When Ben Roethlisberger fumbled into the end zone on third down with a little over two minutes left, the game result hung in the balance. Though the play was called a touchdown on the field, the ball was clearly fumbled forward by Roethlisberger before he crossed the goal line. On review, referee Gene Steratore overturned the call on the field regarding the touchdown, and ruled that Ben Roethlisberger did fumble before crossing the line. That’s when it got crazy. The ball bounced into the end zone, and bodies (specifically, three Dolphins covered by Steeler players) fell on the ball in a pile. Here’s the video.
The problem was that referee Gene Steratore did not see indisputable video evidence of who recovered the fumble. I believe that the rule at issue is contained in Rule 15, Section 9 under “Reviewable Plays”. Note 1 says “If the ruling of down by contact or incomplete pass is changed, the ball belongs
to the recovering player at the spot of the recovery of the fumble, and any advance is nullified.” Note 2 states “If the Referee does not have indisputable visual evidence as to which player recovered the loose ball, the ruling on the field will stand.” Now, there was “officially” no ruling on the field in regard to who recovered, since a touchdown was signaled and then overturned.
Unofficially (because another official ruled touchdown which superceded the recovery determinations), though, the officials on the field ruled it to be Dolphins’ ball. According to Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post, Akaika Alama-Francis of the Dolphins recovered the fumble, and claimed to have heard officials yelling ”white ball” (the Dolphins were in the white jerseys) as the pile ensued. Alama-Francis also came out of the pile with the ball. Volin reports the following from LB Karlos Dansby:
“I talked to the back judge,” Dansby said. “I said, ‘Man, you know we had the ball.’ He said, ‘Yeah, 59 (Alama-Francis) had the ball, but it’s out of our hands.’ “
The league has officially supported Steratore’s decision, and if you demand indisputable visual evidence that Miami recovered, I suppose you could say it is not indisputable from just watching the footage, although it appears extremely likely that the Dolphins were on the ball. The problem is that the rule was not designed for this circumstance.
In this case, there was no official ruling on the field as it related to recovery, such that “the ruling on the field will stand” clause kicks in, since the initial review was for the touchdown call. If Steratore was allowed to determine what the ruling on the field was in regard to recovery, by the officials who were separately monitoring recovery (as opposed to the one responsible for ruling touchdown), then it seems pretty clear that those officials ruled the recovery to the Dolphins. I think the league needs to have some common sense here, and allow for rulings by the field officials in separate phases of officiating to come into play, once another phase of the play has been overturned. Once Steratore ruled that the linesman or line judge made the incorrect call on touchdown before fumble occurred, he should have been able to separately determine what the back judge, field judge or umpire separately ruled as the officials charged with determining recovery. If he were able to do so, then Note 2 of the Instant Replay section could then have been interpreted as requiring indisputable evidence that the Dolphins did not recover, or else, their judgment that the Dolphins recovered would have stood. [photo via Getty]