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The referees just let the Lions overturn an unnecessary roughness penalty

This was the most confusing sequence of events.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

So, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions just had Ed Hochuli reverse himself three times on the same play. It was kind of hilarious. Here’s the play sheet description, because you have to see it to believe it:

(1:58) J.Winston pass incomplete deep right to O.Howard (Q.Diggs). PENALTY on DET-Q.Diggs, Unnecessary Roughness, 15 yards, enforced at DET 38 - No Play. Detroit challenged the incomplete pass ruling, and the play was REVERSED. J.Winston pass deep right to O.Howard to DET 17 for 21 yards (Q.Diggs). FUMBLES (Q.Diggs), RECOVERED by DET-D.Slay at DET 18. D.Slay to DET 18 for no gain (J.Winston).

That even understates the confusion on the field. It was initially ruled a catch, a fumble, and then nullified by an unnecessary roughness penalty. Then the refs conferred as coaches protested, and turned it into an incomplete pass, with an unnecessary roughness penalty. And only then the Lions challenged, and it turned into a completed pass, no unnecessary roughness, and a fumble recovered by the Lions.

So, here’s what happened on the play itself: O.J. Howard caught the ball, took a few steps, got hit, dropped the ball, and the Lions picked it up.

The question, as always in these cases, is whether he had completed the catch. If he had, it’s a fumble. If he hadn’t, it’s an incomplete pass. That’s easy to follow, right? We’ve seen that a thousand times in the NFL.

Where it gets complicated, and this tripped everyone up, is that the hit on Howard was ruled to be a hit to the head/neck area, which means it’s a personal foul—if it’s committed on a defenseless player. That is: a player who has not had a chance to establish himself on the field and defend himself against a hit.

So, if Howard was defenseless, there’s a foul and it’s Bucs ball because the foul negates the play. If he’s not defenseless, there can’t be a foul. Worse yet, in that case it’s a fumble—because if he’s not defenseless, he’s had time to defend himself, which means he completed the catch successfully and then fumbled the ball.

Still unclear? Here’s the ultra-simple version:

  • If Howard caught the ball, took a few steps, and then got hit, he’s not defenseless, so there’s no foul, and he just fumbled the ball.
  • If Howard did not take those few steps and was still in the process of making the catch, he’s defenseless, it’s a foul, and the pass is incomplete.

So the fact that the play was ruled to be a completed catch, and a fumble recovered by the Lions, also nullified the penalty. Because it also meant he was not defenseless.

Right, that’s it, I can’t explain it any better than this.