BOSTON (CBS) — Referee Ed Hochuli became a fan favorite over the years due to his bulking arms and his penchant for going a bit over his time limit when speaking to the crowd, but you would have had a hard time finding a Hochuli fan in the stands at Gillette Stadium in the second quarter on Sunday night.
Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko kicked to Ted Ginn Jr., but the low kick didn’t make it to the return man, taking a few bounces as Ginn stepped toward the ball. Ginn ultimately decided against fielding the punt, though it looked as though the ball may have touched Ginn’s leg.
Marquice Cole, in punt coverage, jumped on the loose ball, and it appeared as though the Patriots would take over. However, no call was made on the field by the officiating crew for several minutes, leading to some confusion.
The confusion, though, was just beginning.
After a long huddle with the officials, Hochuli addressed the crowd and said, “The ball was illegally touched but it was also, and it was then recovered by the kicking team. However there was a holding by the receiving team, No. 57. That penalty will be enforced from the previous spot and we’ll replay fourth down.”
Gillette Stadium erupted in boos, and both Bill Belichick and Jim Harbaugh looked confused and upset on their respective sidelines.
Part of the confusion was that Hochuli referred to the downing of the punt as an “illegal touch,” which is the language used in the rulebook.
Shortly after the call, Belichick threw his red challenge flag, presumably with the hope of replay showing the ball touching Ginn’s leg.
“New England is challenging the ruling on the field that the ball was not touched and therefore that the recovery wasn’t illegal,” Hochuli announced. If the ball was touched first by the receiving team, it would be a legal recovery by New England down there.”
The football field has yard markers, so “down there” wasn’t exactly the type of term that helped clear up this confusion.
After reviewing the play on replay, Hochuli met again with all the officials on the field, then made his announcement.
“The ruling on the field stands as called, however … ” Hochuli said, pausing to listen to the boos from Patriots fans, “however, the call will be enforced where it was illegally recovered by New England, because the ball was not touched by San Francisco. [Inaudible due to microphone cutting out.] … There will be a 10-yard penalty against the receiving team at that spot and San Francisco will keep the ball. First down.”
The ball was then placed on the San Francisco 22-yard line, which again upset both Belichick and Harbaugh.
The ball was spotted incorrectly, but it did work to the Patriots’ advantage. It should have been placed 10 yards from where the ball was initially touched by the Patriots at the 36-yard line. However, it was spotted about 8 yards from where it was ultimately recovered by Cole, the 30-yard line.
Hochuli tried to address the crowd and television audience after that, but his microphone (thankfully?) did not work.
In total, 10 full minutes of real time passed between the end of the punt play and the snap of the 49ers’ first play of the ensuing possession. In the end, there was no evidence that the ball actually hit Ginn, but the long delay and confusing messages led to a scene at Gillette that hasn’t been witnessed since the replacement refs.
The NFL was amused enough to post a video of the ordeal on NFL.com.
Update, 12:22 a.m.: Bill Belichick said after the game that he did understand what took place on the field.
“I totally understand his explanation and I have no problem with the play,” Belichick said. “It was an unusual play, there was some confusion on it, and I didn’t really understand totally until after the challenge, after he came out and explained it. But really when it all washed out, it was what it was. I think they finally got it right and they explained the whole situation to me.”