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Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Dirty Laundry: Replays and facemasks

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

I imagine many different thoughts and ideas poured forth when officials ruled that Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson had fumbled on the 14th play of overtime Monday night. Was his knee down? Will Minnesota challenge the ruling? And why did Peterson’s head twist awkwardly on his way to the ground?

For a moment, confusion reigned. Chicago’s offense hustled onto the field, hoping to run a play before a challenge occurred. Minnesota’s sideline stood idly before calling a timeout. What was going on?

The sequence gives us an opportunity to illustrate some details and limitations of the NFL’s instant replay system.

First, I’m sure a few people were caught off guard by the fact that coaches can’t challenge plays in overtime. Only the replay official can initiate a replay in overtime. That’s why the Vikings called a timeout instead of throwing a red flag -- to give the replay official more time to consider a review.

Second, there were two different questions about this play. Was it a legal fumble? And did Bears cornerback Zack Bowman grab Peterson’s facemask prior to the fumble? If called, the facemask would have reverted possession to the Vikings. (NFL rules state: "If the passing team is fouled and loses possession after a completion, enforcement is from the previous spot, and the ball will be retained by the passing team after enforcement of the personal foul.")

During a review, the replay official looks at every aspect of the play -- not just the original question. For example, an official might initiate a review to determine if a catch was legal but subsequently notice the quarterback was over the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball. If that was the case, he could issue a penalty on the quarterback regardless of whether it was originally contemplated.

So initially Monday night, I wondered if a review of the fumble would lead to a retroactive facemask penalty. Such instances are rare, but I confirmed with an NFL spokesman that the replay official has the option to expand his review in such ways.

As it turns out, a facemask is not a reviewable infraction. It falls under the "subjective" category that replay typically avoids.

Most everyone agrees that Peterson’s knee had not yet touched the ground when the ball popped loose. It was a legal fumble. But I was surprised at how split your opinion was on the facemask issue when I glanced through the mailbag. Jerry of Omaha wrote that Bowman’s hand "glanced off Peterson's facemask but didn't grab it. Your lack of objectivity is nauseating."

Tim of Grand Rapids, Minn., wrote: "Why is nobody mentioning the facemask on AP when he fumbled the ball? His head was yanked around and it may have been a contributing factor."

Minnesota coach Brad Childress said: "I thought his facemask got grabbed as he put the football on the ground which will do that sometimes, but still in all he’s got to keep that thing in our possession."

The replay seemed pretty evident to me. Peterson’s head turned sharply to the left at the same time Bowman grabbed it. I can see where officials missed it, considering the number of players in the area.

Facemask penalties get overlooked all the time for that reason. But in this case, it was a missed call at a particularly critical time in the game.

On to our updated Challenge Tracker: