One of the strangest plays in recent memory happened in Washington on Sunday, when Browns running back Duke Johnson fumbled, quickly emerged from a developing pile of bodies, and showed the ball to the world while an official unbundled the scrum and awarded possession to the defense.
“The refs thought the ball was still down there,” Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor said on Wednesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio and NBCSN. “We were tapping the refs, and me and Duke were holding the ball and I was like, ‘Ref, ref! We got the ball right here! We got the ball right here! And . . . I don’t know. There’s no explanation.”
Pryor said that Sarah Thomas, the official who made the call on the field, explained that the defense had secured the ball.
“She told me that Josh Norman had the ball, and he had possession of the ball, and then Duke took it off of him,” Pryor said. “That’s what she said, but there’s no possible way, how fast Duke had the ball that you can say that.”
Pryor is right. If Norman somehow had the ball — and no available visual evidence shows he did — he didn’t have it for very long at all. And he definitely didn’t have it long enough to, say, make a catch.
Really, if a player is required to secure possession, get two feet on the ground, and keep the ball long enough to have the chance to engage in one or more various football-related moves to complete the act of receiving the ball, a player who purports to recover a fumble should have it for longer than the blink of an eye.
It’s one thing for a player to emerge from the bottom of the pile with the ball long after possession has been awarded to the other team by the officials. It’s quite another for the player to spring up with the ball before the pile has even fully formed. That’s what happened here, and the Browns should have kept the ball.
NFL senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has admitted that the contrast of Johnson holding the ball and Thomas seemingly searching the pile for possession and awarding it to Washington is a “bad visual.” Indeed it is; it’s also a very unfortunate outcome that will do nothing to bridge the gap between things fans and media see on TV and things the officials see (or they think they see) on the field.
Of all the potential reasons for the decrease in TV ratings, the disconnect between what we see and what we’re told we’ve seen presents the greatest threat to public confidence in the sport and its perceived integrity. Although I fully and firmly don’t believe NFL games are in any way fixed, plenty of fans unreasonably claim from time to time that they are. This is precisely the kind of play that makes it hard to get them to realize that the fix isn’t in, and that really bad calls simply happen from time to time, without any grand plan or design or agenda to deliver any specific outcome.