After failing a two-minute drill to end the first half on Sunday, the Detroit Lions were forced to punt. What followed was confusing, frustrating and ultimately disappointing. The Lions appeared to have recovered a fumbled punt return, but there were three flags on the play. Minnesota committed two fouls: a holding and a block in the back penalty. Detroit was guilty of an illegal hands to the face infraction. Despite the imbalance in penalties, the fouls offset and the down was replayed. The ruling seemed strange, and quite a bit unfair, but most importantly, was it correct? Let's take a peek at the rulebook:
When there are fouls committed by both teams during a play, it is referred to as a Double Foul. Included under the title Double Foul are plays in which multiple fouls are committed by one or both of the teams. Here is the NFL's direct definition of a Double Foul:
A Double Foul is a foul by each team during the same down and includes any multiple foul by either team, including dead ball fouls
In other words, as long as there are infractions on both teams, regardless of how many on each side, it is considered a Double Foul.
Generally speaking, when a Double Foul occurs, the penalties offset and the down is replayed. However, the rules are a little different when a change in possession occurs during the play. In the example of this play, two changes of possession occurred on one down (the punt and the fumble recovery).
Double Fouls during a change in possession
When a change in possession occurs during a play with a Double Foul, it becomes very important as to when the fouls occurred. From the rulebook:
If there is a Double Foul during a down in which there is a change or changes of possession, including if one of the fouls is a post-possession foul by Team B during a scrimmage kick, the team last gaining possession will keep the ball after enforcement for its foul, provided it did not foul prior to last gaining possession ("clean hands").
"The team last gaining possession will keep the ball..." THE LIONS WERE SCREWED! THE REFS HATE THE LIONS!
Okay, let's break it down. On a play with a Double Foul that has a change of possession, the team with possession last gets to keep the ball, which in this case was the Lions. HOWEVER, the last segment of that sentence is key: "provided it did not foul prior to last gaining possession." In other words, as long as the Lions had not committed a foul before recovering the fumble, they get to keep possession (as the rulebook says, they must have "clean hands" before gaining possession).
So the key to the enforcement of this penalty is finding out when the Lions' illegal hands to the face penalty occurred.
Unfortunately, FOX did not provide a good shot of the infraction. The foul was called on Julian Stanford. Here is Stanford blocking on the play before the kick:
There is no clear sign of an infraction here, but the foul could have occurred before this (FOX was late in showing the snap) or well after the camera panned toward the punt returner. Regardless, the foul (assuming there was one) was almost certainly committed before the fumble recovery since there was no return after the recovery. Therefore, the correct ruling seems to have been made.
Conclusion: Presuming that Stanford actually committed a foul on the play, a Double Foul occurred before the change in possession and the down was correctly replayed.