The question has been asked, in a formal way, as recently as this spring: Why doesn't the NFL make each and every play subject to its replay review system? The New England Patriots in fact proposed -- and had dismissed -- a rule change to that exact point during the 2015 owners meeting.
The answer remained simple if infuriating Tuesday morning as Detroit Lions fans reeled and the rest of the football world struggled to understand what a "batted ball" is. Much like other sports leagues, the NFL has drawn a philosophical limitation on what it uses replay for. Most owners and league officials are adamant against employing it to review judgment calls, instead relegating replays for the purpose of correcting only the most obvious mistakes of sight or timing.
That means for at least the rest of the 2015 season, a batted ball penalty -- called or uncalled -- is not subject to NFL review.
"We try to stay away from subjective fouls, and this being one of them," NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Monday night on the NFL Network.
That philosophy is no different than Major League Baseball's, for example. Its system allows review for a host of plays but expressly protects judgment calls. A manager can challenge whether a runner was safe at first but not whether a batter checked his swing or whether a pitch should have been a strike. The word "judgment," in fact, appears 10 times in MLB's replay review regulations.
With that said, it's fair to ask whether a "batted ball" should be considered a judgment call. The rule itself was instituted to prevent players from batting the ball toward their opponent's goal line in an attempt either to score or gain better field position, as what happened in the "Holy Roller" play during a 1978 game between the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers.
The rule -- found in Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1 of the NFL rule book -- prohibits players from batting the ball forward on the field of play and in any direction while in the end zone. Players are allowed to bat the ball backward, something we often see from punt coverage teams as they try to keep the ball from bouncing into the end zone for a touchback.
Blandino said Monday night that the penalty is subjective and requires judgment because an official must determine whether there was an overt and intentional attempt to bat the ball. "You can't rule on intent," Blandino said, "so that is something that has to be called on the field."
Not everyone agrees, however. You could argue that it requires no judgment to determine whether a player moves his arm forward to bat the ball, as Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright clearly did Monday night, or if the ball just happens to bounce off him. Blandino agreed Monday night that back judge Gregory Wilson should have penalized Wright, a call that would have negated a Lions fumble and returned possession to them at the Seahawks' 1-yard line.
"To me, that call last night was not a judgment call," said former NFL officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos, who also has worked as an ESPN analyst. "Holding is a judgment call. Pass interference is a judgment call. This is just a foul. The rule book doesn't say anything about an 'overt' act or that it has to be 'intentional.' You have judgment calls on some things, but in other cases there are rules. And this is just a rule. It's pretty simple. If you see forward movement of a hand or arm, it's a bat. If not, it's just inadvertent."
Indeed, here is the complete batted ball rule:
ILLEGAL BAT. It is an illegal bat if:
(a) any player bats or punches a loose ball in the field of play toward his opponent’s goal line
(b) any player bats or punches a loose ball (that has touched the ground) in any direction, if it is in either end zone
(c) an offensive player bats a backward pass in flight toward his opponent’s goal line
Exception: A forward pass in flight may be tipped, batted or deflected in any direction by any eligible player at any time.
Note: If a forward pass that is controlled by a player prior to completing the catch is thrown forward, it is an illegal bat. If it is caught by a teammate or intercepted by an opponent, the ball remains alive. If it is not caught, the ball is dead when it hits the ground.
Blandino said he expects the NFL's competition committee to consider adding illegal batting of the ball to its list of reviewable plays, but that won't affect the larger issue here. Barring a massive philosophical shift from owners and league officials, it's highly unlikely that review will expand to all plays.
It's not a matter of prolonging or interrupting games. The Patriots' proposal included the same limitations -- two challenges plus a third if the first two were correct -- that are currently in place. It's simply that the NFL, like its industry contemporaries, is nowhere close to removing primary administration of the game from on-field personnel. It considers replay review a supplement, not a potential replacement, to that fundamental structure. So it goes.