The Miami Dolphins played some great defense against the long ball to keep themselves close through three quarters and eventually win their week 17 game against the New England Patriots. But one of the most interesting moments came on a coaches challenge ruling that ended up overturning an incomplete pass call. On a third and thirteen situation, Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill found Greg Jennings close to the first down marker. As Jennings turned and reached for the extra yard and the fresh set of downs, his arm hit the ground and the ball squirmed loose for a few seconds. The officials called an incomplete pass, prompting Dolphins interim head coach Dan Campbell to throw the challenge flag.
The discussion by the commentators throughout the review was excellent, and it was interesting to see that even with the exact wording of the rule, between three men who watch football every day of their lives for a job, there wasn’t a consensus.
The expert explained the rule to tee: that if a receiver is deemed down by contact that was initiated during the first two steps after possession of the ball, he is not yet considered a runner and therefore must have full control of the football even after it hits the ground. If the contact that brings him down isn’t until the third step or after, he is considered a runner and therefore the ground can not be the cause of a fumble. It’s crystal clear wording with a black and white deciding factor, yet the expert sat through about 8-10 replays from all angles and speeds and argued up and down that contact on this play happened on the second step. The officials, seeing the exact same thing over and over, disagreed. Remember that in fact they were so convinced by the replay they even overturned their initial call.
It goes to show that no matter how many reviews they do and how precisely the rule is worded, they will never be able to completely avoid the human element and that’s a wonderful thing for all of sport.
For the record, I think the on field officials got it exactly right. The contact that brought Jennings down was initiated on the third step, effectively making the receiver a runner and ruling out any loss of possession caused by the ground.