Now that we’ve had a night to sleep on the Seahawks’ controversial 13-10 win over the Lions, sealed by an uncalled “illegal bat,” let’s try to process what we saw—even as the NFL figures out what it can do to fix a very bad rule.
With 1:51 remaining, Calvin Johnson looked destined for the end zone to put Detroit on top. But Kam Chancellor punched the ball out from behind, and linebacker K.J. Wright smacked the ball through the end zone. The call: a lost fumble and a touchback. The correct call would have been a penalty on Wright for illegal batting, and would have given the Lions first and goal from the 1.
1. It was definitely a blown call. There’s something refreshing about an inescapably incorrect ruling, in that the play in question can be examined without the beneficiaries insisting that there’s no problem here. Even now, you’ll find Seahawks fans defending the “Fail Mary” call.
It doesn’t matter what fans think, though, because NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino said “it looked like the Seahawks player intentionally hit the ball. That is a foul.”
Wright, who batted the ball out of the end zone to give Seattle back the ball and the win, admitted as much.
“You can’t hit it backward, and you can’t intentionally, I guess, knock it out,” Wright said after the game. “But at the time, I wasn’t thinking that. I was just trying to not mess up the game. So I know now.
“I wanted to just knock it out of bounds and not try to catch it and fumble it. I was just trying to make a good play for my team.”
2. This was a function of bad officiating, not ignorant officiating. Most analysts and most fans were unaware of the illegal bat rule, and assumed the officials were too—how else could it not have been called?—but that apparently wasn’t the case.
Back judge Gregory Wilson had a clear, proximate, and unobstructed view of Wright hitting the ball. But Blandino said the call was subjective:
“The back judge was on the play and in his judgment he didn’t feel it was an overt act so he didn’t throw the flag.”
Wilson’s error was in judging Wright’s obvious intent, not in not knowing an intentional bat should be a penalty. That may not make the Lions any happier, but it’s at least a little reassuring that officials know the rulebook.
(It is a very rare call. It pops up every once in a while—there was one in the first Giants-Patriots Super Bowl, and PFT found two examples from 2013—but this is the first one in memory that involved the end zone. All the other flagged illegal bats involved players whacking a loose ball downfield for better field position, not outright possession.)
3. K.J. Wright didn’t have any reason to bat that ball. He was alone, with no pressure, and it’s hard to see any way the Seahawks wouldn’t have recovered that ball. If he scooped it up, it would have been a touchback. If he tried to grab it but didn’t secure possession before his momentum carried him out of the back of the end zone, it would have been a touchback. If he tried to control it but accidentally batted it, it almost certainly would have gone through the end zone and would have been a touchback.
Wright, who admitted he didn’t know about the illegal bat rule, thought he was being clever. In reality he chose the only course of action that
could should have resulted in Lions ball. He and the Seahawks got very, very lucky.
4. There’s a bad rule here, and it’s not illegal batting—it’s that fumbling a ball out of the end zone turns it over. Nowhere else on the field does fumbling the ball out of bounds give it to the other team. Nowhere else does a defensive team get rewarded with possession without having to actually recover a loose football. This end-zone exceptionalism is especially striking when it takes place along the sideline—a ball fumbled out just past the pylon, which can be a matter of inches, is treated entirely different from one fumbled out of bounds just before it. That doesn’t make sense.
(The illegal batting rule, on the other hand, has noble intentions. Consider the last time it was applied, in November of 2013, when the Seahawks had a punt blocked by the 49ers. On the ensuing loose ball, Seattle’s Chris Maragos whacked it 17 yards downfield—past the first-down marker. If he had merely recovered it or accidentally knocked it out of bounds where he first touched it, the Seahawks would have turned the ball over on downs. Illegal batting exists as a penalty for a good reason.)
5. The NFL will fix or adjust its rules, but once again, only in response to controversy. Just as the “Holy Roller” led to rulebook changes banning a “forward fumble,” a pair of controversial plays this season already has the NFL reexamining its rules.
Last month, Washington RB Matt Jones fumbled the ball just before crossing the goal line. It crossed the sideline in the end zone and was awarded to the Giants. After the game, Blandino said that the idea of changing the rule “has merit,” had been previously discussed by the competition committee, and would be reviewed in the offseason.
Now comes illegal batting, which is a good rule that was incorrectly unapplied last night. The back judge, who made a wrong judgment call, could have been overruled by referee Tony Corrente, but Corrente was not in position to see the play. So why not make it subject to replay review? A brief review would have made it obvious that Wright’s bat was overt and intentional, but illegal batting is not among those calls specifically listed as reviewable. Expect that to change. I’ve said this before, and increasingly less facetiously, but the NFL is a poorly designed sport. It is too complicated, with too many moving parts to officiate accurately. Replay is an invaluable tool, and it’s underutilized in a vain attempt to keep game times manageable. Well, football games are already too long—so why not at least make sure they’re called correctly?