10.24.2010 – Miami, FL – In what may prove to be the most controversial call of the 2010 NFL season, the referees in the Dolphins / Steelers game figuratively did something that football teams do all the time: they punted.
With about two and a half minutes left in the game, the Steelers were down by 2 points. On third down, from the perspective of the referee and from the broadcast camera angle, it appeared that Roethlisberger extended the ball to cross plane of the end zone and then had it knocked from his grasp by a Miami defender. The referee signaled a touchdown and blew the whistle while the majority of both teams, including Roethlisberger, sought to recover the bouncing ball.
Different camera angles revealed that Roethlisberger actually lost possession of the ball prior to it crossing the plane of the end zone and Miami immediately challenged the ruling on the field. After extensive review by the referees, the ruling was made that the ball was fumbled before crossing the end zone, nullifying the touchdown. In addition, the referee stated that, based on the camera footage it was impossible to determine who recovered the ball. Because it was impossible to determine who recovered the ball, the Steelers were given possession on the ½ yard line.
The result of this decision was all but a forgone conclusion. The Steelers easily made the chip shot field goal and Miami got the ball, one point down, with about two and a half minutes on the clock.
By one perspective, this was the best possible call. The Steelers get the easy score, but Miami gets the ball with enough time to win the game if they are able to advance the ball down the field. If the referees had decided that Pittsburgh had recovered, the touchdown would have nearly put the game out of reach for Miami. If the referees had decided that Miami had recovered, the failure to score by Pittsburgh would have just about assured a victory for Miami. By being indecisive, the referees allowed the two teams to truly battle it out for victory.
But, while this may seem like a good decision, in fact, the referees failed to do their job. The job of the referees is to enforce the rules and make decisions based on their own perception and sometimes based on the information available from replay cameras. Stating that they were unable to make a decision is unacceptable. Making the decision of possession, in this instance, was what they were being paid to do.
Arguably, when the whistle was blown, the play was dead, which means possession never actually could be determined. But, from footage of the game it is clear that the only people on the field paying attention to that whistle were the guys wearing white and black stripes. Nearly every man wearing black and gold or white and pastel was aggressively wrestling for control of the ball. Eventually, after all the bodies were moved, somebody recovered.
Between the footage available and the referees own senses, the referees had as much information as they possibly could have had. It was the responsibility of these referees to make a decision and they simply refused. And, whether or not that refusal to make a decision changed the result of the game isn’t important. What is important is that they failed to do their job. Any call, even a bad call, would be preferable to the lack of call made by these referees.