Sunday's game between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears was a crazy one. Among the insanity were a few crucial calls that were puzzling. Let's look to the rulebook to see what happened.
Golden Tate's touchdown/fumble
The biggest controversy during the game was a catch by Golden Tate that was initially called an interception on the field. Here's the play (GIF via SB Nation):
After review the officials concluded that Tate had established possession and crossed the goal line before losing control of the ball. Here's the full explanation from the NFL.
The key to this ruling is that Tate was not considered "going to the ground" during this play. If the refs had ruled that Tate was going to the ground while trying to maintain possession, this would have been ruled an interception. Here's how whether a player was going to the ground is determined: "A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner."
Okay, so did Tate has establish himself as a runner before losing control? Let's go back to the rulebook:
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 then maintain control of the ball until he has clearly become a runner. A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent.
Here's where things get murky. Tate clearly has both feet on the ground with complete control of the ball. But is he "capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent" before he fumbles it? I have no idea, because that is not clearly defined anywhere in the rulebook. Tate doesn't appear to really make a move, but as Blandino says in the video above, he's already taking his third step when the ball comes loose.
Referee Walt Coleman explained his call:
Referee Walt Coleman explains rationale for ruling Golden Tate play a TD instead of a pick pic.twitter.com/Y5lahuuteR— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) October 18, 2015
So the key is that third step. Did Tate complete it before fumbling?
It's very close. You'll see what you want to see.
Verdict: I don't know. Your rulebook is confusing, NFL.
Offensive pass interference on Calvin Johnson
Golden Tate scored a definitive touchdown later in the game, but it was called back due to an offensive pass interference penalty on Johnson. Was it the right call? Take a look:
A few things are in player here. First, it does not matter if the ball had not left Matthew Stafford's hands yet. According to the rulebook, offensive pass interference can occur "from the time the ball is snapped until the pass is touched." Defensive pass interference can only occur after the ball was thrown.
Calvin doesn't really even appear to be blocking here, but if the contact "restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch" it is illegal regardless of intent. It appears the contact does restrict the player. So far, so illegal.
HOWEVER, there is an important caveat to the rule: if the contact occurs within one yard of the line of scrimmage, it is not illegal. Where did the contact take place?
Calvin initiates the contact in the one-yard legal area. It's hard to tell, however, when he disengages. It looks like a typical battle between wide receiver and cornerback, that would not typically draw a flag. Contact continues beyond the one-yard safe zone, but it's not clear who is initiating the contact.
Verdict: Probably the right call, but a bit ticky-tacky.
Corey Fuller is pushed into a live ball on a punt
Here's the play:
The call was ruled a fumble and upheld upon review. Here's why that was the right call. This rule is very clearly outlined in the NFL's rulebook. Here's the rule verbatim:
There is no distinction between a player touching a ball or being touched by it, but a player is not considered to have touched the ball if he is blocked into it by an opponent, provided he is in a passive position and not blocking. A player who is engaged with and blocking his opponent when he contacts the ball is deemed to have touched the ball.
It's seems pretty clear to me that Fuller was blocked into the ball, but was he in a passive position? He appears to be engaged initially with the Bears player. But then Fuller does something strange (and dumb), he turns toward the ball like he's going to fall on it. At that point he is no longer passive, and the Bears can legally push him into the ball. This is just a boneheaded play by Fuller, and it was the right call.