Some great action to close out the NFL regular season yesterday. As has been the case the last few years, Week 17 delivered.
Among the highlights was the gripping contest between the ’Skins and Cowboys last night, which thanks to the Bears and Vikings both winning earlier in the day became a do-or-die game for both teams. When Washington took a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter, the momentum shifted decidedly. Even so, it almost seemed inevitable that Dallas would somehow cut it back to a one-score game and get the ball again, if only to perpetuate the drama a little further.
Sure enough, a long punt return followed by a short TD drive and two-point conversion by Dallas cut the ’Skins lead to three. And when the defense stepped up to deliver the ball back to Tony Romo and the offense with three-and-a-half minutes left, I think we all knew what was coming.
Disappointment for Dallas fans.
As they started the drive, I hastily composed a tweet...
I literally hit send just a heartbeat ahead of Romo fading back to loft that sad, doomed-from-the-start-looking floater that was sorta kinda in the direction of running back DeMarco Murray in the left flat. Redskins’ linebacker Rob Jackson happily accepted the gift, and Romo had thrown his third interception of the night. And for the third time in the last five years, Dallas would soon lose a season-ending, win-or-go-home game. (They’re 2-12 overall in such games since 2000.)
As exciting as that game was, it was the fulfillment of expectations, really. But in the day’s other most exciting game, the thriller between Minnesota and Green Bay in which the Vikes won 37-34, there arose an occurrence I don’t think anyone watching could’ve anticipated.
With the score 27-17, Green Bay receiver James Jones caught a pass, crossed the goal line for a touchdown, then the ball popped out. The ruling on the field was a fumble recovered by Minnesota, but it was clear even before the first replay was shown that the call was likely going to be reversed and the Packers would be awarded a TD.
Even though all turnovers are automatically reviewed, Packers coach Mike McCarthy fired the red challenge flag onto the field anyway. We all remember what happened on Thanksgiving day when Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz did something similar on a crucial play in that game. That’s when we learned that the penalty for challenging a play that was already being reviewed was not just an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but a nullification of the review process.
In that instance, Schwartz challenged a play on which Houston returned a fumble for a touchdown -- a play that was clearly not a fumble at all, although the refs on the field ruled it as such. But since Schwartz threw the red flag, it couldn’t be reviewed, and thus his mistake gave the Texans an undeserved TD.
In yesterday’s game, McCarthy’s heaving of the red flag appeared at first as though it would have similarly unfortunate consequences for his team, nullifying the review, taking away the score, and giving the ball to the Vikings on the 20-yard line following the touchback. Packers receiver Jordy Nelson certainly anticipated such a possibility when he quickly scooped the red flag off the turf and clutched it against his stomach, hoping to hide it before anyone noticed:
But as it happened, McCarthy’s challenge did not prove damaging. It was explained that since his challenge came after the announcement that a review was already being conducted, Green Bay would only be penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct (a 15-yard penalty ultimately assessed on the ensuing kickoff), with the review -- and expected reversal of the call -- still allowed to proceed.
Beyond goofy, I thought. Why should the timing of an announcement of a review of the turnover make any difference whatsoever to McCarthy’s breaking the rule of challenging a play that he wasn’t allowed to challenge? And hell, why even announce at all that there will be a review of a play for which a review is already mandatory?
“So McCarthy threw the flag after a replay judge nobody can see initiated a review?” asked Grantland’s Bill Barnwell via Twitter at the time. “That's Illuminati stuff right there,” he added.
The whole thing seemed more than a little fishy. I looked over the 2012 Official Rules and Casebook of the National Football League in search of an explanation, and wasn’t at all surprised to see nothing at all regarding the timing of such announcements mattering one iota. Here’s the relevant section, under Section 9 (“Instant Replay”):
You have to squint to see, I know, but right in the middle there is the reference to the 15-yard penalty for initiating a challenge when a team is prohibited from doing so. Just above, in the “Coaches Challenge” paragraph, comes the explanation that “If there is a foul that delays the next snap, the team committing that foul will no longer be able to challenge the previous ruling.” That covers situations in which coaches try to challenge plays when out of challenges, or when they try challenge plays like turnovers or touchdowns that are already reviewed. That’s where Schwartz “fouled” up in the earlier game between Detroit and Houston (pun intended).
But there’s nothing referring to the meaningfulness of the order of events should a coach throw the challenge flag on a play in which a review is already automatically taking place. I’m convinced the league decided it didn’t like all the “what-a-dumb-rule” fallout that came following the Thanksgiving game, and thus told refs going forward to invoke this bogus, new interpretation of the rule to avoid any repeat instances.
As all of this was happening, I couldn’t help but think back to Green Bay’s having gotten royally screwed back in Week 3 by the infamous “Fail Mary” replacement-refs debacle versus Seattle. Here was a little recompense, I supposed. In any event, the Vikes went on to win and thus ensure that the whole incident would be reduced to a bit of trivia, adding just a little more intrigue to an already thrilling contest.
With no dogs in any of these fights -- I’m a Panthers fan, cautiously optimistic about my team winning five of its last six to give us something to hope for in 2013 -- I can say I enjoyed it all immensely. And am looking forward to the playoffs with a similarly unblinkered perspective, primarily hoping to be entertained by still more drama.
Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.