Toucherception

By Nathan Petrashek

We don’t often cross over into the world of football here at Cream City Cables, but the controversy over the final play of Monday Night Football has some pretty significant lessons for baseball, too.

In case you’ve been stranded out in the desert with no telecommunications equipment for the past 48 hours, let me explain.  Or, well, we’ll just the NFL do it:

In Monday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, Seattle faced a 4th-and-10 from the Green Bay 24 with eight seconds remaining in the game.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass into the end zone. Several players, including Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings, jumped into the air in an attempt to catch the ball.

Naturally, you’re going to have a lot of defensive backs in the end zone on a hail mary play.  Golden Tate was surrounded by gold helmets, including corner Sam Shields in front of him.  The NFL’s statement continues:

While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.

The NFL concedes there should have been a penalty on the play.  Had there been a penalty, the play would have been negated and, as time was expired, the game would have been over.  But what’s next is really shocking, and relevant for baseball purposes.  As the players came down, the side judge signaled touchdown.  The back judge signaled timeout.  The referee did not bother to ask them what they saw; the call on the field was apparently a touchdown by simultaneous possession (though no one has been able to point to me where that call was actually made on the field).

But that’s okay!  We have replay.  Here’s what happened next:

Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

The result of the game is final.

And that’s that.

The NFL’s statement even, quite helpfully, gives us the rule on simultaneous possession:

If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.

Remember, a valid catch requires a player to secure and maintain control of the ball, even while going to the ground.  You might recall the Calvin Johnson rule from a few years ago:

The NFL concluded that was not a catch.

Now, back to Monday night.  We’re going to conduct our own little replay review.  Here are some photos of the play on Monday night as it progressed:

The ball, incoming. Clearly M.D. Jennings has elevated himself above Golden Tate.

M.D. Jennings catches the ball. Golden Tate’s hand isn’t even on it.

Yep, that’s an interception.

The only thing Golden Tate caught is M.D. Jennings.

The infamous conflicting signals from referees. M.D. Jennings still clearly has possession of the ball. Tate clearly does not, making this an obvious interception.

Just in case you needed more proof.

There you have it.  If Calvin Johnson’s catch was not a touchdown, there is no possible way that Golden Tate can be found to have caught the ball and maintained possession.  There was no simultaneous catch.

One thing to keep in mind is that the replacement referee is not the only one who blew this call.  The NFL has officials – real NFL employees, not replacement referees – assisting with the administration of rules.  According to the NFL, one such official, Howard Slavin, was assisting with the review.  He got it wrong.  And apparently the entire NFL Officiating Department blew the call, too, because there is no way – simply no way! – you can review that game footage and determine that Golden Tate had possession of the ball at any point, let alone that he maintained control through the fall to the ground.

The obvious implication for baseball is that the blown call undermines much of the case for expanded review or automation.  The Commissioner has taken a very careful approach to replay in baseball, first permitting it for borderline home runs calls in 2008.   It will be expanded to fair-or-foul calls and trapped balls, but the system has so far resisted calls for further expansion (for example, on baserunning calls).

What is plain from Monday night’s fiasco is that replay review is not an infallible system.  Review officials will still get calls wrong.  Teams and players will still get screwed.  Error is inherent in any system in which human judgment comes into play (a scary thought when you consider that there are approximately 154,000 U.S. jury trials per year).

What’s more, a replay system is not a system without costs.  There are monetary costs, though one can argue these are not unacceptably high; the Bengals purchased equipment last year for $300,000, plus, of course, the additional cost of review officials and operations staff.  In baseball, the more troubling cost is time.  Every game requires one team to produce at least 27 outs, and baseball is the only major team sport in the United States without a clock.  As of 2010, the average length of a nine-inning game was just under three hours, and that because of dedicated efforts by the Commissioner to speed up the game.  Compare that to 1970s, where the average regulation game lasted under two and one-half hours.

Any expansive replay system is going to impose time costs.  NFL games, after expanding replay review to all scoring plays last season, and all turnovers this season, are lasting longer and longer in 2012, and it isn’t all due to replacement refs.  Expanded replay slows the game down.  It also takes the emotion out of a game when you’re not really sure if your guy just scored a touchdown or hit a home run until five minutes after it happened.

I am not opposed to replay, but I must be persuaded that the benefits outweigh the significant costs.  When the NFL Officiating Department can reach such absurd conclusions even after careful video study, it undermines the case for replay in every sport.

UPDATE

In today’s Ask Vic segement on Packers.com, Vic Ketchman reaches much the same conclusion about replay review:

Norm from Orange Park, FL

I think you have been present to witness two of the most controversial plays in NFL history, one in Pittsburgh and the one on Monday night.

Replay review was used for one and wasn’t available to be used for the other, but Monday’s play and the Immaculate Reception have one thing in common: Replay review was meaningless for both. Forty years later, replay of the Immaculate Reception still can’t confirm whether it was Frenchy Fuqua or Jack Tatum who deflected the ball to Franco Harris. It makes me wonder why we even use replay review if it can’t render a verdict on plays such as these. Aren’t these the plays for which the creation of the system is intended to be used? These weren’t low-profile games. One was a playoff game and the other was a Monday night game, national telecasts with a horde of cameras positioned throughout the stadium, and TV couldn’t produce one angle to help make the call. The thing I don’t like about replay review is that we’ve come to rely on it to correct mistakes, and that’s created an attitude among fans that we no longer have to live with mistakes. The bottom line is mistakes still happen and we still have to live with them.

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