The Dumbest Call Ever
No one agrees with me on football instant replay. I get that. I'm a ridiculous old fogey on the subject. I'm like one of those people in early 20th century screeching at parties, "These cars, with their smoke and their noise, who needs to get places that fast anyway? Give me a good horse and buggy any day of the week."
So I'm not going to get into my ridiculous and comprehensive belief that instant replay in football stinks. I've given up that fight. But I will make one point before getting into the above photo ...
Football is a game where referees mark the ball by rough estimate ("uh, the ball seemed to be about there!") and then they use chains, actual chains, to determine if it's a first down.
Football is a game where nine or 10 (or more) enormous men clash and bash and wrestle, committing a long series of penalties and misdemeanors on every play, and every once in a while an official will call holding.
Football is a game where defensive backs are not supposed to touch receivers more than five yards down the field, but they touch receivers past five yards on every single play and are not called for penalties except when they are.
Football is a game where quarterbacks in the pocket are not allowed to throw the ball away to avoid the sack, unless they throw the ball away to avoid the sack by throwing it to a wide area where an eligible teammate sort of happens to be. You understand this, right? A quarterback is allowed to throw the ball DIRECTLY TO THE GROUND (a clear throw away) if a teammate (who has absolutely no chance to catch it) happens to be running in the general area.
There are a hundred more examples like this in the game. The game is chaos. Officiating an NFL game is like officiating a Jackson Pollock painting. But still, the NFL has the world's most involved replay system to give the illusion that they are actually officiating football with COMPLETE ACCURACY.
So that's the preamble ...
Now, I'm not saying the Duke Johnson fumble call was the WORST in NFL history. There have been many, many, many terrible calls -- you can probably find a worse call just about every week. I think you could argue the taunting call earlier this year on Terrelle Pryor was a worse call.
But I am saying it's the dumbest call in NFL history. It's certainly the dumbest replay call in NFL history.
How would you quantify such a thing? Well, let's break down the play, and I mean really break it down. With a little bit less than 10 minutes left in the Cleveland-Washington game (and the Browns trailing 24-20), the Browns handed the ball to Duke Johnson. He fumbled. From the time he fumbled to the time that the official, Sarah Thomas, pointed that the Redskins had possession of the ball was exactly 4.91 seconds. I timed it on my iPhone 6s so you know it's accurate because that iPhone has a headphone jack.*
*I will attempt to unleash my fury at Apple for getting rid of the headphone jack into every article I write forever.
OK, so exactly 4.91 seconds. Here's the breakdown based on the video available for your viewing pleasure over at NFL.com:
0:00 seconds: Duke Johnson fumbles.
1.33 seconds: Sarah Thomas drops the blue flag to indicate a fumble.
1.84 seconds: Thomas begins the signal to stop the clock and is running toward the play.
1:84 seconds (exact same time):Washington players Mason Foster, Will Blackmon and Ziggy Hood all begin to get up, celebrate and point toward the end zone, indicating that they have the ball.
1:84 seconds (exact same time): Duke Johnson begins standing up with the football very clearly in his right arm.
2.01 seconds: Washington's Preston Smith, who was the Washington player with the best shot at recovering the fumble, begins to stand up empty-handed. He gives a sort of "Shucks!" motion.
2.67 seconds: Sarah Thomas runs into Terrelle Pryor in her rush to get to the pile -- for the record, he was pointing Cleveland's way -- and she clearly loses sight of things for an instant.
3.50 seconds: Johnson, now on one knee and rising, clearly has the ball in his right hand.
4.19 seconds: Thomas looks curiously into the scrum in search for a football. She seems to see one.
4:19 seconds (exact same time): Johnson is standing up about six feet away from Thomas and holding the ball over his head.
4:91 seconds: Thomas points that Washington has the ball.
Bonus coverage: Television then cuts to an artsy closeup shot of two Washington players holding each other.
OK, so there's the whole thing. After seeing this play a few times and watching the various replays, you can construct a perfect replication of the play. Johnson as he was falling coughed the ball forward. It definitely was a fumble. Washington's Will Compton reached for it and with his right hand batted it forward. The ball rolled underneath various Redskins and right into Johnson's hands. There is no time for anything else. This is what happened.
Later, Johnson would say that he thought he recovered the ball -- but to be honest he didn't help his own cause much. This is because Duke Johnson is awesome. He's absolutely my favorite Browns player because he's a warrior, he does whatever is asked, he catches the ball and runs his heart out and makes no excuses. So instead of screaming, "ARE YOU CRAZY? OF COURSE I RECOVERED THE BALL," he quietly said he thought that he recovered but he was so mad at himself for fumbling in the first place that he just would not make a scene.
"I thought I recovered it," he told Cleveland.com. "But at the end of the day, I can't fumble."
Bless you, Duke Johnson. You are so awesome. But, yeah, you definitely recovered it. And you got totally hosed.
Now, the call was obviously dumb. But the call was a momentary blip. Thomas saw something that looked to her like a football -- an arm, a leg, mud, something -- and just didn't realize that Johnson already had it. I'm not crazy about her saying later that she saw someone recover the ball BEFORE Johnson walked away with it because there was only about a half-second there when the ball was out of sight. Just admit: Hey, I missed the call.
But the NFL doesn't admit stuff. And anyway it's not Thomas who made the dumbest call. That was the replay geniuses.
First thing they did was check to see if it was a fumble. I'm pretty sure that was ALL they did because that's usually the point of contention -- fumble or no? I think once they realized it was a fumble, they turned off the machines.
Of course, that's not what they say now. According to the NFL statement: "As to the recovery, several different angles were looked at, but with nothing definitive shown, there was no need to stop the game because the on-field ruling that awarded possession to Washington would have stood."
OK. Now, I want you to look at the timing I have written above, something I was able to reconstruct based on a simple look at the replay on the Internet, and tell me how NOTHING DEFINITIVE WAS SHOWN. How?
I'll tell you how: If the officials really did look to see who recovered the fumble (something I will again express doubt about) they unquestionably looked at the closeup replays. Becuase that's what they do. Replay motivates officials to look for small things rather than large, trees instead of forests, basketball passes instead of gorilla. Replay makes normally smart people dumb because it takes away the horizon.
In other words: I'll bet they didn't look at the MAIN CAMERA ANGLE.
The photograph above -- with a little text-work by yours truly -- is for me instant replay in one image. Look, it's hard being an NFL referee. There are a million things going on all at once, it moves so fast. Yes, Thomas messed up the call. But it was the replay people and later the NFL itself -- "NFL finds no evidence in favor of Browns on fumble," is the NFL.com headline -- that messed up the game.
See: The illusion of replay is that you can get every call right.
The reality of replay is that sometimes it makes the game look dumb.