NFL Competition Committee Should Look To Do Some Tweaking On Fumbles, Illegal Contact


NaVorro Bowman (53) recovered a fumble by Seattle receiver Jermaine Kearse (15) on this play in Sunday’s NFC Championship … except, by rule, he actually didn’t. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

With one game left in the NFL season, I’ve seen enough to know that the NFL’s competition committee should be considering some serious tweaking, particularly of its instant replay system and its quick trigger on flags for illegal contact.

The NFL avoided a major public-relations nightmare in Sunday’s NFC Championship, when NaVorro Bowman of the San Francisco 49ers recovered a fumble … only he didn’t.

Replay, even to my untrained eyes … and the eyes of just about everyone not bedecked in lime green, showed that Bowman stripped the ball away from Seattle Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse, recovered the ball and was down by contact—the contact that grotesquely bent his left leg.

But somehow the “all-star” crew of officials all missed the guy laying there with the ball in his hands and instead ruled that Seattle came out of the scrum with the ball.

Now, here’s where it gets insane. Because the play (a) didn’t involve a score, (b) didn’t involve a turnover or (c) didn’t involve a call made on one of the sideline boundaries, it was not reviewable.

There was plenty of evidence to make a ruling via review, but that play isn’t subject to review. Fortunately for the NFL PR types, the Seahawks fumbled again on the next play, San Francisco took possession on downs and the asinine rule didn’t cost a team actual points on a scoreboard.

So, guys in the know in the NFL office, riddle me this: If a turnover is automatically reviewed if it is ruled a turnover on the field, why can’t a potential turnover be likewise automatically reviewed?

And, before you answer, please spare me the “disrupt the flow of the game” argument—Jim Harbaugh’s temper tantrum disrupted as much flow of the game as simply automatically throwing the play to the replay tent would have, enough so that FOX had enough time to show Bowman’s leg bending in directions it was never intended to bend about a dozen times.

So that could be tweaked.

The other is illegal contact/blow to the head calls. Donte Whitner of the 49ers—who has a bit of a reputation of playing on the gray area between clean and not so much—made a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Seattle tight end Luke Willson, whose body angle was changed abruptly when he was hit by the 49ers other safety, Eric Reid.

But there have been dozens of other instances this season where a defender was flagged for illegal contact, only to have replay show—and quickly—that the contact was not, in fact, illegal.

Given that a 15-yard penalty is the type of momentum killer/drive resuscitator that can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of a game, shouldn’t this be able to be reviewed? I mean, if you’re going to penalize a guy for helmet-to-helmet contact, shouldn’t we be certain that actual helmets were, in fact, contacted?

I understand the spirit of what the NFL is trying to do, even as the cynic in me understands that a major motivation behind it is trying to gain relief from future liability.

But after two years, it’s pretty evident that “err on the side of safety” is creating an environment where defenders are being asked to make insanely rapid—read “impossible”—reactions or risk getting flagged for a malicious act sans malicious intent.

I’m not generally in this camp, but it makes me start to understand where the “might as well put flags on them” sentiment comes from.