With 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson caught a short pass from Matthew Stafford and began running to the end zone. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor punched the ball loose at the 1-yard line.
What happened next?
The fumbled ball bounced into the end zone, where Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright tapped it past the end line and out of bounds.
What did referee Tony Corrente call?
Corrente ruled the play a touchback, giving the Seahawks the ball at the their 20-yard line -- where they ran out the rest of the clock and won the game.
So what's the controversy?
Wright's act of tapping the ball out of bounds is known as an "illegal bat." Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook defines an illegal bat, among other ways, as an instance where "any player bats or punches a loose ball (that has touched the ground) in any direction, if it is in either end zone."
Whoever heard of an "illegal bat?"
Apparently, very few people. In most cases, players attempt to recover loose balls rather than bat them away. The major point of the rule is to prevent players from batting the ball toward their end zone to help a teammate recover for a score or for better field position. In the end zone, the idea is that no team should get an advantage by tapping the ball instead of trying to recover it.
What should have happened?
The Lions should have retained possession. The ball should have been placed on the Seahawks' 1-yard line, where the Lions would have had four downs to take a late lead.
How do you know?
NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino confirmed the missed call minutes later to ESPN and the NFL Network. "That is a foul," Blandino said. "We have to make that call."
There were less than two minutes remaining. Why didn't the replay official review and correct the call?
An illegal bat is not subject to the NFL's replay review system because it is considered a judgment call, much like pass interference or holding. Only the fumble itself was reviewable.
How could Corrente's crew miss such an obvious play?
Replays showed back judge Gregory Wilson within a few feet of the ball and with an unblocked sightline. Blandino noted that there is some subjectivity in the call and theorized that Wilson didn't interpret Wright's act as intentional. Blandino, however, agreed that it was an intentional act that should have been called.
Why didn't Corrente or another member of his crew overrule Wilson?
NFL officials divide the field into responsibilities, and it's likely that much of the crew was looking elsewhere. It's also true that the NFL rulebook is the longest and most complicated in sports, an issue many of us in the media have been emphasizing for years, and it's not uncommon for referees to lose track of some of its byzantine rules and series of exceptions. The league has an ongoing initiative to simplify its rules, but that is a gigantic task that will require years of work. This spring, several NFL coaches acknowledged that even they don't know all the rules.
What will happen to Wilson and Corrente?
The NFL has the right to discipline and even replace officials during the season, but it has rarely used that option.
Typically, it grades all officials weekly and evaluates them at the end of the season. Each official is ranked annually in one of three tiers; the third is a grouping of the lowest performers. That collection receives what Blandino has referred to as "enhanced training" and "a focus on them and their development." If they remain in the third tier the following year, they are candidates to be fired.
What can be done here for the Lions?
Rule 17, Section 2 of the rulebook gives NFL commissioner Roger Goodell authority to overturn the outcome of a game based on "extraordinarily unfair acts," but a missed call isn't one of them. Given the publicity this play will bring, rest assured that the NFL will "review" the rule in the offseason.