The officiating during the contest between the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals was questionable at best, downright embarrassing at worst. At the forefront of the controversy is a punt return by Jeremy Ross that was eventually disallowed after review. Ross ended up returning the ball all the way to Arizona's 46-yard line. After the review, the Lions started at their own 1-yard line. That's a difference of 53 yards. It's a highly significant ruling.
Before I get into the heat of the controversy, let's first talk about Ross and his heads-up play on the punt return. When the Cardinals first touched the punt, they committed what is known in the NFL rulebook as a "first touch." Here's what the rulebook has to say about first touches (emphasis added by me):
If the ball is first touched by a player of the kicking team, it remains in play.
In other words, the ball isn't dead after the ball is touched by the kicking team. Ross still is eligible to return the punt.
Additionally, Ross doesn't have to worry about muffing or fumbling the return after a first touch has been committed:
Exception 4: If the receiving team commits a foul during a kick that crosses the line of scrimmage, and there is a first-touch violation by the kicking team, if the receiving team possesses the ball and subsequently loses possession, the ball reverts to the receiving team
You can ignore the committing a foul part; the important part follows that. A first touch by the kicking team is considered a violation, so any post-violation loss of possession would result in the ball going back to the receiving team. In other words, if Ross would have fumbled at any time during his return, the Lions would have retained possession anyway. It's a very strange rule, but it's right there.
Now comes the even more confusing part. After review, the officials ruled that the Cardinals player had full possession before tossing the ball back into the field of play. If the kicking team receives the ball and gains full possession, the ball is dead at that spot. But what is considered possession? That is not clear. There is nowhere in the rulebook that specifically deals with possession during a "first touch." However, this is the rulebook's definition of possession of a "loose ball":
To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and maintain control of the ball long enough to perform any act common to the game
Complete control of the ball? Check. Both feet inbounds? Check. Control of the ball long enough to perform any act common to the game? Uh... I don't know. I don't even know what that means. Is tossing the ball back into the playing field an "act common to the game"? I have no idea.
But here's what I do know. If the Cardinals player hadn't tossed the ball into the field of play and his momentum took him into the end zone, it wouldn't have been ruled that he had possession at the 1-yard line. Based on past enforcement of the rule, possession typically isn't considered complete until the kicking team has the ball securely and a player's momentum is no longer taking him in any direction. While it says nothing about this directly in the rulebook, it is how the play has always been called. Mike Pereira confirms this with his take on the call.
Dean Blandino, the current vice president of officiating, had a different take on the call:
In ARZ when the kicking team possesses the ball it is dead by rule. #28 had possession and threw it back. Different than batting it back.— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) November 16, 2014
But the issue with Blandino's take on the call is his definition of possession. If the Cardinals player had possession of the ball, then the play is immediately dead, and it wouldn't have mattered if he fell into the end zone with the ball. Anyone who has watched a football game knows that the play would have been considered a touchback if he held on to the ball while his momentum took him into the end zone.