By Ben Austro, FootballZebras.com, special to NFP
It is said that the penalty should fit the crime, but because of a continuously revised rulebook, a pair of rules that once made sense had combined into a seemingly harsh penalty.
The rule is simple, and Lions coach Jim Schwartz realized it when it was explained to him: if the play cannot be challenged because it is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the replay official, it's an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. If the replay official has not committed to a review, the challenge flag then freezes the replay official's ability to review the play for that team's benefit.
As it happened in the third quarter, a touchdown run where the runner was clearly down, clearly could not be overturned because Schwartz threw the challenge flag immediately, well before the replay official could even consider initiating the review. (The same happened to Falcons coach Mike Smith just four days earlier on a turnover challenge.)
But why such a harsh penalty? There are two separate revisions to the rulebook that have come crashing together to cause Schwartz to be denied a certain reversal.
Prior to all touchdowns and all turnover plays being reviewable only on the replay official's discretion, a coach was able to challenge just about any play, as long as it wasn't after the two-minute warning. (This also included if a coach had used his available challenges or did not have a timeout remaining.) However, coaches were using the red flag to stop play to argue over calls. To avoid this misuse of the challenge system, it became a 15-yard penalty in 2005 to challenge when prohibited to do so. And at that time it was simple: put the red flag away at the two minute warning, after the second challenge, or after the final timeout was taken.
ICONJim Schwartz was the victim of an obscure rule, applied correctly.
Also, a loophole in the rules allowed a team took an intentional foul to buy extra time for a replay challenge -- either for their own coach or the replay official. Mike Pereira, who was then the vice president of officiating, said in 2009 it would be legal to do so. Any penalty which prevented the snap from happening kept the previous play available for review, including intentional encroachment penalties to stop a hurry-up offense or delay of game penalties by the offense. The Competition Committee closed that loophole by declaring a team may not benefit from a challenge when a team has committed a foul to delay the next snap.
As the rule was written, the intent was to include any between-downs foul that afforded a team extra time to consider a challenge (or the replay official for that matter). And, so, the 15-yarder that was instituted in 2005 for an illegal challenge was lumped into this category.
By adding turnover plays and touchdowns to the mix of the replay official's domain, now individual plays became unchallengeable. Instead of following the proviso that a coach loses his challenges at a fixed time in the game -- the two-minute warning, the second challenge, the third timeout -- the challenge window opens and shuts depending on the result of the play. It is like remembering i before e except after c in grade school, and then you misspell neighbor and weigh on the next test.
As long as coaches can keep that red flag under control for the remainder of the season and the postseason, they won't have to worry about this rule next year. It is sure to be on the top of the Competition Committee agenda in March.
Ben Austro is the founder and editor of footballzebras.com. Follow him on twitter: @footballzebras