought back 21 yards. Except that it was down by contact, so who knows if the forward pass even comes into play, since it happens right as he's tackled to the ground.
I think by now you can see the myriad rules that come into play in the span of a couple of seconds. It's the most chaotic scenario in football. What referee could possibly rule correctly in a situation like that? There are just too many elements to analyze. And that's the major problem I have, the way the referees are tasked with the impossible. You have a bunch of league execs from storied franchises sitting around making the rules, but officials do not have a seat at the table on the competition committee. The replay rules do not seem to be in place to be equitable. A simple example is the vertical extension of the goal posts. Make the uprights taller (nod to Adam Carolla) or point lasers up from the tops and you don't have games decided by a ref's judgement call of a straight line 40 feet above his head, sometimes against a night sky. The Patriots were justifiably pissed last year when Justin Tucker won a game on such a judgement. (Of course, such judgments are not reviewable). I won't even get into the "process of a catch" or "defenseless receiver"rules and how difficult those are to call as written.
I really don't want to sound like I am bellyaching about a call that went against us. It just seems that things have gotten ridiculous in the rule book when you have an asshat like Periera weighing in on Twitter about every archaic or obscure rule. Especially when a guy who should know the rules better than most anybody, can be shown by a hack like me to get it wrong!
I'd love to see the competition committee get blown up and some fresh faces in there, including the best graded referees.