By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino took to the NFL Network on Tuesday to explain a controversial call made by referee Ed Hochuli on Monday night in New England.
“We like a little controversy; not too much,” Blandino stated.
The call in question came on the Ravens’ first possession of the game. On a third-and-6 from the Baltimore 36-yard line, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco dropped to pass. He was quickly met by Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who wrapped up Flacco and ripped the ball out of the quarterback’s hands as the two fell toward the turf. Flowers had gained possession of the football before either player had hit the ground.
It looked to be a sack, forced fumble, and fumble recovery all in one motion for Flowers. But Hochuli ruled that the play was dead when Flacco’s “forward progress” had been stopped, and thus the turnover that came after the end of Flacco’s “forward progress” would not count and also could not be challenged or reviewed.
Blandino, on his “Official Review” segment, gave a play-by-play description of what happened — without explaining why it happened.
“If you watch the play, it’s the point of initial contact. So right here, if the quarterback is then driven backward, the play is over. And watch the referee right in here, he’s going to put his hand up, blow his whistle, signaling progress,” Blandino said. “Flacco’s going to be pulled back. The ball does come out, but after he had been driven back. That’s why the play was blown dead. And that’s not a reviewable play. If you look at the replay, you’ll see the quarterback is being driven backward, he still has control of the football, then it’s stripped out as he’s being pushed back. Play’s over once the referee puts his hand up and blows the whistle — forward progress — and we move the ball back to the point of initial contact.”
The obvious question was then asked: How can an NFL referee rule “forward progress” on a quarterback who had never once made any forward progress on a play?
Again, Blandino answered without really answering.
“Yeah, that’s a good point. And we treat it … the moment he’s first contacted, as soon as he’s driven back, that’s his point of forward progress,” Blandino said. “And so if he’s pushed back a yard, two yards, three yards, it’s over at that point, and any subsequent loss of the football will not be a fumble.”
The statement of “It’s over at that point” is an interesting one, as Blandino’s description would seem to indicate that nearly all quarterback fumbles should not be allowed by rule. If a play is “over” at the point where a quarterback is first contacted, that quarterback is then free to fumble as that defensive player completes the act of tackling — an act during which momentum carries both parties backward, away from the line of scrimmage.
There’s also this: The NFL rulebook includes no distinction for “forward progress” regarding a quarterback and any other runner with the football:
Hochuli’s ruling — and Blandino’s explanation — would make sense if Flowers had wrapped up Flacco and then carried the quarterback backward for several yards and multiple steps before the play was blown dead. If the ball were stripped as Flacco was being manhandled for several seconds, then obviously the fumble would not count.
But from the time of Flowers’ contact with Flacco to the time they both hit the ground, approximately just 1.17 seconds elapsed. The stripping of the football took place at the time of the tackle, in one single motion. It was not all that dissimilar from Von Miller stealing the football from Derek Carr in 2015.
It was also somewhat similar to a strip sack made by Von Miller on Cam Newton in the Super Bowl last season, a play that resulted in a Denver defensive touchdown. On that play, roughly 0.8 seconds elapsed from the moment Miller contacted Newton to the time Newton fumbled.
Yet Miller did not wrap up Newton on that play, thus there is some distinction. Yet there are many videos of strip sacks readily available. There are not, however, many videos of them being called dead plays due to the stopping of “forward progress” on a quarterback who was dropping back. And that remains the unmentioned aspect of the call, even after Blandino’s explanation.
Notably, Blandino’s “Official Review” segment on Tuesday did not include any discussion of this call made by Jeff Triplette in Detroit:
Earlier this year, Blandino attempted to explain away a failure by Triplette’s crew to award possession of a lost fumble to Cleveland, calling the obvious mistake just a “bad visual.”
“It’s one thing to be wrong on a call, but it’s another thing to double-down on a horrible call and keep insisting that it’s right,” CBS Sports’ John Breech wrote at the time. “Blandino had 48 hours to get his hands on every angle of this play before he made his officiating video on Tuesday, and despite clear video evidence of Johnson recovering the ball on the ground, Blandino kept insisting that it never happened. The NFL should just admit they botched the call.”
That last part is something that, quite clearly, does not happen too often.
The play on Monday night did not end up becoming a lightning rod for controversy the way that a game-deciding call in the final seconds might (like the “illegal bat” in Seattle last year, for example). But had the Patriots lost the game, there likely would have been more discussion about a decision by Hochuli that cost the Patriots 37 yards of field position and at the very least an easy field goal opportunity.
Alas, the Patriots’ 30-23 victory spared the NFL from having a situation with “too much” controversy, instead presenting Blandino with “a little controversy.” Just the way the NFL likes it.