It is difficult to imagine a single play resulting in a higher production of justified finger-pointing and warranted blame than what occurred during Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day game between the Houston Texans and Detroit Lions.

When something happens that is considered contentious, the controversy typically arises out of differing perspectives. What seems obvious to me is anything but for someone else. What’s so remarkable about the hullabaloo that erupted out of last week’s 81-yard touchdown run by Texans running back Justin Forsett is the lack of disagreement over the sequence of events.

Down by ten points, more than half way through the third quarter, Houston quarterback Matt Schaub handed the ball off to Forsett on second down with ten yards to go. The running back was granted a hole by his offensive line as devastating as a wound in need of suture. However, six yards after the line of scrimmage he was tackled by Lions safeties Erik Coleman and Louis Delmas.

Despite a knee and an elbow both touching turf, Forsett popped up in one continuous motion, in a manner that only the supremely athletic would even attempt, and ran 75 additional yards into the end zone through a why-bother Detroit defense.

Somehow, this was called a touchdown by the non-replacement officials. Of course, this being the National Football League, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz responded to the scoring play by throwing a challenge flag onto the field, and requesting a review of the play that should’ve been blown dead. However, in the NFL, all scoring plays and turnovers are automatically reviewed, and so Schwartz’s redundant actions earned a 15-yard penalty for delaying the game.

Such a punishment seems adequate given that a head coach might use the redundant challenge to speak to an official about something other than what immediately happened on the field. However, the penalty for an over-eager request does not stop there. According to the NFL rule book, in addition to the 15-yard sentence, the play that was automatically reviewable is no longer reviewed at all.

Touchdown Texans! Avoiding butterfly effect analysis, Houston went on to eventually win the game in overtime 34-31, thanks in no small part to the imposter touchdown being accepted as the genuine article. The play single-handedly doubled the team’s win probability.

To label this as an embarrassment would be an understatement. The NFL, in its attempt to dodge criticism of its officials and rules neglected to attach a video highlight of the play in its online box score, despite providing links to every other scoring play from the game.

However, what makes this incident such a enormous embarrassment isn’t the sad attempt from the league to avoid documentation, but rather the astounding failure on three different levels that combined to produce a massive malfunction of reason.

The Referees

There can be little doubt that officiating a football game at the highest level is difficult. We need no further evidence of this than the inadvertent tragic-comedies presented by the replacement referees in the early weeks of the 2012-2013 season. It is almost impossible to imagine that the distressing hilarity that resulted because of a labor disagreement was the product of the second-best officials taking the place of the best. There may be no greater gap on Earth than the one between elite referees and the merely very good.

Typically, reasonable fans will have an understanding that things happening in real-time aren’t as easy to observe and judge as they are to us at home, the audience that’s granted multiple opportunities through replay to refer to referees as idiots. Nonetheless, Forsett’s knee and forearm touching the ground after being tackled by the combined efforts of Detroit’s secondary was so routine as to be monumentally obvious.

The only abnormality was the running back’s refusal to accept the truth that had been knocked into him. He simply kept going, and instead of judging the play on the actual facts in front of them, the seven officials working the game allowed it to continue because of Forsett’s reaction, or lack thereof, to being tackled. It’s the equivalent of judging a field goal based on the enthusiasm of the kicker’s celebration.

The Head Coach

From here, we have Schwartz’s unforgivable decision to throw his challenge flag on a play that would have been automatically reviewed. It seems fitting that the Lions coach should be responsible for this awful oversight given his actions of more than year ago, infamously yelling at officials during the end of his team’s overtime victory against the Minnesota Vikings to “learn the fucking rules.”

Schwartz’s reaction, this time around, was a matter of neuroscience.

I knew the rule — you can’t challenge on a turnover or a scoring play — but I was so mad that I overreacted. I had the flag in my hand before he even scored because he was obviously down.

While the decisions that we make require some degree of emotion – otherwise we would merely spend an infinite amount of time considering rational options – the key that Schwartz missed is to find the happy medium sweet spot that includes both the emotional and rational.

In order to act quickly, Schwartz’s brain prioritized the factors to be considered, unfortunately leaving out the most important one. The urgency of the matter affected the coach’s problem analysis, essentially blocking an imperative aspect of his decision making from consideration. He was aware of the rule, but in the immediacy of the event, he acted as though he wasn’t.

The end result was a drastic mistake.

The NFL

However, the mistake is only drastic because of the existence of a rule only in place for the sake of its own creation. The rule in question states that if a coach challenges an automatically reviewable call on the field of, it not only results in a 15-yard penalty for delaying the game, but also a negation of the review.

Imagine if you really wanted a raise in your salary. During your performance review, you asked your boss for that raise, even though it was made clear ahead of time that this was not the time to ask for such things. Now, imagine that your boss informs you that you were going to receive a raise, but now that you asked for it, he had to not only deny your raise, but also reduce your income by 15% for your next pay period.

This rule relates specifically to replay. The purpose of replay is to get calls made on the field right. However, the punishment for breaking this one rule, which would not exist without replay, results in no contemplation whatsoever devoted to getting the call right. As soon as the challenge flag is thrown, what is right and wrong no longer matters.

We can fully admit that sports need rules. Anarchy in athletics would be especially disastrous, robbing the entire spectacle of its entertainment value. We watch sports to witness exploits supremely managed by athletes operating under restrictions. The overcoming of hindrances is the point of the performance.

However, this rule, which the NFL will now considering amending mid-season, goes beyond merely placing a restriction for the purpose of enhancing entertainment. It brings about a punishment that is in complete contradiction to what is supposed to be meant by the integrity of the game, which is completely dependent on ensuring that the game is played according to the other rules.

The failure on top of failure on top of failure would make the Keystone Cops look competent by comparison. While it is the dirty business of human nature to demand a scapegoat for wrong doing, slaying only a single representative of the wrong done in this case would be both inaccurate and unhelpful. There were mistakes made at almost every level imaginable that combined to form a moment in the regularly well-manicured NFL that should not be soon forgotten: a moment in which the integrity of the game, represented by that which actually occurred on the field of play, was overlooked for the sake of the language of a poorly-formed rule, thanks to ghastly officiating and poor decision-making.

Sources:

The Influence of Urgency On Decision by A.J. Reddi and R.H.S. Carpenter.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer.
GameCenter Play By Play. [NFL.com]
Texans Top Lions. [The Globe And Mail]
NFL To Revisit Challenge Rule. [ESPN]