Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Oct 2012

Officiating: How to Win a Challenge

How does one win a coach's challenge?

Eddo: So Mike, let's say the ruling on the field is an incomplete pass; defense challenges, saying it was an INT; outcome is that QB's arm was NOT going forward, so it's a fumble. Do you "win" the challenge?

This gets pretty deep into the weeds of replay review. First, each part of the play must be reviewable; here, incomplete/complete is reviewable, and forward/backward pass (fumble) is also reviewable. The next part is what precisely is being challenged. In this case, the challenge is on a ruling of an incomplete. At this point, the coach making the challenge lets the referee know what he believes the result of the play should be; in this case, an interception.

Technically, the coach retains his time out if the ruling on the field is overturned in a way that has a competitive impact on the game. A re-spot of the ball with respect to the line to gain, for instance, is only successful if the result of the re-spot places the ball past the line to gain. Similarly, a coach challenging a double (or triple) fumble that was ruled otherwise will not win the challenge, even if the referee agrees the initial ruling was incorrect, unless the review results in a change of possession.

Your situation is interesting because the change in type of play (a forward pass to a fumble) changes the ability of the referee to rule on the result of the play. The standard for awarding a fumble recovery after review is clear recovery of the football during the play. So, if the "interception" was perfectly clear, then the coach would win the challenge, even though his basis for challenging was incorrect. However, if the recovery is less than clear, even if there is enough evidence to support an interception, the different rules for fumble recovery mean the coach loses the challenge and the offense is awarded the ball at the spot of the fumble.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz on 03 Oct 2012

25 comments, Last at 04 Oct 2012, 9:17pm by evenchunkiermonkey


by Travis :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 2:29pm

Wouldn't a successful challenge of a double fumble on a scrimmage play result in a new set of downs (or lack thereof) and therefore be a "win"?

It seems to me that pretty much anything other than a re-spot that doesn't result in a first down is considered a "win", even if it's as minor as an overturned 2-yard completion on 1st and 10.

by Eddo :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 2:53pm

As a follow-up to this, what about the following?

1st-and-ten at the 50. RB runs a sweep outside for 49 yards, ruled out-of-bounds at the opponents' 1-yard line. Opposing coach challenges that he really stepped out back at the 30.

Either way, the runner passed the yard-to-gain (the 40), but if he is ruled to have stepped out at the 30, it's pretty clearly a huge change.

EDIT: And I see PatsFan also asked this, in a way.

by Travis :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 3:09pm

The NFL certainly counts that as a win.

Raiders-Steelers, Week 1 2004:

Challenge #1: 3-7-PIT 48 (12:26) (Shotgun) T.Maddox pass to H.Ward pushed ob at OAK 26 for 26 yards (D.Walker). Play Challenged by OAK and REVERSED. (Shotgun) T.Maddox pass to H.Ward pushed ob at OAK 40 for 12 yards (D.Walker).

Challenge #2: 2-1-OAK 1 (7:05) J.Bettis right guard for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN. Play Challenged by OAK and REVERSED. J.Bettis right guard to OAK 1 for no gain (D.Clark).

After 2 wins, Challenge #3: 3-12-PIT 34 (14:12) (Shotgun) R.Gannon sacked at PIT 39 for -5 yards (C.Haggans). FUMBLES (C.Haggans), RECOVERED by PIT-A.Smith at PIT 31. A.Smith to OAK 20 for 49 yards (R.Curry). Play Challenged by OAK and Upheld. (Timeout #1 by OAK at 13:57.)

by Mike Kurtz :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 3:54pm

Double fumble is a very bad example, you're right. I should've used something like clock adjustment.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 2:29pm

I really prefer the college game's method of using replay.

by sundown (not verified) :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 10:12am

Never seen Comment #1 below Comment #2. An oddity. I should throw the challenge flag on that one!

by PatsFan :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 2:36pm

Technically, the coach retains his time out if the ruling on the field is overturned in a way that has a competitive impact on the game.

It's my understanding that regardless of what specific thing the coach chooses to challenge, the ref is supposed to review all reviewable parts of the play.

* Team A has the ball at its own 20 (A20).
* A's QB under heavy pressure throws a dump off in the flat to a RB.
* RB slips a tackle and manages to break off a 78 yard gainer down the right sideline to Team B's 2 (B2).
* The RB is clobbered at B2 and the ball comes out just before? after? he hits the ground.
* Team B recovers
* Call on the field is "down by contact", and A gets the ball at the B2.
* B's coach challenges the "down by contact" ruling.

When the ref goes under the hood he sees that:
* A's RB clearly and indisputably lost the ball before he was down.
* However, A's RB also stepped out-of-bounds all the way back at the A27.

So what happens? Is it B's ball at the B2 or A's ball at the A27? If it's B's ball at the B2, then clearly B "wins" and isn't charged a timeout.

But what if it is A's ball on the A27?

Is B charged a timeout or not? B wasn't awarded the ball, but on the other hand the challenge changed the play's outcome from it being A's ball on the B2 (the original ruling) to being A's ball on the A27. Surely 71 yards of field position would be a "competitive difference"?

But what if the RB had stepped out on the B3? Then it's only the difference between the original A's ball on B2 ruling and A's ball on B3. Is that enough of a difference? What about if he stepped out at the B20? Or the A35? etc.

by Joseph :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 4:34pm

Patsfan, if he challenged down by contact, and he was already down "before" the fumble because he stepped out of bounds, I would think he would lose the challenge--it didn't result in a fumble and recovery for team B. However, I can see your point if the yardage difference is more than 1 or 2 yds.

by evenchunkiermonkey :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 5:39am

Down by contact isn't reviewable. Also proper down is also not reviewable. Here's the list...


by Podge (not verified) :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 7:33am

I'm sure down by contact is reviewable, both ways, in the case of a fumble. The offense can challenge that a runner was down when ruled not down, and the D recovered the fumble. The D can challenge that a runner wasn't down by contact, but can only recover the fumble if the recovery is deadly clear.

by evenchunkiermonkey :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 6:42pm

if the ruling on the field is down by contact, thats NOT reviewable. If the ruling on the field is a fumble that IS reviewable and can be overturned to "the runner was down by contact".

by tuluse :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 6:43pm

They changed this a few years ago. You can challenge down by contact now, and win if the opposing team clearly recovers it.

by evenchunkiermonkey :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 9:17pm

I was wrong. Didnt read the pdf I linked to close enough.

by Eddo :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 2:55pm

Mike, thanks for answering this. I certainly didn't expect to see my name at the top when I clicked on this link!

by Yuri (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 3:01pm

I think I saw the following situation apply: let's assume it's 4th down, team is running the ball and the runner is signaled short of 1st down by some distance. You challenge the spot, ref reviews and says the runner's knee hit further downfield than indicated spot, but not clear if enough for first, so re-spot the ball and measure. You have already "won the challenge" of incorrect spot notwithstanding the result of the measurement (that may have no competitive impact).

The interesting question in situation like that is what happens if the ref on replay says you are down at different spot but still short (no measurement needed). I would guess that it depends on whether the issue is "how many times" the runner was down. I.e., if he was down one time, and spot is off by a yard, you lose. But if he _appeared_ to be down where the ball was spotted, but in fact was not, and got crunched by defense a yard or two or three later then you win.

by Joseph :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 4:31pm

Yuri, iirc, if the OFFENSE challenges a spot, it MUST result in a first down for the challenge to be correct (not talking about turnovers--those are automatic reviews anyway now). If the DEFENSE challenges the spot, then I think the ball must be respotted either a) at least 1 yd difference or b) behind the first down marker (ie, the offense did not get the first down, when the call on the field gave it to them) in order to win the challenge. This was done in order to keep coaches from challenging a spot for 1/4 yd or some other insignficant amount, unless the new spot resulted in a first down. Obviously, on 3rd or 4th down, this would be "signficant".

by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 1:10am

This has always bothered me. If you're challenging the spot after a 3rd down run, 1/4 yard can be very significant. Say the refs give you a bad spot, leaving you with a 4th down and a full yard to go. If you challenge the spot, and the replay shows that the correct spot would leave you at 4th down and 1/4 of a yard to go, the rules say that you just "lost" the challenge.

Does anybody know, in this situation, would they re-spot the ball leaving 1/4 of a yard to go, even though the offense lost and was charged with a time out? Or would they leave the ball at its original incorrect spot?

by Jerry :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 3:44am

I'm pretty sure they'd respot the ball correctly.

If the quarter-yard is important enough, the coach may be willing to spend a timeout. The rule is designed to ensure that relatively trivial challenges don't slow the game down. On many plays, the spot can probably be adjusted slightly after a replay, but the league doesn't want to encourage challenges that move the ball six inches before 3rd and 3. (That's also why the booth doesn't review every play.)

by sundown (not verified) :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 10:27am

That's what I was thinking, as well. If a quarter-yard is that big a deal to me and I'm that certain the spot was wrong (and that second one is a big "if") then I'd probably be willing to burn a timeout to get it corrected. But the play would almost have to be directly in front of the coach for him to be confident enough to make an issue of it.

by MJK :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 12:44am

This bothers me a lot, because I saw it adversley affect a game a few years ago, and I think it's stupid.

I don't remember who was playing, but the situation was that team A (Atlanta, maybe?) was down by something like one score, had timouts, and had the ball around midfield, 3rd and something. The time remaining was such that, with all their remaining timouts, team B couldn't quite run out the clock if they got possession, but with one or two fewere A timeouts, team B could.

They ran a play and the RB was tackled just short of the first down line. And I mean just short, such that live it looked like he might have gotten it. Replay showed very clearly that the ball should have been spotted about 6 inches short and it should have been 4th and inches, but the ref made one of the worst spots I've ever seen and spotted the ball a full three yards back from the first down marker.

The A coach challenged, not because he thought he had a first down, but because he was clearly in 4 down territory and 4th and inches is a lot easier than 4th and 3. The ref reviewed the replay, and said that the spot was incorrect, re-spotted the ball to be 4th and inches, decided it was close enough to measure, measured, and then announced that team A had lost the challenge because the re-spot didn't get a first down. Team A lost a crucial timeout.

I don't remember what happened then other than team A lost (I vaguely remember that maybe the coach got so angry they got penalized and didn't convert, or maybe they did but lost later), but I do remember that the lost timeout directly contributed to their loss of the game.

The thing is, team A did derived a "competitive advantage" from the result of the challenge...I think most coaches would take 4th and inches over 4th and 3 any day, especially when in obvious four down territory. The whole "it has to result in a first down" (except on 4th down) stipulation reeks of this mentality that people will always punt after 3 downs. Similarly, what if a challenged spot makes a 52 yard FG attempt on 4th and 12 into a 49 yard FG attempt on 4th and 9? If a challenged spot results in gained yardage, it produces a competitive advantage, it should be won. But it's not.

by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 1:15am

I remember watching this game too! I can't remember what teams were playing, either. Maybe RaiderJoe would know

by sundown (not verified) :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 10:32am

I'd think it'd be very fair and simple to make it a win as long as the spot changed by a full yard. That would still discourage challenging that the spot was off by an inch but it would cover examples like you bring up where it really is a very big deal to the game.

by sundown (not verified) :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 10:32am

I'd think it'd be very fair and simple to make it a win as long as the spot changed by a full yard. That would still discourage challenging that the spot was off by an inch but it would cover examples like you bring up where it really is a very big deal to the game.

by bernie (not verified) :: Wed, 10/03/2012 - 3:13pm

What if Andy Reid was the one throwing the challenge flag? Wouldn't that be an automatic loss of challenge?

by The Ninjalectual :: Thu, 10/04/2012 - 1:12am

This might be for you: 303magazine.com/2012/09/mike_tanier/