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A breakdown of everything that happened in controversial call between Cowboys and Lions

In case you missed it, the Cowboys beat the Lions 20-19 in controversial fashion. That’s putting it lightly, too. The Lions scored a touchdown with 23 seconds left in the game and opted to go for two, trying to win in regulation rather than play for overtime.

 

On the first try, they performed a trick play and were successful in tossing to left tackle Taylor Decker in the endzone; however, Decker was called for improper touching, so the play was called back. After the Lions’ second two-point effort failed, they had a third opportunity due to a Cowboys penalty, but this one also ended in failure.

The Lions, however, maintain that they gave the referees accurate notice that Decker was supposed to be listed as eligible, which would have rendered the play legitimate. This is the source of the controversy, so let’s examine what actually transpired against what ought to have happened.

What ought to have occurred

Only five eligible players may be used by offenses on any given play, which means that only those players may run routes.

be the first player to touch the ball, or move more than a yard downfield on passing plays. That final part is what leads to the ineligible man downfield penalty that has risen in frequency as RPO’s become more common in the league.

The offense must go to the head referee and declare themselves eligible whenever they substitute a player who is not typically eligible—this is nearly invariably a sixth offensive lineman entering the game. The Cowboys discovered earlier in the season that no other player may report for them.

The head referee approaches the defense and notifies them of the eligibility report once the player has gone to them and been declared eligible. The head referee then uses their microphone to declare to everyone in the stadium who has declared themselves qualified. The eligible player is now free to touch the ball, signaling the end of the process and the start of the offense.

What Took Place in Reality

The Lions are a club that frequently runs trick plays and frequently gets officials ready for what they’re going to do in advance. After the game, head coach Dan Campbell acknowledged that he had disclosed in advance that the Lions had a trick play similar to the one they executed at this particular time. That may facilitate the officials’ handling of the situation, but the concerned player must still follow the standard reporting procedures. Notifying authorities in advance of a play is not a replacement for that.

Dan Skipper, the Lions’ sixth offensive lineman, entered the field as they were about to go for two. Head referee Brad Allen was conversing with Lions tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell as he was replacing him. Not long after, Allen said into the microphone that the person who had reported as eligible was Skipper, not Decker. Following the game, Mike McCarthy and Campbell, the head coaches, stated that they were informed by the referees that Skipper qualified.

This had an impact on the Cowboys’ defense of the play as well:

However, since the play was set up to throw to Decker, it seems obvious that the Lions intended for Decker to be the eligible player. So how did Allen make the error of declaring Skipper eligible?With this fantastic analysis from Football Zebras, the preeminent non-NFL authority on all things officiating, explains:

The video of the between-downs action shows that there was a muddled conference that led referee Brad Allen to declare the incoming lineman Dan Skipper (#70) as the eligible player. Lineman Penei Sewell (#58) and Decker approached Allen prior to the conversion attempt and apparently got across that there was an ineligible player reporting eligible. While they intended to communicate #68, Allen understood this was #70, and points to #70 as acknowledgement.

Looking at the exchange, it appears that Skipper is waving his hands in front of his number, which is a signal for an ineligible reporting. Skipper also reported eligible at other times during the game. There is likely a combination of interpreting Skipper’s hand gestures and assuming that he was the eligible reporting that had Allen peg Skipper as the eligible player.

Allen should not assume in this case, so if that’s the case there is fault that he bears. However, it is always 100% on the lineman to clearly report eligibility to the referee. There have been times where players make the signal and think the referee has them eligible only for the referee to say they didn’t recognize them or announce that fact to the defense. The video shows Skipper got that acknowledgement and not Decker.

That explains how the miscommunication occurred, and it does seem that Allen made a mistake in identifying which player the Lions intended to report as eligible. But all of this could’ve been avoided, too. Once Allen announces Skipper as the eligible player, something that both coaches acknowledge hearing, the Lions players should have gone up to Allen and cleared up the confusion. That didn’t happen, and therefore Decker remained ineligible.

Of course, that’s not all. As John Parry, the rules expert on ESPN’s broadcast team, explained in the moment, the play would’ve been penalized even if Decker had been formally announced as an eligible player. That’s because Decker was covered up on the line of scrimmage by receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, which would’ve resulted in an illegal formation penalty had Decker been considered eligible on this play (which, again, he was not). Allen confirmed as much afterwards:

Put another way, the Lions’ chances of winning this play were always slim. The Lions should take responsibility for their failure to provide clarification following the announcement, Allen erred in declaring Decker eligible, and the formation would have been unlawful even in the event that Decker had been found eligible.

Fans of the Lions should rightfully be frustrated, but Allen’s team made other costly mistakes during the game. Ultimately, the Lions had a responsibility to make sure the officials were informed of everything, and they failed to do so—just as they failed to do on their subsequent two two-point conversion attempts.

 

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