27 Sep 2007
As you may have read in The Week in Quotes this week, San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan is pretty upset with Gerry Austin, the referee for last Sunday's 49ers-Steelers matchup, because of a controversial call Austin made in the third quarter. He shouldn't be -- if anything, he should be thanking Steelers coach Mike Tomlin for (unintentionally) giving the 49ers a three-point gift.
First, let's revisit the play in question. The Niners, down by 11 with five minutes left to play in the quarter, are facing 3rd-and-13 at Pittsburgh's 32-yard line. Tight end Vernon Davis runs a simple route over the middle and Alex Smith hooks up with him on a 22-yard pass, giving the Niners what should be a first down. But then Steelers safety Troy Polamalu wraps up Davis and flips him, sending Davis face first toward the turf. Davis extends his arm and the football pops out of his arm as it hits the ground -- though, crucially, the ball itself does not appear to hit the ground -- and flies ten yards in the air, where it is caught by Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who then runs it back to midfield.
The play is ruled a catch and a fumble by Davis, recovered by the Steelers. Nolan immediately throws the challenge flag and Austin goes under the black hood. When he emerges, he reverses the call on the field, and rules instead that it was an incomplete pass. In somewhat convoluted fashion, Austin explains that because Davis only got a "foot and a toe" and didn't make a football move, it wasn't a catch. Or something like that. In any event, the 49ers keep the ball and end up with a field goal.
After the game, Nolan gripes that he should have loaned his "prescription sunglasses" to Austin, and he repeatedly informs the local press that he's seeking "clarification" on the ruling. As an added bonus, Davis also injured himself on the play and will miss this Sunday's game against the Seahawks.
But here's where things get interesting. Last night, HBO's Inside the NFL ran a fascinating piece on Mike Periera, the NFL's Director of Officiating, who oversees a NORAD-style military compound every Sunday to monitor officiating mistakes. During the program, we see Periera reviewing the Davis play, furrowing his brow, and murmuring to himself "the call is correct ... but the Steelers could have challenged whether the ball hit the ground" (or something to that effect -- I'm working off memory here).
Periera's comment struck me, and continues to strike me, as odd. The play initially was called in the Steelers favor (catch and fumble) but was reversed to being an incomplete pass. Surely that's the end of the matter -- you can't challenge on top of a challenge, can you? Well, actually, you can. According to Jon Zimmer of the NFL's Communications and Public Affairs office, who emailed me earlier today:
Mike Pereira's explanation on HBO of the Vernon Davis play is correct ... after the completion of the initial review that resulted in an incomplete pass, the Steelers could have challenged whether or not the ball hit the ground.
So, to recap: the referee incorrectly ruled the play a catch and fumble. Nolan was correct to challenge. But had Mike Tomlin challenged after the reversal, it's likely that Austin would have ruled that the ball never hit the ground, and therefore was an interception. Put another way, Nolan should stop whining.
One final editorial comment. This replay procedure seems twice as complex as it needs to be. When Austin reviews the play, he should look at the entire consequences of the play if the ball never hit the ground, instead of myopically focusing on the narrow question of whether Davis caught the ball or not. Plays should not be reviewed in a vacuum, and it shouldn't require two challenges to get the call correct, should it?
55 comments, Last at 29 Sep 2007, 10:29pm by Jerry
Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?