By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In terms of point spread and win-loss records, Sunday’s win by the Titans over the Chiefs will not go down as an all-time upset. It might not even register on the biggest upsets of the season.
Nevertheless, the Titans stunned plenty of people in the football world by charging back for a late touchdown to stun the Chiefs in Patrick Mahomes’ return to the field was perhaps the best game from Sunday’s slate of NFL action. It featured brilliance from Mahomes, a dominant performance from Derrick Henry, a back-and-forth exchanging of haymakers in the fourth quarter, and a blocked field goal to officially cap a wild Sunday in Nashville.
Somewhat lost in all of that action was a completely inexplicable ruling made by referee Tony Corrente, a decision that very easily could have shaped the game in a way that made it impossible for Tennessee to overcome.
It came midway through the first quarter. With the Chiefs up 7-0, Chris Jones bulled his way through a double team on a third-and-3 to strip the ball from Ryan Tannehill in the backfield. Tannehill fell directly on top of the loose ball, and he casually pinned the ball to his butt with his right hand while lying on the turf. The play was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Yet referee Tony Corrente could not see the football, because he was positioned behind Tannehill, and the ball was pinned on the other side of the quarterback’s body. While Tannehill waited for a whistle, Tanoh Kpassagnon of the Chiefs swooped in and grabbed the football, which was left exposed next to Tannehill’s body.
Corrente then blew his whistle while sprinting to the two-man pile. After taking a quick peek, he instantly awarded possession to Kansas City. He did to with gusto, too.
This was … not the correct call. While Tannehill didn’t exactly have the football secured to his chest with both arms, the fact is that he didn’t need to. He was sacked, he dropped the ball, and he fell on top of it and held it against his body. Kpassagnon merely jumped in late and put his hands on a football that Tannehill was holding.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) November 10, 2019
Nevertheless, Corrente made his call. He likely figured that if he was wrong, the automatic review process would fix it. So did the viewer. So did color commentator Tony Romo. So did just about anybody watching that game, including Chiefs fans.
Yet somehow, the buzz down to Corrente never came. The replay assistant who is tasked with initiating full-scale reviews somehow determined that Kpassagnon clearly and fully gained possession here, and that Tannehill clearly did not have possession while being down.
It was, to say the least, a rather bizarre call. In an era where there are multiple high-definition camera angles focused on the ball, it’s unfathomable that a play focused on the quarterback is officiated improperly.
Now, you could make an argument that Tannehill didn’t properly secure the football against his body. You could. But you’d have to also make an argument that Kpassagnon did gain possession of the football. And that clearly did not happen.
The Chiefs appeared to have made it hurt, too, three plays later, when Travis Kelce waltzed his way across the goal line to double KC’s lead. But an offensive pass interference penalty on Tyreek Hill took that score off the board, and the Titans held the Chiefs to a field goal. Tennessee eventually won by three points.
Despite what appeared to have been a solid botching of the call, there appears to be no coverage whatsoever of the fumble recovery ruling. That is a bit strange.
Former referee and current CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore said that it was an odd decision, considering the NFL seeks to protect quarterbacks, rather than expose them as fair game to getting hit when they’re lying in a vulnerable position while possessing the football.
“I was also surprised,” Steratore said on the broadcast. “You know, I understand why Tony Corrente didn’t stop this play, because from his angle he doesn’t really see the football in live action. But when we look at this in replay, with Tannehill pinning that ball in his possession [while] on the ground and looking back, it kind of breaks away from our philosophy of protecting a quarterback.”
Steratore added: “He just appears to be down. I’d think that they would’ve kept that [possession] to Tennessee.”
Of course, thanks to an inspiring game-winning drive led by Ryan Tannehill (yes, that’s a real sentence) and a perfectly timed jumping of the snap on the would-be-game-tying field goal, this particular play was rendered moot.
Yet, as we have to do from time to time, we must envision that a call like this happened in a game of greater significance, at a point in the game where the swing of 42 yards of field position could decide a game. Perhaps it’s a game that determines whether or not a team makes the playoffs, perhaps it’s an actual playoff game. Maybe it’s the Super Bowl.
Would this same mechanism that allows for no further review be in place in such a moment? Or was this a clear case of a breakdown in the system, both from an on-field officiating perspective and for the replay assistant’s role in activating a review on a turnover?
The bigger question may be much more simple: Will the NFL ever explain what happened?
We know that answer, though. And so, the mystery that is NFL officiating will live on (and on and on and on). It is important, though, that we continue to ask the question.