NOW THAT THE ED HOCHULI DUST HAS SETTLED, HERE’S WHAT NFL REFS WILL (SHOULD?) DO WHEN THERE’S A CLOSE FUMBLE/INCOMPLETE PASS CALL

                               Kallas Remarks by Steve Kallas

By now you know and have seen the play a number of times.  Sunday, September 14, San Diego-Denver, very late in the fourth quarter, Chargers up 38-31, Denver at the San Diego one-yard line.  Jay Cutler goes back to pass, scrambles to his right, goes to pass and, as his arm is moving back, he loses the ball and it’s recovered by San Diego.  Referee Ed Hochuli blows the whistle, ruling it was an incomplete pass (presumably he thought Cutler’s arm was going forward when the ball came out).  Because San Diego can’t recover what was clearly a fumble on replay (because the whistle had already blown the play dead), the ball is spotted on the 10 and Denver eventually scores the touchdown and stuns virtually everybody by going for (and making) the two-point conversion to win the game.

Hochuli, who always has seemed like a stand-up guy, apparently apologized right on the field to Charger coach Norv Turner.  And, after hate mail galore and criticism throughout the country (most people have no idea how difficult it is to officiate any professional sporting event), Hochuli continued to answer e-mails and make further public statements about how sorry he was and how he would continue to do the best he could do in future games.

    

But that begs the question:  Unless or until the rule is changed, what is Ed Hochuli and other NFL refs supposed to do if exactly the same situation happens this Sunday or any Sunday for the rest of the NFL season?

    

Well, here’s the answer:  In a situation where an NFL quarterback goes to throw a pass and the ball comes out, if the referee blows the whistle and calls it an incomplete pass, there can be no fumble recovery even if a huge mistake was made.  HOWEVER, if, on the same play, the referee calls it a fumble and, thus, the play continues, that call CAN BE REVIEWED.  So, in the first instance, the replay rule in general (whether you like replay or not) cannot correct a blown call.  But, in the second instance (fumble call), the replay rule can do what it was designed to do – get the call right.

    

Now, you’re Ed Hochuli or another NFL ref who has seen what Ed Hochuli has gone through for the last ten days (national criticism, affecting the outcome of an NFL game with a bad call, etc.).  What are you going to do next time the exact same play happens?  Open yourself up to national criticism or make the safe call that can be reversed on review?  You don’t have to be a brain surgeon (or an NFL ref) to figure this one out.

    

The only question is will there be a formal discussion of this by the NFL or among NFL referees?  Or will they come to this conclusion separately, on their own, after seeing what happened to one of their own over the last ten days?  Again, it doesn’t matter, they’ve all seen the easier (fairer?) way out of this predicament.

    

Now, this doesn’t mean that, if it were obviously an incomplete pass, a good NFL ref wouldn’t call an incomplete pass an incomplete pass (on the forward release).  But it does mean that, if it’s a close call or there is ANY doubt in the ref’s mind that it was a fumble, he’ll call it a fumble and let the challenge/replay rule take care of the mess.

    

Is this the right call?  Well, it’s the safe call and, again, would avoid any opportunity to blow a game with replay powerless (as the rules are now) to help correct the mistake.

    

And don’t forget, the pass or no pass call has three parts to it: 1) as the quarterback’s arm is going backwards; 2) as he’s bringing his arm forward to throw the ball; and 3) the infamous “tuck” rule, as the quarterback brings the ball down in a throwing motion only to try and tuck it – that’s not a fumble either (see Tom Brady against the Raiders in the most famous tuck rule call ever).

    

So, where does that leave us?  Well, the NFL will look at this much like they looked at the down-by-contact issue last year (you can now recover that loose ball even if the whistle has blown).  Maybe they will change the rule, maybe they won’t.  But know this:  Every NFL referee is on notice that, if the fumble/incomplete pass call is a close one, better to call it a fumble and see what replay shows than to call it an incomplete pass and not be able to correct a mistake that sometimes, like last Sunday, is game-changing.

    

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas.  All rights reserved.

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