By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but an NFL officiating crew completely botched the enforcement of the rules in a nationally televised football game.


No, this bungling of the rules was not quite at the magnitude of last year’s NFC Championship Game debacle, and this one did not necessarily have a major impact on the final result of the game. But in terms of referee John Hussey and NFL head of officiating Al Riveron, what took place at the end of the first half on Monday night in New Orleans was a complete and utter embarrassment.

Generally speaking, the people in charge of enforcing the rules should … know the rules. That was not the case in this instance.

As a brief recap, here’s what happened:

With 48 seconds left in the first half, on a third-and-17, Drew Brees connected with Michael Thomas on a pass near the left sideline. Thomas was tackled near the sticks but managed to get the football across the line to gain. When he hit the turf, the game clock was at 42 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

However, the on-field official incorrectly ruled that Thomas had been tackled about 2 feet shy of the first-down marker. He spotted the ball, the Saints ran to the line, and Drew Brees took a snap with 28 seconds left in the second quarter, taking a QB sneak over the line to gain.

But that play didn’t count, as the replay officials buzzed down to Hussey to initiate a review of the spot on the Thomas catch. Replay showed that Thomas had indeed crossed the line to gain, thus giving the Saints a first-and-10 at their own 47-yard line. (Side note: Credit to ESPN sticking a pylon with a camera at the first-down marker. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to get a correct ruling.)

That would have been good news, but NFL rules dictate that a 10-second runoff must be enforced if replay reverses a call on the field and the end result is a situation where the clock would have been running.

By rule, then, the Saints should have had a first-and-10 with 32 seconds left in the first half, because Thomas was tackled with 42 seconds left on the clock. Simple enough.

Yet when Hussey made his announcement to the New Orleans fans (many of whom were dressed up in referee outfits to express their still-burning righteous rage from January), he said, “The game clock is correct at 26 seconds.”

This was peculiar because at no point did the game clock ever reach 26 seconds. That was how much time was left on the clock after Brees ran his QB sneak, which did not count.

A meeting among the officials then broke out, with Hussey eventually announcing that a 10-second runoff needed to be enforced. Very oddly,  the 10-second runoff was enforced from the point of … 26 seconds.

“Because we reversed to a running clock, we will take 10 seconds off the clock. We will reduce it to 16 seconds,” Hussey said.

The Saints and their fans were nonplussed.

Saints fan in referee attire (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

This was patently absurd, because, again, the clock was never at 26 seconds.

By rule, the 10-second runoff should have been enforced at 42 seconds, thus leaving the Saints with 32 seconds. Instead, the Saints got 16 seconds to try to complete their drive before halftime.

That the Saints ended up missing their field goal at the end of that drive is mostly immaterial. We could play the hypothetical game all day with how that drive could have ended. Maybe the Saints could have scored a touchdown. Maybe Brees could have thrown a pick-six. Maybe the Stanford band would have run onto the field. Who knows.

This isn’t about that.

This is about two things.

One: The 10-second runoff rule is a deeply flawed rule. Remember back in 2017, when Golden Tate caught a ball near the goal line, was awarded a touchdown, only for replay review to determine that he was down just shy of the goal line, which then triggered a 10-second runoff, ending the game and robbing the Lions of a chance at scoring from the 6-inch line? That was bad; the Lions absolutely could have gotten to the line if Tate had properly been ruled short of the goal line, but because the officials incorrectly ruled that he scored a touchdown, the Lions were punished and thus lost the game. Brutal.

Two: John Hussey is the referee. He should know the rules. Al Riveron is the head of officiating. He, too, should know the rules. With no other NFL games taking place at the time, all of the focus and energy of the NFL’s replay center in Manhattan was directed on this one game. Yet somehow, the enforcement of a simple rule proved too troublesome for the entire operation, leaving the Saints with exactly half as much time as they should have been given, by rule.

(Understated third thing: The fact that there’s a rule on the books that punishes offenses because of officiating errors is a bit odd. Yes, it takes time to run to the line and snap the ball, which is the genesis for the rule. Yet if the call on the field was correct, and replay confirms that it was correct, then there is no 10-second runoff. If replay reverses the decision, because the officials made the wrong spot, then the offense loses 10 seconds. Seems like a flaw.)

The Saints, partly due to their own fortitude and partly due to Bill O’Brien’s/Romeo Crennel’s defense forgetting some basics about the sport of football, managed to win the game in dramatic fashion. In that sense, it was no harm, no foul.

But analysis of rule enforcement cannot be based on the final scoreboard. It must focus on the operation of the officials and the replay center, as none of the involved parties could have looked into a crystal ball and foreseen that the Saints would have won the game anyway.

This isn’t a story about the Saints getting hosed. We’ve done that already. And even if New Orleans had lost Monday night, it wouldn’t have been because of this. Please. Let’s not minimize the travesty that took place in January by comparing every officiating gaffe to it.

On a moderately positive note, in what is at least a minimal sign of accountability, Riveron admitted in a pool report that the league incorrectly applied the 10-second runoff at 26 seconds. In a league where nobody ever wants to accept blame (Bill Vinovich claiming he didn’t see last year’s pass interference was a real treat), that is at least a positive step. (Riveron did go with 41 seconds, instead of 42 seconds, but, well, baby steps.)

Yet ideally, with literally zero other games taking place, it would be better for the people enforcing the rules to know the rules which they are enforcing. A mistake like this just might one day end up costing a team a chance at reaching a Super Bowl, or something crazy like that.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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