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UPDATED: NFL officials snuck an illegal challenge into Seahawks vs. Lions

The officials in the Lions vs. Seahawks game tried to cover their tracks, but they made a mistake that gave Seattle a free challenge.

Detroit Lions v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

There was a bit of an odd moment that probably went unnoticed from most fans watching the Week 17 matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Seattle Seahawks.

The Lions, down 38-15 early in the third quarter, attempted an onside kick. They recovered it, giving a small chance of life at a comeback. Upon replay, though, it wasn’t clear if the Lions had legally recovered. The ball hadn’t traveled the 10 yards necessary for a clean recovery, but if a Seahawks player had touched it first, the Lions could legally cover, which is what the officials ruled on the field.

The Seahawks, not convinced by the replay, decided to challenge the play, thinking that the Lions had illegally touched it first.

After a lengthy review, the officials upheld the call on the field, as there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call on the field. Lions ball. The game continues.

But before the ball was put back into play, the NFL official said something curious.

“Seattle will not be charged with a timeout, as this was a booth review that came down prior to the throwing of the flag.”

Seattle, despite losing the challenge, was not charged at timeout. The reasoning, according to this official, was that they were buzzed down by the officials in the booth to review it.

This, quite bluntly, is a flat-out lie.

Here’s a look at the exact moment a review was initiated. As you’ll be able to see, the Lions were ready to run an offensive play, when the official at the bottom of the screen blows his whistle and points to the red flag Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll threw on the field to challenge:

The Seahawks initiated the review, not the booth. How do I know this for sure? Maybe the booth buzzed down simultaneously and we can’t see it.

I could believe that had the OFFICIALS NOT SAID OUT LOUD THAT SEATTLE WAS CHALLENGING THE PLAY.

“Seattle is challenging the ruling on the field of touching of the kick prior to going 10 yards.”

So why would the officials lie about this? Are they out to get the Lions? Did Carroll slip them a $20?

I don’t know for sure, but this is the most likely explanation: The refs messed up and they realized it during the review process.

You see, this play is not challengeable by a team. There are a certain amount of reviewable plays that can only be initiated by the booth. For example, scoring plays and turnovers are subject to automatic review. Head coaches are not allowed to challenge those plays. Coaches no longer receive a penalty if they try and initiate a review, but officials will not commence a review if the coach attempts to on these plays.

And right there in the rulebook, it’s clear as day that this onside kick recovery can only be reviewed if initiated by officials. Check Rule 15, Section, 1, Article 2 (e) (3):

ARTICLE 2. REPLAY OFFICIAL REQUEST FOR REVIEW. Only the Replay Official or the Senior Vice President of Officiating or his or her designee may initiate a review of a play:

(e) when on-field officials rule:

(3) a scrimmage kick touched by the receiving team and recovered by the kicking team

UPDATE: Former NFL referee and current “Sunday Night Football” rule analyst Terry McAulay provided a little clarity on this situation via Twitter, and corrected a mistake I made.

I said this play is not eligible for a coaches challenge. McAulay correctly points out that is incorrect. The rulebook passage above is for “scrimmage kicks,” which is a punt, drop kick or placekick behind the line of scrimmage. The rules are different for a “free kick.” McAulay provides the relevant rule via the “Instant Replay Casebook,” which is you can access here. The relevant portion is on page 212 at the top. Here’s McAulay:

But as McAulay points out, this only makes the officials’ decision even more puzzling. This play is not subject to a booth review unless it’s within the final two minutes of a half or overtime. So there is no way this should have been changed to a booth review and the Seahawks still should have been charged a timeout for losing a coach’s challenge. Why did the officials make the change? We may never know.

Thanks to Terry McAulay for providing the extra insight. I, personally, regret the error in the original article.