Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Indisputably Controversial: The Fumble That Wasn't

The New York Giants trounced the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, 37-20, to earn a trip to the NFC Championship game for the first time since the 2007 season. The Giants beat down on the Packers ended up making a very controversial call by Bill Leavy irrelevant at game's end. However, this call still created outrage among Giants fans and was one of the most discussed calls of the weekend.  The play happened with 1:45 remaining in the 1st Quarter, when Aaron Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for a short pass, gaining five yards. At first glance, it appeared Jennings was down at the Giants 33 yard line, but the ball had come loose. The Giants recovered the ball, as the officials let the play remain live. However, after quick consultation, the ruling on the field was that Jennings was determined to be down by contact prior to fumbling the ball. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin quickly challenged the play, contending that Jennings had lost the ball prior to being down by contact.

Leavy went to the replay booth and determined that the call on the field stood as called. The Packers would go on to score a game tying touchdown later in the drive. This was to the dismay of many after many slow-motion, zoomed in instant replay shots were played by Fox. These replays shots, along with play-by-play commentator Joe Buck and color man Troy Aikman stating that Jennings fumbled the ball and the call should be reversed, were cited by many of those dismayed with the call. Former Vice President of officiating for the NFL and current Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira agreed with Buck and Aikman that the call should indeed be reversed. Obviously, there was a lot of credence to those that disagreed with the call made by Bill Leavy to go along with the ruling on the field.

Replay: Jennings non-fumble; Bill Leavy remains with the call made on the field

In the video linked above from, it contains the live shot and multiple replays of the play in question. A couple of the shots provided by the Fox Sports broadcast (the second and third replays) show Jennings' calf down on the ground, but the ball is screened by his body. There is nothing that can be determined by these replays because it is not possible to see if the ball had come loose or not prior to the calf touching the ground. The very first replay angle which shows Jennings' calf on the ground, but the ball already loose, has a problem. The problem with this shot is that when the replay starts the ball is already loose with the calf down, so it cannot be determined whether or not the ball came loose first. The final shot provided in the video, clearly shows the ball loose, however the shot is so zoomed in, you do not get a full shot of the body, including the whole calf in relation to the ground. A highlight from ESPN boxes the calf in with the ball loose, and it seems to appear that the calf had yet to contact the ground. The problem is again, that it is so zoomed in (and not to mention blocked by the ticker), that it cannot be said with certainty that the calf had yet to hit the ground. There was one replay provided neither by or the ESPN highlight, that was shown during the game. It was a zoomed out view that appeared to show space between the calf and the ground with the ball loose, which was cited by Buck, Aikman and Pereira.

The problem for Leavy is that he is only allowed sixty seconds of viewing time for video replay during a review. Although, Leavy is permitted as much time as he needs to make a decision (such as reversal, time on the clock, ball placement, etc.), he must base it of those sixty seconds of viewing time. Leavy receives the video from the video operator, and can only use the replays that are shown in those sixty seconds before the screen goes blank. If there is an angle or shot that is not shown, even if the broadcast and JumboTron shows it, there is no way the referee (Leavy) can make his decision off that particular shot. We do not know the exact replays that were shown to Leavy. The first three replays shown (on broadcast) do create great plausibility that the ball was indeed fumbled, but those shots alone do not prove the ball was fumbled because the ball is screened in two instances and the other does not show the whole play. The fourth broadcast replay would also suggest the ball was likely fumbled, but the overly zoomed in shot does not give the referee reference to conclusively determine that the ball was fumbled.

The standard for overturning a call on a field is dictated by NFL Rule 15-9 ("Reviews by Referee"), which states that "a decision will be reversed only when the Referee has indisputable visual evidence available to him that warrants the change." Interestingly enough, the wording of the rule states that the referee must have indisputable visual evidence available, meaning that the video provided by the replay assistant and video operator must be indisputable. While it is the referee's ultimate decision to determine what is indisputable, there must be the basis and actual evidence to make such determination. Leavy cannot merely infer or assume from some replay shots that the ball was actually fumbled prior to Jennings being down. Leavy must actually possess and witness a replay that indisputably shows that Jennings indeed fumbled. If Leavy is not provided with such a replay, then he cannot overturn the call made on the field. There is nothing Leavy can do if a replay exists, but is not made available to him required by Rule 15-9.

The chance that Leavy did not have all replays made available to him is a possibility, which we cannot determine whether he did or not. It is quite understandable how Leavy made the ruling that the call on the field stood if this were the case. Had Leavy saw a zoomed out view showing both Jennings' calf in relation to the ground at the same time the loose ball was showing,with enough time to review such a replay, then the criticism of Leavy's call becomes more credible.

At the same time, the indisputable evidence standard is a loose term itself. Just like reasonable doubt or clear and convincing evidence standards for juries in a legal case, the indisputable evidence standard is not an exact science. What is considered to be indisputable can vary slightly from referee to referee. What Ed Hochuli (or Mike Pereira for that matter) believes is indisputable, may not be what Bill Leavy believes is indisputable.

While it is not unreasonable for fans, analysts and commentators to believe that there was indisputable visual evidence that the call should be overturned to a fumble (because they very well could be right), we do not know what replay shots Leavy was made available to in sixty seconds. Had Leavy seen the most believed to be glaring replay, it was quite possible that in his mind that there was doubt as to whether or not the calf was down. Enough doubt to stay with the on field call.

Had the first call on the field of a fumble been the actual ruling on the field, the call would not have been overturned to down by contact on review because there was no indisputable evidence to the contrary.  What is indisputable is that the Giants outplayed the Packers and beat them with ease, rendering the call made by Leavy irrelevant in the end. While many of us would not have come to the same conclusion as Leavy, we must be rational and fair as to the circumstances Leavy made his decision upon, right or wrong.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's finally time to move the NFL to the college football replay system???

Anonymous said...

thanks for posting this---i had e-mailed gil wondering when this would be on the board for discussion...

what irks me the most, is that the two officials closest to the play both called the play a fumble.
if you need indisputable evidence during a video replay, what evidence does an official who's much farther away need to overturn the call prior to review?
given leavy's horrific game (missing 2 late hits on manning and calling a late hit on osi which wasn't even close), i wish the league would come out and clarify.

The league has done this in the past on controversial plays, so I'm surprised this is being swept under the rug.

Also, since when is the calf part of "down by contact"? It was my understanding that down by contact only occurs when either a knee or elbow make contact with the ground. Every single replay angle showed that neither of those body parts on Jennings hit the ground before the ball game loose.

Jake said...

This is one of those calls that just seems to be wrong no matter what and when you go back to look at the replay, you want to say it's overwhelming, but at the same time... it's not...

In real time, it's clearly a fumble.

Officials on the field immediately after the play can confer with eachother and end up changing the call, there's no evidence needed for that one other than one official saying, "I clearly saw X" and whoever has the most convincing argument will have their call be the ruling.

Replay doesn't work like that and it's just flawed logic to give the guy a time limit to figure something out that, on replay, takes a good amount of time to consider all variables, intangibles, angles, whatever.

As for the late hits, I can only assume it has something to do with his positioning. I can't think that he would see those three particular plays equally and fully and then come up with the calls he did. He MUST have been blocked out or out of position or something to explain the calls. Otherwise, it's a judgment issue and I just can't believe they'd let an NFL referee continue to work if there is such a terrible inconstancy problem.

Then again, it's another no fun league we don't want to talk about it play, so oh well. That's how you KNOW they really screwed something up.

Jeremy Dircks said...

To be down by contact essentially means that with possession of the ball, after being contacted by a defending player, any part of the body besides the hands or feet contact the ground. The elbow, knee, forearm, calf, butt, head, etc. contacting the ground can make you down by contact.

NFL Rule 7-2-1a states:
"An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended: when a runner is contacted by a defensive player and touches the ground with any part of his body other than his hands or feet. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground. A runner touching the ground with his hands or feet while in the grasp of an opponent may continue to advance."

So, if indeed the calf touched the ground while Jennings was still in possession of the ball, the call would be correct. The NFL actually did come out with a statement from Carl Johnson stating as such, that the calf being down causes the ball to be dead. Does that satisfy the people that contend that the calf was never down? Of course not, nor probably it should. But that is what ultimately caused Leavy to stay with his decision. By his judgement, he could not decide whether the calf was down or not with player possession. Since the call on the field was down by contact, he stood with that call.

We could have wrote about a few other calls including the roughing the passer by Osi, which goes back to the defenseless player. There was contact with the helmet of Rodgers, but albeit a touch, that in my estimation was incidental, thus didn't warrant a flag. Though, it looked like Leavy had a bad angle on that particular play. But that is a whole other conversation.

Going back to the question of what grounds an official can overrule a fellow official on the field. There is no particular rule or circumstances that really dictate this, however if one official believes he has pertinent information that is contrary to the call of the other officials, he can (and should) bring it to their attention. Though, it should be in your area of coverage (unless something egregious or flagrant occurred). Head linesman George Hayward and side judge Larry Rose let the play stay live (ruling it a fumble) at the time. Broadcast went to commercial with the fumble on the field, to come back and say after conference they overturned the call. So, we don't know if Rose or Hayward changed their mind, or if another official came in and gave them information such as Scott Helverson (the back judge)or Jim Rice (the umpire). Even if they did, to be exact, they don't "overturn" the call of the calling official. It is up to that official, in consultation with the referee (Bill Leavy) to make that decision. Of course, the final determination is made by the referee. Although, Leavy was definitely not covering this area or watching this action (as he was with the quarter back). So, hard to know exactly what happened without seeing the conference.

But, in general, if you are going to change the initial call on the field (absent replay), another official has to have some pertinent information or have a calling official change his mind. Also, the axiom tends to be, let the play stay live because you can always change it. If you blow the play dead (especially before recovery is made) then you cannot change the play. Especially with video replay, you see a lot more plays stay live than you would otherwise.

Zaintsfan said...

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, most likely it's a duck. It was clear and convincing evidence. This is not a murder trial. It was clearly a fumble. This ref had seen enough to have called it such. Too many referees go to far into never never land in making these judgemnents. Perfect example is this call, this review, and this ref.

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