Five Down Territory
It turned out not to matter, and not a lot of you saw it happen (few who did are likely to care), but the Washington Redskins apparently did get an extra down and used it to score their nearly-game-tying touchdown against Tampa Bay yesterday. Only one of the stranger endings to an NFL game that I can remember kept the mixup from mattering.
(Caveat: I spent six years as a football official. As I only worked at the high school level, I’m not claiming an NFL level of expertise in these matters, but I do know about the mechanics of officiating and was primarily a head linesman who was closely involved with first down markers.)
Here’s the situation: Under two minutes to play, Washington trailing 17-10 but driving. With a third-and-one at the Tampa Bay 21, Donovan McNabb completes a 9-yard pass to Santana Moss to the Bucs’ 12.
Now, if you’ve got first-and-ten at the opponent’s 12, you have to get to the 2-yard line for a first down, right? You learn that pretty early on when you’re watching football on television. But if you look at this screengrab, you see a few things:
- The ball is clearly at the 12. That’s the line of scrimmage.
- The line judge (the official on the Tampa Bay sideline, top of the screen), John Hussey is clearly on the 12 yard line, where he’s supposed to be.
- The line to gain is at the 2, and would be even if Fox’s unofficial yellow line wasn’t there. Clearly, you have to reach the 2 to get a first down. But the first down marker (the “stick”) is clearly positioned at the 3-yard line. Now, the “chain gang” on that side of the field is the “auxiliary” set of chains. The “official” one, the one under the control of Head Linesman George Hayward is off the screen; it would be on the sideline at the bottom. But while the set at the top of the screen is unofficial, the head linesman uses them to visually ascertain if the line to gain has been reached. It’s considered bad mechanics to look behind you as a head linesman to see if the ball has crossed the line to gain.
On the next play, McNabb completes a pass to Anthony Armstrong and Armstrong clearly doesn’t reach the line to gain (even if you accept that Fox’s line is unofficial, which we all do, he’s down before he reaches the 2 yard line). He does, however, pass the auxiliary stick (incorrectly positioned at the 3). The umpire, Ruben Fowler clearly comes on the outside of the 2-yard line as he prepares to spot the ball (taking his cue, as umpires do, from the wing official who is supposed to determine forward progress).
We know Armstrong doesn’t reach the line to gain because the next snap comes from outside the 2-yard line (line judge Hussey is standing on the 2 and a half) but the down marker on the far side is signifying first down.
On what should have been 2nd and 1 (which you can see on the Fox Box in that same shot), McNabb throws incomplete to Roydell Williams. On what should have been 3rd and 1, Ryan Torain loses four yards on a sweep right. On what should have been 4th and 5, McNabb throws incomplete into the end zone intended for Fred Davis (all of these plays are noted on the official stat sheet).
But on what would have been 5th down (with Fox announcers Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston confused, as most viewers probably were), McNabb hits Moss for the touchdown that would have tied the game were it not for the subsequent North Dallas Forty-like botched PAT.
In one of the few things written about the situation, the Washington Post’s Barry Sverluga reports on what referee Peter Morelli told a pool reporter:
“The first pass that was made, the initial ruling was first down to the 2-1/2 yard line, and the auxiliary box on the other side did not turn over. It was showing second down. The primary box on the head linesman side, which is the main down box, had first down. So we corrected the 2 because it hung up there for a while, and we corrected it to 1.”
Which is great, except the line to gain wasn’t the 2 1/2 yard line, it was the 2 yard line. (12-10=2). Not all spots and lines of scrimmage line up exactly with the lines on the field (though statistically and “officially,” they have to), but this isn’t a matter of a ball falling between lines and being moved up for statistical purposes. This is a question of the absolute distance between two points, which has to be ten yards. The pass to Anderson went nine and a half.
Now, everything from that point forward changes if it’s 2nd and 1 and not 1st and goal. There’s no way to know that the Redskins wouldn’t have called different plays (with different results). Apparently they (and the Bucs) thought Washington was operating with four downs (you can see in this shot that the official chains are “standing down,” as is protocol when there’s a goal-to-go situation); it was the TV audience (with the benefit of the Fox first down line, and, you know, math skills) who was confused. Given the Bucs’ history and how poorly they defended a bad offense on that last drive, I would tend to think Washington would have scored anyway. Only the botched PAT kept things in karmic balance.
Though not many saw it, everybody has an opinion, it seems. Like this genius, who calls it a “failure on a colossal level” (it was a mistake on a slightly smaller level, and it wasn’t by the guys in the booth, it was by the officiating crew, of which the chain gang guys are part). He claims that with the benefit of a rewind button, it’s obvious. Well, Chris Chase it is obvious, and you still got it wrong.
So that was a long-winded screed about a situation that ended up meaning absolutely nothing. What can I tell you? This is my life.