When Travis Kelce caught a third and four pass for a 19 yard gain at the Arizona 22 late in the fourth quarter of yesterday's game, the Chiefs were suddenly in a position to at least tie the game - perhaps even win it.
But then Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians demonstrated his knowledge of the rules, and used them to his advantage. His handling of this situation was nothing less than brilliant, and it allowed Arizona to hold on and win the game.
Stay with me for a little bit, and you'll see what I mean.
Like so many other Chiefs fans, I was livid when Kelce was ruled to have fumbled the ball, and Arizona had recovered it. Watching the replays on TV, it was clear to me that as Kelce was being brought down, the ball was indeed loose. However, it was also clear to me that at the conclusion of the tackle - when Kelce was on his back - he had both hands on the ball, and then spun it free, thinking he had just made a big third down catch at a critical moment of the game.
I was screaming at the TV. In no way was there clear evidence to overturn the call on the field.
After the game ended - like any good, infuriated fan - I rewound the DVR and watched the various angles multiple times. Only then did I see that one of the hands on the ball while Kelce was on the ground actually belonged to the tackler: Arizona's rookie first round pick Deone Bucannon, and he was the one who actually spun the ball free.
But that didn't make me any less angry. That happened after Kelce was down.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. A tip of the hat here to AP user Tarkus, who posted links in comment threads that led me to what really happened on this play.
Prior to yesterday, I thought "down by contact" was not a reviewable call. And until 2006, it wasn't. Here's what changed in Rule 15, Section 9 of the NFL rules in 2006:
Down by contact calls may be reviewed by instant replay. Previously, a fumble was not reviewable if the ball carrier was ruled down by contact. If the ruling of down by contact is changed, the ball belongs to the recovering player at the spot of the recovery of the fumble.
Reason for the change: Provides a mechanism for correcting an obvious on-field officiating error.
Therein lies the brilliance of what Arians did in this situation.
Whether an offensive player is not down by defensive contact is still not reviewable - unless there is a fumble. And of course, no fumble was called on the field. If Arians had thrown the challenge flag, run to the official and yelled, "Kelce wasn't down by contact!" the official would have told him to put the flag back in his pocket (or wherever Arians keeps it) because that isn't a reviewable play. Arians might have been able to get away with telling the officials that Kelce fumbled, but whether the officials would have accepted that reason for the challenge is a little murkier, because no fumble had been called.
So Arians used the back door. He told the officials he wanted to challenge whether Kelce had made the catch. If you'll recall from the broadcast, this confused CBS announcer Trent Green; it was obvious that Kelce had caught the ball cleanly, because he ran with it for several yards after making the catch. Green stated his belief that the officials could only review what the coaches were asking to be reviewed, which officiating guru Mike Carey was quick to correct when he joined the conversation; once a play is challenged, the officials can look at everything.
In short, Arians' challenge of Kelce's catch opened the door to a review of whether Kelce fumbled the ball. Arians knew that unless he phrased his challenge carefully, the officials wouldn't go under the hood.
Here is what the man under the hood - NFL official Craig Wrolstad - said about it after the game:
The tight end caught the ball, took a number of steps, got hit as he was going to the ground before any part of his body was on the ground, the ball came loose. The ball remained loose. He tried to get it, the other guy tried to get it, but the ball continued to be loose and rolled to a stop, at which time a [Cardinals] player five yards away picked up the ball. So, [the Cardinals] player actually had a clear recovery. So, the challenge was that we had initially ruled it was a catch, and he was down by contact. And, when we looked at it in replay, we saw that indeed the ball had come loose, he was not down by contact and then if there is a clear recovery, then we can reverse it and give the ball to the defense. And that's what happened.
After watching the video of the play, I have to agree that a) there is clear evidence that the ball was loose in Kelce's arms as he is being brought down, and b) that Deone Bucannon had a hand on the ball after Kelce was down and spun it loose. However, in that same video I see no clear evidence that Kelce regained control of the ball anywhere between those two points - and this appears to be the basis for the Wrolstad's decision to change the down by contact ruling, call it a fumble and award the ball to Arizona.
(I think, by the way, that it's fair to disagree with the b) part of what I just said. After all, at first, I didn't see it that way myself. But after watching it a number of times, I can only conclude that Bucannon got the ball away from Kelce at the end. If that's not what you saw, that's OK. But it sure seems to be what Wrolstad saw.)
Comment Driven Addendum: In the comments, AP user cublicon posted Note 1, from Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7 of the NFL Rules:
A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by an opponent) must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession.
This will help you make sense of what NFL Head of Officiating Dean Blandino said this morning on NFL Network:
The ball was loose before he hit the ground, and then the question was, did he re-gain control of it as he was rolling over? And this is treated just like a pass. So if you fumble and the ball is loose, in order to re-gain possession, you have to maintain control as you go to the ground. And as you watch the play, you see Kelce never re-gained control of it. He's bobbling the ball, he rolls over, it comes completely loose and then Arizona recovers it. So it was a fumble and properly overturned on replay.
And here, then, is the crux of the problem: if the ball hadn't been loose before Kelce was on the ground, Wrolstad wouldn't have been able to change the down by contact ruling, because what Bucannon did was clearly after Kelce was down. But because the ball was loose before then - and there is no clear evidence that Kelce regained control before he was down - the official has to presume that the ball was loose for those few tenths of a second. It's a fumble because it was loose before Kelce was down, even though it wasn't clearly away from Kelce until he was on the ground.
Think of it this way: because during replay, the ball was shown to be loose, the "burden of proof" shifted from whether there was clear evidence it was a fumble to whether there was clear evidence it was NOT a fumble.
Does this mean that sometimes, the whistle isn't always the whistle? Unfortunately... yes. Here's what Yahoo.com writer Chris Chase said in an article five years ago, after what was apparently a very similar play:
Since 2006, a whistle hasn't always been a whistle in the NFL. In that off-season the rules committee made the determination that teams can recover a fumble even after an official has blown the play dead. This was done to bail refs out of ruling a fumbling player down by contact, only to be contradicted by replays. After the rule change, the call could be reversed, enabling the recovering team to get the ball despite the premature whistle.
In theory, it was a good change. There are plenty of fumbles and recoveries that happen simultaneously with a whistle, so the ref blowing the play dead has no bearing on the events. However, there are certain situations when the rule is exposed as a complete farce, as in Sunday's Redskins-Saints game.
As a Chiefs fan, it pains me to say this, because Bruce Arians' challenge cost the Chiefs a chance to tie - and maybe win - this game. But after looking at it again - and having a better understanding of the replay rules - I can see how Wrolstad came to his conclusion. That said, I can't fault anyone - that is, anyone who didn't see the same thing that Wrolstad and I saw while Kelce was on the ground - for being angry about it.
Nor can I fault anyone for thinking that the 2006 rule change is ridiculous. As Chris Chase put it:
The [whistle] signal[s] the end of the play and the players react as such. But we're supposed to act like none of that happened and what occurred after the whistle was part of the original play? It's like getting in a mock fight with a friend, calling timeout and then punching him in the face.
The contradictions can't be ignored. On one hand, players aren't allowed to make a hit on an opponent the instant the whistle blows, lest they get a 15-yard personal foul call for a late hit. On the other hand, they're supposed to keep playing through the stoppage of play to get a fumble recovery? Whistles can't be the end-all, be-all of play stoppage on one down and then be a mere suggestion the next.
I can't argue Chase's point here: it is a ridiculous situation. But what I can argue is that it's probable more bad calls have been overturned by the 2006 rule change than good ones; Chase himself acknowledges that the rule is a problem only in certain situations. As much as it hurts to say so, it's too bad that one of those situations went against Kansas City in yesterday's game.
I've never forgotten something Joe Montana once said in a postgame press conference. When asked about a particular play in that day's game - one that could easily have been characterized as a "lucky bounce" for one team or the other - Montana said, "I don't know if you've noticed, but the ball is shaped weird. Sometimes it bounces funny."
We all laughed, but Montana was right: the ball bounces funny sometimes. You learn to take the good with the bad, but also to play well enough that the bad bounces don't matter. While the Chiefs might have been able to win this game with a bounce going the other way, the plain fact of the matter is that the Chiefs didn't play well enough to earn this win in spite of it.
At the very least, I hope Travis Kelce has learned that he has to keep fighting for the ball until someone from the other team is offering him a hand to help him up. Travis, please remember that my wife Terri paid good money for that jersey with your name on it. Don't make her regret buying it for me.