An Exercise In Futility: The Travesty That Is The NFL’s Response To The Jim Schwartz Challenge Dilemma (UPDATE)

  • Dylan Murphy

There was a controversial play in yesterday’s Texans-Lions game, one that ultimately altered the trajectory of the game and affected its nail-biting outcome. When Houston running back Justin Forsett took a handoff up the middle and was seemingly tackled for after an eight-yard gain, everyone thought the play was over. Except for Forsett, that is, so he scampered to the end zone for an 81-yard score.

On the replay, however, you can clearly see that Forsett’s knee and elbow were both down, so the play should have been whistled dead.

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz challenged the play, good coach that he is. But because all scoring plays are reviewed, throwing the red flag on unchallengeable plays draws a yellow flag. (God forbid a piece of red cloth touches the field, amirite?) A 15-yard penalty is then supposed to be marked off on the ensuing kickoff. Fine. Kind of harsh, but fine. Oh, you thought it was over? HA!

Because Jim Schwartz challenged an unchallengeable play, one that was already going to be reviewed, Schwartz couldn’t benefit from illegally challenging the play. Thus throwing the challenge flag meant that the referee could no longer review the play, and the touchdown would stand.

Everyone could see Forsett was down, but because Schwartz incorrectly challenged an incorrect call (Mike Smith made a similar gaffe), the integrity of the game was sacrificed out of spite. The rule has taken a beating in the past 18 hours, but the referees have remained relatively unscathed because they did their job. Jim Schwartz should have known the rule. Except the referees didn’t do their job. It’s not uncommon for players to continue running after they’re tackled; duping the referee is sporting art. But Forsett was down in two places – elbow and knee – and it wasn’t particularly close. Only then did this oddly concocted rule come into play.

Though the rule most certainly needs to be altered, or really eliminated, it’s most ridiculous feature stems from the double penalty. Not only is a 15-yard penalty assessed, but a challenge disappeared. That’s two punishments for a single piece of red cloth, an overly punitive overreaction for an accidental oversight, one that hardly affects the pace or outcome of a play or the game.

Not to mention that the entire purpose of instituting scoring play review is negated. The rule was put in place so coaches don’t have to waste challenges on potentially controversial and game-altering plays. Getting it right ultimate trumps any flow of play concerns. Except the loss of review on this play directly contradicts this directive, because it values the speed of the game over it’s integrity.

Matthew Berry summed up everything I could hope to say about this incident with this succinct tweet:

Aaron Shatz of Football Outsiders also proposed an interesting scenario, one technically covered by the rule:

But an even bigger problem looms, and it’s not the direct effect this play had on Detroit’s playoff hopes. The NFL won’t review this rule until after the season, leaving in place an illogical rule that could dig its claws into another coach and another game. Not that it’s likely to happen again, considering the publicity Schwartz’s goof received. But even leaving open that door is an egregious error in judgment, or really policy, one that could, however small the possibility, wreak havoc again.

The NHL faced a similar situation a few years ago when Sean Avery of the New York Rangers waved his stick like a madman in front of New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur to obstruct his vision. Though there was technically no rule banning such behavior, the NHL acted quickly to correct the loophole by reinterpreting the unsportsmanlike rule. All it took was a matter of a few days to put the issue behind them. The NFL, however, will let this drag on for the entire season. Why? Because that’s the rule, of course.

UPDATE: Turns out the NFL will review the rule in the next few days, with possible change coming in this regular season or the playoffs. Hooray!