Last night’s historic, uncanny, and impressive double punt raises several questions that have yet to be fully answered. In this article, we’ll try to answer the biggest unanswered questions.
First, does the rulebook allow two punts?
Yes, it does. Rule 9, Section 1, Article 1 provides that “Team A may attempt a punt, drop kick, or placekick from on or behind the line of scrimmage.” The same rule also contemplates a second punt, drop kick, or placekick on the same play, by implication contained in a sentence regarding the penalty for a second kick.
“For a second kick from behind the line after the ball has crossed the line: Loss of 10 yards from the previous spot.”
The officials did not flag Seattle for an illegal second punt. The Seahawks were penalized because the line judge believed punter Michael Dickson had gone beyond the line of scrimmage. However, Seattle could have been (and should have been) flagged for an illegal second punt; as written, the rule prohibits a second punt “after the ball has crossed” the line of scrimmage.
Although it can be debated whether a portion of Dickson’s body was at or behind the line of scrimmage, the ball itself clearly had crossed the line. Thus, if the rule had been applied as written, the second punt would have been deemed illegal because the ball had crossed the line before the second punt occurred.
Thus, while the rulebook allows two punts, the rule prohibits a second punt if the ball has crossed the line. Here, the ball itself crossed the line while Dickson was accomplishing the second punt. As the rule is currently written, it should have been a foul.
And, yes, the counter to this point is that the rule contemplates the ball itself crossing the line and then being brought back behind the line and punted again. But that’s not what the rule says. The rule says a second kick “after the ball has crossed the line” is prohibited.
Second, was the punter behind the line of scrimmage for the second punt?
The rulebook explains that a foul occurs for a punt that happens “when the player’s entire body and the ball are beyond the line of scrimmage,” and that “this includes either when the player is airborne or touching the ground.”
Dickson, contrary to the tweet posted last night by the league’s officiating account, was not “behind” the line of scrimmage. At best, his back leg was at the line of scrimmage at a time when the rest of his body — and the ball — were past it.
The rule is violated only when the entire body is beyond the line of scrimmage. That’s what the line judge initially determined; that’s why a flag was thrown. Things got interesting (and a little nutty) after that.
Third, was replay assistance properly used to resolve the situation?
That’s the murkiest of the questions, and the one that compels the most careful thought by the league regarding what is and isn’t allowed by way of real-time video assistance.
As revised for 2021, the replay assistant and “designated members of the Officiating Department” may provide video support for the on-field officials, under certain specific circumstances. Rule 15, Section 3, Article 9 states that they may advise game officials “on specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present.” Such advice is available for, among other things, “location of the football or a player in relation to . . . the line of scrimmage.”
The ruling on the field was that the punter was beyond the line of scrimmage. So if the ruling on the field was that Dickson had gone beyond the line of scrimmage, was there clear and obvious evidence that he actually had not gone beyond the line of scrimmage?
Without clear and obvious evidence that the line judge’s judgment was wrong, the replay assistant/Officiating Department should not have advised the on-field officials to overturn the ruling on the field.
That’s an important point. The “clear and obvious” standard makes the expanded involvement of the replay assistant/Officiating Department akin to a mini-replay review. If the very high standard is met, and if the replay assistant/Officiating Department make that decision quickly, the ruling on the field gets overturned based on their advice.
Was it clear and obvious in this instance that the on-field assessment was wrong? No. Whatever the ruling on the field, there wasn’t enough for the replay assistant/Officiating Department to quickly decide that it was clearly and obviously wrong.
Here’s why it’s an important point. On that specific play, the new procedure was applied in the same way that a sky judge/booth umpire would be used. However, the sky judge/booth umpire concept is definitely not part of the current rules and procedures.
In other words, the replay assistant/Officiating Department participated in what became the official ruling on the field without respecting the standard that the initial ruling on the field would be overturned only with clear and obvious visual evidence.
Fourth, could Sean McVay have challenged the ruling?
Yes. The rules make clear that the play can still be officially challenged and reviewed, even after the replay assistant/Officiating Department assists with the on-field decision-making process. However, because the official ruling on the field became that Dickson was not beyond the line of scrimmage, the ruling on the field would have been overturned only if the evidence to the contrary were clear and obvious.
That’s what makes the intermediate step so critical; the use of the new quasi-sky judge protocol changed the ruling on the field from beyond the line of scrimmage to not beyond the line of scrimmage. Without the intervention of the replay assistant/Officiating Department, the ruling on the field would have been that Dickson was beyond the line of scrimmage — and it then would have fallen to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to challenge it. The challenge likely would have failed.
That said, McVay could have challenged the ruling that the ball did not cross the line, based on the rule that a second punt can’t happen once the ball crosses the line of scrimmage.
To summarize, the play clearly violated the rule as currently written, because the ball crossed the line before the second punt occurred. Dickson was not behind the line of scrimmage; at best, his back leg was on it. The ruling on the field was that he was beyond the line. The replay assistant/Officiating Department changed that ruling. McVay did not officially challenge anything, although he could have.
And now you’ll be ready to fully digest a similar situation, the next time it happens. After we’re all dead and gone.