Monday, January 9, 2012

Don't Blow It!

I hope you enjoyed this weekend’s wildcard playoff games.  Some were closer than others, but all were entertaining.  And…I’ll bet you didn’t have to listen to the explanation of the overtime rules for the playoffs when you were watching the Pittsburgh-Denver game!

One relatively rare issue came up in two different games this weekend, so I thought it would be a good idea to review the relevant rules and why the issue can be critical.  What we’re talking about here is the dreaded “inadvertent whistle.” 


Being the stuff football officials’ nightmares are made of, inadvertent whistles (“IWs”) are rare, which is why it is remarkable that it happened twice this weekend—in the first round of the playoffs, no less.*

Detroit Lions @ New Orleans Saints

The first IW occurred in the second quarter of the Lions-Saints game.  With his arm pulled back to pass, Saints QB Drew Brees was hit by Detroit’s Willie Young and the ball came loose (whether this was a fumble or incomplete forward pass is debatable, but that’s another matter entirely).  When the ball hit the ground and began to roll around, an official blew his whistle, waving his arms to indicate an incomplete pass.  Detroit’s Justin Durant recovered the fumble and began to run down the field, for what would probably been an easy touchdown, when the other officials killed the play by blowing their whistles.  The officials huddled up and ultimately decided that it was a fumble and the first whistle had been blown prematurely.  The result:  Lions’ ball at the spot where it was picked up by Justin Durant. 

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos

An almost identical situation happened in the Wildcard game between Pittsburgh and Denver on Sunday. 

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass that seemingly traveled back about three yards to wide receiver Mike Wallace, who dropped it as he started to run downfield.  Since this seemed to be a backward pass, the drop was a fumble, and therefore a live ball.  A Bronco player picked it up, but before he could run with it an official blew his whistle, motioning that it was an incomplete pass.  Therefore, Pittsburgh kept the ball.  Denver head coach John Fox challenged the play, but withdrew the challenge when referee Ron Winter informed him that it couldn’t be reviewed because the official’s whistle killed the play.


Inadvertent Whistles

Under the NFL’s rules, the ball is “dead”—i.e., the play is over—when an official blows his whistle.  An “inadvertent whistle” is when an official blows his whistle too soon, and the play should have been allowed to continue.  It is an embarrassing error that can have a big impact on the game.  Therefore, it usually results in controversy and anger.  Unfortunately, the NFL’s rules also provide that IWs are not subject to review, meaning that they can’t be corrected—or “unblown,” as it were.

The NFL’s IW rule (found at Rule 7, Sec. 2, Art. 1(n)) describes the options available when play is stopped improperly.  The rule reads, in part:

… (n)      when an official sounds his whistle while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately;

(i)      If the ball is in player possession, the team in possession may elect to put the ball in play where it has been declared dead or to replay the down.

(ii)     If the ball is a loose ball resulting from a fumble, backward pass, or illegal forward pass, the team last in possession may elect to put the ball in play at the spot where possession was lost or to replay the down.

(iii)     If the ball is a loose ball resulting from a legal forward pass, a free kick, a fair-catch kick, or a scrimmage kick, the ball is returned to the previous spot, and the down is replayed…

Put simply, when a whistle is blown prematurely, the team that had the ball last before the whistle has the option of living with the result of the play when it was “killed” by the whistle, or replaying the down.  The exception is the third situation, above, when there is a whistle while a pass is in the air or a ball is loose after a kick.  In those situations, the down is automatically replayed.

A simple example of the rule’s application can be found in the NFL’s Case Book, at A.R. 7.40, which reads:


First-and-goal on B5…A1 runs to the B2 and fumbles the ball into the end zone.  As the ball is rolling loose in the end zone, the Back Judge inadvertently blows his whistle.  A2 recovers the ball in the end zone.

According to the Case Book, A can decide to either replay the down—so, first-and-goal at B5—or have a second-and-goal at the B2, where the runner fumbled the ball.

The Hochuli Rule

NFL rules state, in Rule 15, Section 9, that IWs themselves are not subject to review.  In certain cases, however, the surrounding circumstances can be eligible for review.  A significant example is the incomplete pass/fumble scenario, like the plays this weekend.  This is because of a mistake made by a veteran referee three years ago. 

In Week 2 of the 2008 season, Ed Hochuli was the referee for the San Diego Chargers-Denver Broncos game.  With time running out in the game, Denver QB Jay Cutler dropped the ball when he pulled his arm back to throw—just a plain butter-fingers fumble.  San Diego recovered the ball.  However, Hochuli, a respected referee (and practicing attorney) with over 19 years of experience in the NFL, blew his whistle and ruled the play an incomplete pass.  Denver went on to score and won the game by converting on the 2-point conversion attempt.  It was obvious from the replays (and when it happened live) that the play was a fumble and San Diego should have gotten the ball.  At the time, though, such rulings were not subject to review.  The rule was changed that off-season.  Now, NFL Rule 15, Section 9 provides, in relevant part:

(c)           Other reviewable plays: …

…3.Ruling of incomplete pass when the recovery of a passer’s fumble by an opponent or teammate occurs in the action following the fumble.

The emphasis above is mine; you’ll see why in a minute.


So, how were the IW and “Hochuli” rules applied to the two situations from this weekend?  Let’s start with the Lions-Saints play.

I have looked at replays of this several times, reread the rule and Case Book examples, and, for the life of me don’t understand why the Lions were awarded possession when they didn’t recover the fumble until after the inadvertent whistle.  By my reading of the rule, the Saints should have had the option to replay the down or have the ball where it was when the whistle was blown.  Moreover, even though the IW can’t be reviewed, this play would have been reviewable if the Saints wanted to argue that the play resulted in a fumble instead of an incomplete pass.  This is because of the Hochuli Rule.  I’m very puzzled as to why New Orleans coach Sean Payton didn’t throw his challenge flag.

Despite the doubts of me and countless others, however, experts like former NFL Vice President of Officiating, Mike Pereira, have a different opinion.  Pereira—who oversaw the fallout from Ed Hochuli’s IW in 2008 and subsequent rule change—now works for FOX, providing his insight when officiating issues arise during games.  In his opinion, the crew did the “fair thing” by awarding possession to the Lions, and the correct thing by not allowing Detroit to advance the fumble.  So, apparently, the officials have some discretion in the application of the rule.  In case you're interested, here is a link to Pereira's article:

The Pittsburgh-Denver result is more easily explained.  Remember that Denver’s coach wanted to challenge the ruling on the field of an incomplete pass, but was told that the play couldn’t be reviewed.  This is correct, and not just because an IW was involved.  It was clear that Roethlisberger wasn’t the one who fumbled the ball; it was the receiver who momentarily caught the backward pass.  The Hochuli Rule only allows an incomplete pass ruling to be reviewed when the passer fumbles. 


Why should we care when the officials get whistle-happy?  If the IW hadn’t been blown in the Detroit-New Orleans game, Justin Durant probably would have run the fumble back for a touchdown, which may have changed the game’s momentum enough to have an effect on the outcome, or at least the final score. 

In the Pittsburgh-Denver game, if the official hadn’t killed the play after the Bronco player recovered the ball, Denver could have advanced the ball.  Plus, if the officials were in disagreement over whether it was an incomplete forward pass or a fumble from a backward pass, they would have been able to discuss it among themselves and render a collective judgment.  Instead, they were bound by the decision of the official who blew his whistle prematurely.

So there!

I hope this clears things up…But if not, don’t worry.  I’m still baffled, too (and exhausted).  Be sure to watch this weekend’s playoff games for more drama!

*When I was an official-in-training, we weren’t allowed to wear whistles around our necks.  Instead, we had “finger whistles”, which fit around the middle two fingers.  Why?  So that we wouldn’t be tempted to just hold our whistles in our mouths, which would increase the odds of blowing an IW.  Instead, when you have to lift your hand to your mouth to blow the whistle, you have just a fraction longer to think about it.

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