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NFL playoff officiating decisions – Why was Rashard Higgins’ fumble out of the end zone a touchback?


A historic drop in penalty flags helped lessen the spotlight on NFL officiating in 2020. So did the abolition of replay review for pass interference. But the arrival of postseason football has raised scrutiny on every questionable call, rule interpretation and review.

No worries. We’re here for you. What follows is a real-time breakdown of the calls you shook your heads at, screamed at the television for or were otherwise confused by during the wild-card round. The most recent plays are at the top.

Browns lose ball on touchback amid uncalled illegal hit

Browns-Chiefs divisional game, 1:42 remaining in second quarter

What happened: The Browns lost the ball when receiver Rashard Higgins fumbled as he dove toward the goal line. The ball trickled out of the side of the end zone, activating a much-hated rule that treats the play as a turnover and marks it as a touchback.

How it was resolved: The play was reviewed, but Higgins clearly fumbled before the ball crossed the goal line.

Analysis: It was the correct call, based on the rulebook. We can debate about whether it’s fair to call a fumble out of the end zone a touchback, when a fumble that goes out of bounds remains in the possession of the fumbling team. But the NFL has never considered changing that rule, and everyone knows there is a risk of a turnover when they try to stretch the ball over the line.

However, there was a complication here. What was more interesting about this play was that Higgins fumbled at the precise moment that Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen lowered his helmet and initiated contact with Higgins’ helmet. That was a clear violation of the rule the NFL instituted in 2018 to minimize such hits, which can cause concussions and neck injuries for both players involved. But the foul was not called, and it is not reviewable.

To be fair, it is a very difficult call to make in real time. Officials have said so from the moment it was instituted. They threw only 40 flags for it during the 2020 regular season. It’s much easier to see in slow motion. Regardless, the Browns would have retained the ball and gained a 15-yard penalty.

Unsportsmanlike conduct on Bears TE Cole Kmet

Bears-Saints wild-card game, 9:40 remaining in second quarter

What happened: Kmet was flagged after catching a 1-yard pass to the Saints’ 9-yard line. After Kmet and Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins exchanged words, two officials got in between them. Kmet tossed the ball to one of the officials.

How it was resolved: Kmet was flagged for what referee Alex Kemp said was unsportsmanlike conduct. The Bears went from a third-and-5 to a third-and-20, and they ultimately settled for a field goal.

Analysis: It was impossible to hear what was said between Kmet and Jenkins — and/or Kmet and the officials. But unless something else happened off camera, we can only assume Kmet violated one of these two prohibited acts in the NFL rule book: (1) using abusive, threatening or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials or representatives of the league, or (2) using baiting or taunting acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.

It would be wild if the officials considered the ball tossing to be taunting, instead of giving Kmet the benefit of the doubt for just returning the ball. From afar, the interaction did not seem to rise to the level of a 15-yard penalty in a playoff game.

Ravens-Titans wild-card game, 4:28 remaining in the fourth quarter

What happened: Snead was called for offensive pass interference on a 3-yard pass to tailback J.K. Dobbins that had converted a key fourth-and-2. Snead had taken two steps past the line of scrimmage and thrown his right shoulder into Titans linebacker Rashaan Evans.

How it was resolved: The penalty wiped out what would have been a first down at the Titans’ 20-yard line, which if nothing else would have allowed the Ravens to drain time off the clock (or force the Titans to use timeouts). The Ravens ended up kicking a 52-yard field goal to take a 20-13 lead, maintaining the Titans’ one-score deficit.

Analysis: By rule, this call is defensible. A receiver isn’t supposed to make that type of contact beyond 1 yard past the line of scrimmage. Snead was clearly trying to restrict Evans from tackling Dobbins. It’s fair to question whether the call materially restricted Evans from making a play. It’s also fair to compare the level of contact and restriction involved with what took place on the Titans’ first touchdown of the game, when receiver A.J. Brown pushed cornerback Marlon Humphrey away as the ball arrived and was not penalized.

In the end, it was the first OPI penalty on the Ravens all season, a year in which there was a 40% decrease in such penalties league-wide.

Confusion on punt at end of first half

Ravens-Titans wild-card game, 0:11 remaining in the second quarter

What happened: The Ravens’ Sam Koch kicked a 43-yard punt on fourth-and-31. But referee Jerome Boger announced a defensive holding call and signaled for a first down.

How it was resolved: Boger made a total of three announcements to clarify that it was the Ravens who would get the first down, and that the foul was against Titans linebacker Daren Bates. The Ravens’ offense returned to the field, and quarterback Lamar Jackson took a knee to end the half.

Analysis: Shortly after the snap, Bates grabbed Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox and pulled him to the ground in a technique that teams sometimes employ to create a lane for another player to rush through. It was clearly a defensive hold, and because it happened before the kick, it was adjudicated the same way it would have been if the offense and defense were on the field. That awarded the Ravens 5 yards and an automatic first down.

It took a while for Boger to sort through it all, and there also seemed to have been an uncalled hold against Ravens upback Anthony Levine Sr. Ultimately, though, there was no disputing Boger’s application of the rules.

No call on A.J. Brown for offensive pass interference

Ravens-Titans wild-card game, 5:39 remaining in the first quarter

What happened: The Titans were credited with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to Brown, who seemed to push Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey away from him as the ball arrived in the end zone.

How it was resolved: The touchdown stood. Potential interference from a receiver or a defender is no longer reviewable.

Analysis: Pass interference is among the most subjective judgment calls in football, as we learned in 2019 when the NFL tried unsuccessfully to adjudicate it through replay. The NFL rulebook defines it as an instance where one player “significantly hinders” another from an opportunity to catch the ball. In practical terms, officiating analyst John Parry said on the ABC/ESPN broadcast, officials look for whether one player gains an “advantage” through a prohibited action.

In this case, Brown clearly had an easier catch after pushing Humphrey away with his left arm. So this play clearly fit the definition, both officially and practically. But it should be noted that NFL officials were pretty stingy on offensive pass interference this season. They threw flags 72 flags for it in 2020, the fewest total since 2007 and third fewest since 2001. This season’s total represented a 40% drop from 2019, when there were 122 such flags.

Washington punt declared a touchback

Bucs-Washington wild-card game, 9:02 remaining in the third quarter

What happened: The Buccaneers were awarded a touchback after Washington’s Troy Apke picked up a Washington punt near the 7-yard line and — presumably believing it had been touched by a Buccaneers player — ran it into the end zone.

How it was resolved: The play remained a touchback.

Analysis: The ball should have been marked where Apke first gained possession, and not a touchback. By rule, a kick that goes past the line of scrimmage is dead as soon as a member of the kicking team downs it. The ball can’t be advanced. There are many judgment calls over the course of a game that can be debated. This one was a matter of rule application. Washington should have been able to pin the Buccaneers deeper than it did.

Rams RB Cam Akers’ fumble reversed

Rams-Seahawks wild-card game, 46 seconds remaining in first half

What happened: Officials ruled that Seahawks defensive end Carlos Dunlap stripped the ball from Akers after a 3-yard run. The fumble recovery was credited to Seahawks cornerback Ryan Neal, giving Seattle the ball at the Rams’ 26-yard line.

How it was resolved: The call was reversed in replay review. The NFL ruled Akers was down by contact before he fumbled, and the Rams retained possession.

Analysis: The league eventually got the play right, but like several other calls we’ve seen during the course of wild-card weekend, it was hard to believe that NFL-caliber officials would see this play as a fumble. Akers was laying on his back, with the ball tucked tightly in his arm, when Dunlap first attempted to strip the ball. At least one official initially ruled Akers down, but he was overruled. It’s always possible that views were blocked, and sometimes if they’re in doubt, officials rule a turnover to ensure it can be adjudicated correctly in replay via automatic review.

But in this case, replay could have reviewed the play regardless because there were less than two minutes remaining. It was the kind of decision that erodes confidence in the overall competence of the enterprise.

Officials pick up flag on hit to Rams QB’s head

Rams-Seahawks wild-card game, 5:40 remaining in first quarter

What happened: As Rams quarterback John Wolford dove to the ground after a two-yard run, Seahawks safety Jamal Adams lowered his right shoulder and hit Wolford in the head. Officials initially threw a flag against Adams. Wolford left the game and was replaced by Jared Goff.

How it was resolved: Referee John Hussey announced there would be no penalty because Wolford was considered a runner and thus wasn’t subject to protections normally afforded to quarterbacks.

Analysis: It’s true that Wolford wouldn’t get quarterback protection on that play, but what happened next prompted differing takes from broadcast officiating analysts. Fox Sports’ Mike Pereira and NBC’s Terry McAulay both suggested that the hit was illegal because Wolford was giving himself up and therefore a defenseless player. But the NFL rule book does not account for that specific situation. ESPN’s John Parry tweeted: “QB – head first is runner – shoulder to helmet is not a foul by rule.” Bottom line, the entire sequence was debatable.

It’s the second consecutive season the Seahawks have knocked a starting quarterback out of a playoff game with a hit to the head. In the previous case, Jadeveon Clowney’s hit on Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was considered incidental and not forcible. Wolford, meanwhile, was taken to the hospital for precautionary measures, according to a Rams spokesperson.

How was that not a fumble by the Colts?

Colts-Bills wild-card game, 50 seconds remaining in fourth quarter

What happened: On fourth-and-10 on the Colts’ final possession of the game, receiver Zach Pascal was credited with a 17-yard catch and fell at the Bills’ 46-yard line. Pascal got up and fumbled, which was recovered by the Bills in what would have been a game-clinching play. Officials on the field, however, ruled that Pascal was down by contact after initially falling.

How it was resolved: Bills coach Sean McDermott called a timeout as the Colts hurried to the line of scrimmage, but he could not challenge because there was less than 2 minutes remaining in the game. During the timeout, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron reviewed the call. It was not immediately clear if his review stopped the game, or if it was McDermott’s timeout. Regardless, referee Brad Allen announced that the call would stand with no further explanation.

Analysis: The NFL said on Twitter that there was no clear and obvious evidence available to overturn the ruling, and there was no pool report requested in Buffalo to further explain. Because replays seemed to confirm that Pascal was not contacted before he got up, and that he was not down when he lost possession of the ball. We’ll update this post if the NFL or Riveron offers any further explanation. But by all available evidence at the moment, the Bills should have been given possession. Had the Colts come back to tie or win the game — the Bills won 27-24 — this decision would have been heavily scrutinized.

Clock runs after fumble out of bounds

Colts-Bills wild-card game, 26 seconds remaining in fourth quarter

What happened: The game clock continued running after Colts receiver Michael Pittman Jr. fumbled out of bounds.

How it was resolved: The clock was not stopped.

Analysis: This play caused a fair bit of uproar on social media, but it was appropriate game administration. A fumble out of bounds is not the same as a player going out of bounds. According the NFL rule book: “If a fumble or backward pass by any player goes out of bounds, the game clock starts on the referee’s signal that a ball has been returned to the field of play.”

Bills credited with two sideline catches

Colts-Bills wild-card game, under 2 minutes, second quarter

What happened: Bills receiver Gabriel Davis was credited with sideline receptions of 37 and 19 yards. In both cases, frame-by-frame replays showed he might not have gotten both feet down in bounds.

How it was resolved: Because there were less than 2 minutes remaining, the NFL’s replay official instituted reviews of both plays. In each case, referee Brad Allen announced only that the original call stood. Allen did not explain why there was an official’s hat on the ground as Davis made the first catch; often that means a player or players has run out of bounds and is no longer an eligible receiver.

Analysis: You could make a frame-by-frame judgment that Davis’ left foot touched the white part of the sideline after the first catch. The same goes for the second reception, where he might not have fully executed a toe drag before stepping out of bounds. But the NFL’s replay system requires a much higher standard than “might.” It must be “clear and obvious,” preferably in live-speed action, that Davis had stepped out of bounds before gaining possession. Had the on-field ruling been incomplete, the review system likely would have upheld that as well.

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