Last Sunday’s narrow win by the Chiefs over the Lions included a 14-point swing that happened when Detroit running back Kerryon Johnson fumbled at the goal line and Kansas City cornerback Bashaud Breeland scooped it up and ran it the other way for a touchdown.
The officials didn’t blow the whistle to kill the play, preventing what may have been an eventual decision via replay review that the Chiefs recovered the ball at their own one, but wiping out the 99-yard return. And that’s generally a good thing, given that the officials opted to whistle dead an obvious Jared Goff fumble in Week Two’s Saints-Rams game, nullifying what would have been a long touchdown return by New Orleans defensive end Cam Jordan.
But there’s a potential donut hole that arises from swallowing the whistle in moments like this. And it was illustrated by the weekly video from NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron.
“We were not sure here if the ball is loose or if the runner has control of the football when he hits the ground,” Riveron explained regarding the review of the play to determine whether Johnson was down before fumbling. “There is nothing clear and obvious — no clear and obvious visual evidence to allow us to change the ruling on the field of a fumble.”
While the evidence suggests that the ball was out, it’s possible that the play falls into the broad gulf where lack of a clean, clear shot through a scrum of bodies prevents any ruling on the field from being overturned later. If, for example, the whistle had been blown, would Riveron have been able to say that the clear and obvious visual evidence showed that Johnson had fumbled?
Thus, at a time when there’s pressure on the officials to let the play continue (indeed, Riveron congratulated the crew for not killing the play, even though there’s still a chance it wasn’t a fumble), there’s a very real risk that an accidental failure to blow the whistle won’t be fixable via replay review. There’s also a very real risk that, in cases where the visual evidence will easily overturn the ruling on the field of a fumble, someone will suffer a serious injury that would have been avoided if the officials had simply trusted their eyes and ended the action.
And maybe that’s ultimately the right answer for officials, especially when a potential fumble happens in the middle of a cluster of bodies: Make the decision as to whether the play should end or continue based on what you see now, not on what you assume Riveron may see later.