The New York Jets found themselves in a familiar position early in the fourth quarter Sunday at MetLife Stadium. An apparent touchdown by tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, one that would have given them a late lead against a tough opponent, was under review by the NFL's replay system.
When referee Carl Cheffers announced the reversal, claiming that Seferian-Jenkins did not maintain control of what had been ruled a 1-yard scoring reception, Jets coach Todd Bowles bent over in exasperation on the sideline. It was the second time in six games that the Jets, and Seferian-Jenkins, had lost a scoring catch to a surprising reversal. The ruling, in fact, was the latest in a series of surprising reversals this season, the first in which senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron and vice president of replay Russell Yurk have had final say from the league's New York offices.
As Week 13 approaches with the same story line in play, it's worth asking if a game critical to the playoff race -- or perhaps a playoff game itself -- will be decided by what appears to be an inconsistent interpretation of the league's replay intent.
Riveron insisted in October that the NFL has not deviated from the mandate formalized in the 2017 rule book, which called for a reversal only when there is "clear and obvious" evidence available to warrant a change. In layman's terms, the league wants replay to correct mistakes that 50 people sitting in a bar could spot and agree on. NFL officials, after all, have their work cut out for them keeping straight a rule book full of exotic and rare statutes.
Whether by coincidence, intent or simply the differences in human perception, the Riveron-Yurk combination has delivered a number of technical reversals that have generated criticism from coaches, players and even their officiating predecessors.
On Sunday, Seferian-Jenkins made a diving catch of a Josh McCown pass into the end zone. He pulled the ball toward his stomach and held it there as his right shoulder landed in bounds. As he slid into the white sideline area, and the ball moved within his hands before he regained control and stood up.
Former NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino, covering the game as part of the Fox Sports broadcast, said he thought the play was "too close" to reverse and he would let it stand if the decision were his. The analysis was complicated by the NFL's quirky catch rule, but in essence, Riveron and Yurk were tasked with determining whether Seferian-Jenkins maintained control of the ball throughout the process of going to the ground.
What is control? On the broadcast, Blandino said a distinction must be made between "slight movement" and "losing control" through a bobble or juggle.
A reasonable person, watching in slow motion, can see the ball move. But whether it is a "slight movement" or a loss of control is debatable. Importantly, the NFL has never intended for replay to evaluate the result of debatable on-field calls. As I understand it, replay is a safety net for cases in which an official misses an obvious juggle or the ball trickles away from a player while his back is to the official.
That isn't what we saw here, and it isn't what we've seen in a handful of other cases since I last wrote about this issue. A notable example came in Week 10, when Jacksonville Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson was ruled to have been down by contact after scooping a fumble and returning it for an apparent go-ahead touchdown against the Los Angeles Chargers. None of the angles on the CBS broadcast provided a definitive view of Gipson coming into contact with a Chargers player while on the ground. At best, it looked possible that he landed on Chargers tailback Austin Ekeler during the initial recovery.
The Jaguars eventually won the game in overtime, but not before the Chargers had two more possessions to take the lead or win.
This is not to suggest a consistent pattern of overturning every review that offers the slightest degree of evidence. It's to say that the accepted standard does not appear to have been followed as consistently as in the past.
Three months of the season is enough time for any initial kinks to be worked out. What you've seen is likely what you're going to get for the duration. With playoff berths on the line and eventually a Super Bowl at stake, we shall see if NFL replay takes an outsized seat at the table.