NFL referees can defy laws of time

November 25, 2012

TD or not TD? While that may sound like a simple question, when it comes to the NFL, the answer can be quite complicated.

The real answer is . . . it depends.

When a touchdown is called on the field, it is not always a touchdown on the scoreboard.

See what I mean?


We are in Week 12 of the NFL season, but honestly it doesn’t matter what week we’re in. Replay is not only a way of life in the NFL — it has become a central component of every game.

I want to focus on a couple of plays that took place in the Minnesota-Chicago game, won by the Bears 28-10 at Soldier Field, where replay played a big role in the outcome. One involved a fumble recovery that was returned for a touchdown, “confirmed” as a score on the field, then reversed to down by contact after a review. The other was a sideline catch in the end zone that was called a touchdown and upheld as such by replay.

Let’s look at the first play.

The situation: Chicago had the ball, first down and 10 at its own 49-yard line with 6:39 left in the third quarter. The Bears led 25-10.

The play: Chicago running back Matt Forte carried the ball for 3 yards, fumbled and the ball was recovered by Mistral Raymond, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown. After the replay official initiated a challenge, the play was reversed because Forte’s knees were down.

My take: It’s clear to me that the replay official looked at the live shot and concluded that Forte was on bodies and not down when the ball was pried loose. He therefore signaled down to the referee confirming that the ruling of fumble and touchdown was correct. Shortly thereafter, he saw another shot that showed both of Forte’s knees down before he was bent backwards and before the ball came loose. The replay official then signaled the referee that the play needed to be reviewed.

Although unusual, the replay official is allowed to do this, as long as it happens before the ball is snapped for the extra point. If the replay official saw this shot after the extra point, there is nothing he could have done about it. If you’ve read this far, unless you’ve had taken a course from Evelyn Wood, the godmother of speed reading, you read for about as long as the officials have to make a decision about a play that’s being reviewed once they go under the hood. With that in mind, let’s look at the second play.



The situation: Chicago had the ball, first and 10 at the Minnesota 13 with 1:55 left in the second quarter. The Bears led 18-3.

The play: Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler completed a 13-yard pass to Matt Spaeth, who made an acrobatic catch at the side of the end zone for a touchdown. After a review, the play was upheld as a touchdown.

My take: Better late than never. The first seven replays didn’t clearly show whether it was a touchdown or not. But the clear shot came up while the referee was under the hood. I’m sure the replay assistant quickly showed this to the referee, who stayed with the ruling of a touchdown.

Since this view came up 67 seconds after the replay was initiated, it would seem to conflict with the rule that says the referee only has 60 seconds to make a decision. But the key is when the 60 seconds starts. Before the 60-second clock starts, the referee will confer with the official who made the call, go to the sideline and talk to the replay official on headset and then when the replay official is ready to feed the video, he will go under the hood, which will officially start the 60-second clock.

If after 60 seconds the decision does not change the ruling on the field, the video gets shut off immediately. If the ruling does get changed, then the referee has no time limit to review the video because he has to go back to reset the proper spot of the ball and to address the status of the clock. So while the referee gets 60 seconds to make a decision, the average length of a review is around 3 minutes.

So when it comes to the NFL, there are no easy answers, even when it might appear to be the simplest of questions.