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Super Bowl Controversy: Was That Definitely A Fumble?

If you watched tonight's Super Bowl, you know that the key play was the penultimate one. That's when Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, in a desperate bid to lead a last-second comeback, was hit by Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Lamar Woodley. The ball squirted out, bouncing forward a few yards, where Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel gobbled it up.

Referees on the field ruled the play a fumble, Pittsburgh took possession, and--with seven seconds left in the game--quarterback Ben Roethlesberger took a knee. Game over. Steelers are World Champions.

And that's fine with me. I'm an AFC guy with a soft spot for heavily unionized industrial cities. Pittsburgh is a terrific sports town with devoted fans that follow the team around the country. I'm pleased for them.

But hold everything! Warner was into his throwing motion when he got hit. And according to this 2006 NFL Rule Book--the only official rule book I could find online, since the NFL official site lists only an abbreviated digest--it's not a fumble if the quarterback's arm is moving forward to make a pass attempt. Here's the specific language, from Rule 3, Section 21, Article 3:

Note 1: When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional movement forward of his hand starts a forward pass. If a Team B player contacts the passer or the ball after forward movement begins, and the ball leaves the passer’s hand, a forward pass is ruled, regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player.

From what I could tell, from the play and then the initial replays, Woodley hit Warner's arm right around the moment when it started to move forward. Warner's hand remained on the ball, however, as it continued to move forward. He actually muscled it a few inches before Woodley finally dislodged it for good. That's why the ball moved forward with velocity once it finally left Warner's hand.

So there are two questions. First, did Woodley really hit Warner's arm before it started moving forward? And, even if he did, is it still a fumble if Warner maintained some control of the ball as it was moving forward?

And here's where things get fishy. As soon as the play was over, Arizona players began asking referees to review the play. Al Michaels, who was handling play-by-play for NBC, said that he expected the refs to comply--in no small part because they'd reviewed a series of key plays already, including what would prove the game-winning touchdown pass for Pittsburgh.

Since this was within the last two minutes of play, a review should have been automatic: The officials up in the press box should have called for it, at which point the head referee should have gone over to the sideline video monitor--as he had the previous times--and made  a call.

But within a few seconds, NBC's camera was back on the field of play: Pittsburgh was lined up over the ball. The Steelers snapped it, Roethlesberger took the knee, and that was the ballgame. At that point Michaels said the referees had reviewed the play and decided it was, indeed, a fumble. But that was awfully quick--like I said, just a few seconds--and it seems inconceivable anybody could have made such a judgment, on such a pivotal call, in so short a time.

Pittsburgh was, I imagine, doing precisely what coaches tell teams to do after they've benefitted from a controversial call: quickly run a play before anybody can reverse it. And it's possible that, in all the confusion, the refs placed the ball and allowed the play to run--when, in fact, they should have been waiting while the head referee reviewed the last one on video.

What might have been if the refs had reviewed the play, as Arizona's players wanted? The call on the field was fumble; by rule, referees cannot overturn a call without clear-cut evidence. And it's possible the evidence wasn't there. (NBC never showed the play again in its postgame show, from what I could see; I had to go to ESPN, and even then only saw two shots, neither of them slowed and enlarged enough to make a definitive call.)  With just seven seconds left, Arizona would have had time for just one more play, maybe two if the first one was a quick out to the sidelines.

But Arizona didn't have far to go. Pittsburgh had gotten a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the fumble recovery; I assume it would have counted even if the refs had overturned the call. If so, that would have put the ball at the Steeler 28, hardly out of range for Warner and his cast of spectacular receivers.

Yes, Pittsburgh probably would have won the game regardless. And, for the record, I thought the refs generally did a good job tonight. But who knows what might have happened if this call had been reviewed. If I were an Arizona fan--surely there are a few out there--I'd be angry.

Oh well. Less than a month before pitchers and catchers report.

P.S. I thought Springsteen was pretty great, too.

--Jonathan Cohn