NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino may have some more explaining to do this week after officials made a controversial call that cost the Pittsburgh Steelers possession of the ball and set up a Green Bay Packers touchdown.
The confusion began when the Packers lined up for a 23-yard field goal late in the third quarter while trailing the Steelers 17-14. Pittsburgh defensive tackle Steve McLendon managed to get his hand on the ball and block the attempt. Steelers safety Ryan Clark then grabbed the loose ball and, as he was falling to the ground, pitched it back to teammate William Gay. On a wintry day at Lambeau, Gay failed to get a hold of the ball and it rolled free inside the 10-yard line. Amid the scramble for the ball, Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood knocked it out of bounds.
The Steelers initially celebrated the blocked field goal attempt but their joy soon turned to confusion and anger. A flag was thrown for illegal batting on Hood and the refs returned the ball to Green Bay along with a fresh set of downs. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was noticeably upset on the sideline and arguing with the refs.
"The ruling on the field is the ball was never possessed by Pittsburgh. That's why the enforcement of the penalty is during a loose ball is from the previous spot, half the distance, automatic first down for Green Bay," official Carl Cheffers said.
After hearing some more words from Tomlin, Cheffers announced that the play could not even be challenged.
"Possession in the field of play is not a challengeable aspect of the replay," he said. "The ruling on the field stands as called."
While Hood did seem to illegally bat the ball forward as the referees noticed, Clark's knee appeared to be down before he lateraled the ball to Gay. That went unnoticed. Had the officials ruled that Clark had been down at that earlier point in the play then Hood's touch would not have mattered. As Cheffers announced, Clark being down while having possession was not a reviewable aspect of the play and the Steelers were unable to challenge it.
The Packers got the ball back two yards away from the end zone. Running back Eddie Lacy scored a touchdown on the very next play to take a 21-17 lead.
Former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira tried to break down the ruling on Twitter.
Lot to breakdown on GB play: it was ruled PIT never had possession - which is NOT reviewable...
In my opinion, PIT did have possession and 25 may have been down when he pitched it - since they ruled he didn't, replay can't get involved
Illegal batting behind the LOS was correctly enforced which is half the distance from where the ball was snapped…very confusing.
Others who were watching the game were less understanding in their assessment of the officials' performance on the play.
I cannot believe the incompetence of NFL refs. Pathetic.
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 22, 2013
Zebras seemed determined to award the ball to GB no matter what the facts were. Are we looking at an NFL apology-to-come?
— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) December 22, 2013
I've watched that play about 20 times. Looked like Ryan Clark's knee was down. But refs ruled he never had possession.
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) December 22, 2013
Sure looked like Ryan Clark had possession and his knee was down before he pitched the ball but it wasn't ruled that way on the field
— Tom Bradley (@TomScrapBradley) December 22, 2013
The Steelers would rally to make the controversial play somewhat less significant. Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:25 remaining. The Steelers' 38-31 win kept their playoff hopes alive.