Late in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game, 49ers punter Andy Lee was drilled in the plant leg by Seahawks safety Chris Maragos, and when the referee threw the flag it looked like San Francisco had caught a huge break: A hit to the plant leg is supposed to be roughing the punter, which is a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down.
But instead it was Seattle that caught a huge break: The referee called running into the kicker, which is only a five-yard penalty, which the 49ers declined. Obviously, it’s impossible to say how the rest of the game would have changed if the penalty had been correctly called as roughing, but it could have changed the outcome of the game entirely, considering that the Seahawks scored the go-ahead touchdown on the subsequent drive after the officials botched the call.
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh furiously pleaded his case to the officials, but there was nothing he could do. Personal fouls are not reviewable on instant replay, so the referee’s bad call stood.
However, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said this week in an interview on NFL Network that in the future, instant replay might be used to get personal foul calls right. Goodell was responding to a question about reviewing helmet-to-helmet hits, not roughing the kicker, but he emphasized that the league wants replay to be used to get calls right. Goodell said the Competition Committee plans to look at using replay on personal fouls this offseason.
“We want to make sure that we get it right on the field, so I believe that will be a reviewable call — I know the committee is going to study that,” Goodell said.
The whole point of instant replay is to get the calls right, and it doesn’t make sense that some obviously wrong calls are allowed to stand simply because the NFL’s rules limit the types of bad calls that coaches can challenge. Harbaugh should have been allowed to challenge the call of running into the kicker, and the NFL should change the rules so that the next coach victimized by a bad call like that can get the call reviewed.