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The Dumbest Call Ever

No one agrees with me on football instant replay. I get that. I’m a ridiculous old fogey on the subject. I’m like one of those people in early 20th century screeching at parties, “These cars, with their smoke and their noise, who needs to get places that fast anyway? Give me a good horse and buggy any day of the week.”

So I’m not going to get into my ridiculous and comprehensive belief that instant replay in football stinks. I’ve given up that fight. But I will make one point before getting into the above photo …

Football is a game where referees mark the ball by rough estimate (“uh, the ball seemed to be about there!”) and then they use chains, actual chains, to determine if it’s a first down.

Football is a game where nine or 10 (or more) enormous men clash and bash and wrestle, committing a long series of penalties and misdemeanors on every play, and every once in a while an official will call holding.

Football is a game where defensive backs are not supposed to touch receivers more than five yards down the field, but they touch receivers past five yards on every single play and are not called for penalties except when they are.

Football is a game where quarterbacks in the pocket are not allowed to throw the ball away to avoid the sack, unless they throw the ball away to avoid the sack by throwing it to a wide area where an eligible teammate sort of happens to be. You understand this, right? A quarterback is allowed to throw the ball DIRECTLY TO THE GROUND (a clear throw away) if a teammate (who has absolutely no chance to catch it) happens to be running in the general area.

There are a hundred more examples like this in the game. The game is chaos. Officiating an NFL game is like officiating a Jackson Pollock painting. But still, the NFL has the world’s most involved replay system to give the illusion that they are actually officiating football with COMPLETE ACCURACY.

So that’s the preamble …

Now, I’m not saying the Duke Johnson fumble call was the WORST in NFL history. There have been many, many, many terrible calls — you can probably find a worse call just about every week. I think you could argue the taunting call earlier this year on Terrelle Pryor was a worse call.

But I am saying it’s the dumbest call in NFL history. It’s certainly the dumbest replay call in NFL history.

How would you quantify such a thing? Well, let’s break down the play, and I mean really break it down. With a little bit less than 10 minutes left in the Cleveland-Washington game (and the Browns trailing 24-20), the Browns handed the ball to Duke Johnson. He fumbled. From the time he fumbled to the time that the official, Sarah Thomas, pointed that the Redskins had possession of the ball was exactly 4.91 seconds. I timed it on my iPhone 6s so you know it’s accurate because that iPhone has a headphone jack.*

*I will attempt to unleash my fury at Apple for getting rid of the headphone jack into every article I write forever.

OK, so exactly 4.91 seconds. Here’s the breakdown based on the video available for your viewing pleasure over at

0:00 seconds: Duke Johnson fumbles.

1.33 seconds: Sarah Thomas drops the blue flag to indicate a fumble.

1.84 seconds: Thomas begins the signal to stop the clock and is running toward the play.

1:84 seconds (exact same time):Washington players Mason Foster, Will Blackmon and Ziggy Hood all begin to get up, celebrate and point toward the end zone, indicating that they have the ball.

1:84 seconds (exact same time): Duke Johnson begins standing up with the football very clearly in his right arm.

2.01 seconds: Washington’s Preston Smith, who was the Washington player with the best shot at recovering the fumble, begins to stand up empty-handed. He gives a sort of “Shucks!” motion.

2.67 seconds: Sarah Thomas runs into Terrelle Pryor in her rush to get to the pile — for the record, he was pointing Cleveland’s way — and she clearly loses sight of things for an instant.

3.50 seconds: Johnson, now on one knee and rising, clearly has the ball in his right hand.

4.19 seconds: Thomas looks curiously into the scrum in search for a football. She seems to see one.

4:19 seconds (exact same time): Johnson is standing up about six feet away from Thomas and holding the ball over his head.

4:91 seconds: Thomas points that Washington has the ball.

Bonus coverage: Television then cuts to an artsy closeup shot of two Washington players holding each other.

OK, so there’s the whole thing. After seeing this play a few times and watching the various replays, you can construct a perfect replication of the play. Johnson as he was falling coughed the ball forward. It definitely was a fumble. Washington’s Will Compton reached for it and with his right hand batted it forward. The ball rolled underneath various Redskins and right into Johnson’s hands. There is no time for anything else. This is what happened.

Later, Johnson would say that he thought he recovered the ball — but to be honest he didn’t help his own cause much. This is because Duke Johnson is awesome. He’s absolutely my favorite Browns player because he’s a warrior, he does whatever is asked, he catches the ball and runs his heart out and makes no excuses. So instead of screaming, “ARE YOU CRAZY? OF COURSE I RECOVERED THE BALL,” he quietly said he thought that he recovered but he was so mad at himself for fumbling in the first place that he just would not make a scene.

“I thought I recovered it,” he told “But at the end of the day, I can’t fumble.”

Bless you, Duke Johnson. You are so awesome. But, yeah, you definitely recovered it. And you got totally hosed.


Now, the call was obviously dumb. But the call was a momentary blip. Thomas saw something that looked to her like a football — an arm, a leg, mud, something — and just didn’t realize that Johnson already had it. I’m not crazy about her saying later that she saw someone recover the ball BEFORE Johnson walked away with it because there was only about a half-second there when the ball was out of sight. Just admit: Hey, I missed the call.

But the NFL doesn’t admit stuff. And anyway it’s not Thomas who made the dumbest call. That was the replay geniuses.

First thing they did was check to see if it was a fumble. I’m pretty sure that was ALL they did because that’s usually the point of contention — fumble or no? I think once they realized it was a fumble, they turned off the machines.

Of course, that’s not what they say now.  According to the NFL statement: “As to the recovery, several different angles were looked at, but with nothing definitive shown, there was no need to stop the game because the on-field ruling that awarded possession to Washington would have stood.”

OK. Now, I want you to look at the timing I have written above, something I was able to reconstruct based on a simple look at the replay on the Internet, and tell me how NOTHING DEFINITIVE WAS SHOWN. How?

I’ll tell you how: If the officials really did look to see who recovered the fumble (something I will again express doubt about) they unquestionably looked at the closeup replays. Becuase that’s what they do. Replay motivates officials to look for small things rather than large, trees instead of forests, basketball passes instead of gorilla. Replay makes normally smart people dumb because it takes away the horizon.

In other words: I’ll bet they didn’t look at the MAIN CAMERA ANGLE.

The photograph above — with a little text-work by yours truly — is for me instant replay in one image. Look, it’s hard being an NFL referee. There are a million things going on all at once, it moves so fast. Yes, Thomas messed up the call. But it was the replay people and later the NFL itself — “NFL finds no evidence in favor of Browns on fumble,” is the headline — that messed up the game.

See: The illusion of replay is that you can get every call right.

The reality of replay is that sometimes it makes the game look dumb.






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41 Responses to The Dumbest Call Ever

  1. Ed says:

    Reminds me a lot of this play from 2006:
    Oklahoma clearly recovered an onside kick by Oregon. The ball slipped out of the pile and went right to an Oklahoma player. He’s just standing away from the pile holding the ball and the refs decide to award it to Oregon. Just brutally bad.

  2. David Buck says:

    I’m still with you, Joe. Replay is horrible. In baseball, too. Soccer and tennis are better.

    • duffy01 says:

      I agree. I hate replay in all sports except tennis. I don’t know anything about soccer. Make the call, move on. Let people, not technology, determine the outcome.

  3. invitro says:

    “the official, Sarah Thomas, pointed that the Redskins” — (1) There are women refs in football now? (2) Joe calls them the Redskins now?

  4. KHAZAD says:

    I am with you. In theory, replay would mean getting the calls right. I see no evidence that this happens. Hell, I used to know what a catch was. I used to know what a fumble was. I don’t know anymore, and more importantly I don’t think anyone does, including replay officials. If I took a drink everytime an announcer says “Did the ball move?” (which, by the way it always does somewhat – it is impossible for it not to) I would die of alcohol poisoning every Sunday. There were two replay type calls in the Sunday night game that went the exact opposite of how the film showed that they should have. Luckily, that game was a rout and the result would have been the same no matter what.

    I remember the first time they “tested” replay. (In the 90s) There was a play where John Elway threw a game winning TD pass from somewhere between 1 and a half and 2 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. I saw it in fast motion and real time. I was sure the play would be overturned when they reviewed it for that very reason. When it was not, I said that replay was no good if correcting such a wrong call was not going to happen.

    At the beginning, I thought it was better this time. It is not. I see things just as blatant as that every Sunday. At least when there were mistakes made before replay, I could rationalize it by noting how hard it is to tell what happened in real time. Now, I am looking at the play when it is being reviewed, but I am never confident in the outcome because every week there is a ruling where I don’t understand how anyone could look at the film and make the judgement that was made. It feels alot worse, and with so many close games, the inconsistency of replay officials can really make a difference in a team’s season. I never rarely used to get angry when my team lost partially because of a close call that went the other way,(knowing that calls can’t be perfect, the team should play well enough that a bad one doesn’t make the difference was my stoic outlook) but now I have seen it in super slo mo and I KNOW that they did too, and still called it against them when they should not have. Then I feel actually cheated and angry. It has changed (lessened) my enjoyment of watching football.

    • invitro says:

      “knowing that calls can’t be perfect” — This is the problem with you and Joe. You allow the field refs to be imperfect, but require that the replay refs be absolutely, 100% perfect. This is a problem with you, not a problem with replay.

      • Danzig says:

        I don’t think they are asking for perfection, just to not be dumb.

      • Mr Fresh says:


        The imperfection is exactly Joe’s point. They’re representing that instant replay gets it exactly right when it clearly does not.. In fact, it’s more infuriating when they parse a play to the point of ridiculousness and you’re still left with less certainty about what the rules are and what the hell just happened.

        One of several reasons that I enjoy watching professional football far less than I used to…

        • invitro says:

          “The imperfection is exactly Joe’s point. They’re representing that instant replay gets it exactly right when it clearly does not.” — If this is the case, the problem is with the NFL’s representation, not with replay itself. Nobody’s perfect :).

          • Jimbo says:

            This play did not require perfect, it didn’t need good or smart or brilliant. All this play needed was competent and sensible.

  5. Joe Jonas says:

    Football is getting pretty stupid.

  6. Mike says:

    Joe, for what it’s worth, the NFL now has an explanation for why the call happened this way (via a video on their web site). According to them, the Line Judge (opposite Thomas) had a clear view of the play and saw the Redskins player recover the ball. Johnson then pulled the ball away in the pile, but that’s irrelevant because the Redskins player had established possession and was down. The replay did not provide enough evidence to overturn the line judge.

    • Mike says:

      Sorry. Line Judge was Thomas. Rest of the explanation stands. They’re saying her view of the play, opposite the camera, showed Redskins player recovering ball.

    • Dave says:

      “… player had established possession…”

      Sorry, can’t resist: Is the *rule* for establishing possession of a fumble in a scrum anywhere near similar to establishing possession of a thrown pass?

      Did he have the ball long enough to “clearly become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up the field, or taking additional stops”? (Article 3, subsection (c).)

      Again, sorry, but I couldn’t resist!

      • Mike says:

        Yeah, it does seem like he established possession in a very very short span of time. But I think the line judge had a clear view and they didn’t want to overrule that.

        • Joe Posnanski says:

          I don’t buy a word of it. There was no clear view of a Washington player recovering because no Washington player ever had the ball. That’s the part that’s 100% clear from the replay. The NFL is covering for itself because that’s what the NFL does.

  7. Deez says:

    You’re going to complain about the iPhone 7 every time? Because it doesn’t have a headphone jack? I have one. So far, the universe hasn’t imploded.

  8. B.g. Levy says:

    The Lord Givith, and the Lord taketh away. The Apple Iphone has taken away the headphone jack (but not completely, you can plug it into the power jack still), but they have given you eternal life (or at least enough life to pluck your Iphone out of the toilet in a reasonable period of time and still get your latest text from the Cleveland Browns Boosters). You are staring a gift horse down his pie hole.

  9. Brent says:

    Duke Johnson learned a valuable lesson. When you come out of the scrum with the ball, don’t walk away, don’t celebrate your recovery. Find the official who is approaching the pile and hand him/her the football.

  10. Dave says:

    I agree that football has a replay problem. A bad one.

    But my biggest problem with football is the ridiculous subjective nature of reffing. Your line “Football is a game where defensive backs are not supposed to touch receivers more than five yards down the field, but they touch receivers past five yards on every single play and are not called for penalties except when they are,” is EXACTLY right. Holding exists on every play, except when it does not. I don’t trust that any game is called remotely properly, and the product suffers completely.

    I was a fan, but in the last few years, not so much. . .

  11. Chris H says:

    I used to know a professor of media studies, Brian Stonehill, who studied and wrote about the use of videotape in evidence. He wrote an analysis of the videos presented to the jury in the trial of police officers accused of violating Rodney King’s rights. The relevant point, I think is this:

    “We’ve forgotten the importance of preserving the integrity of the dimension of time because we’re so used to stretching it on the rack of videotape for our own amusement. … Slo-mo looks like life, but we lose what the ancients embraced as the unity of time. In real time, there’s no question what’s happening on that tape.

    “Monotonously repeated viewings and the back-and-forth “toggling” of videotape further contort the linear dimensions of life. Manipulating, stretching and deforming what we once respected as the unity of time, these familiar devices tamper with the evidence.”

    The whole thing is worth a read. (And apologies if I’ve injected a sensitive topic into a discussion of, you know, football.)

  12. Tom says:

    Don’t worry Joe the Browns are tanking.

  13. Nick Hegge says:

    I have an easy solution for the fumble scrum problem. Eject any player who doesn’t immediately get up and get out of the way when the ref tells them to. It would work something like the tap on the shoulder in a dance-off.

    Fumble scrum. Fumble scrum. That’s fun to say!

  14. Tepposdad says:

    There is even a bigger problem with the NFL saying the call is correct. The official who makes the wrong call, now believes they are correct and therefore does not attempt to improve or change the way they do things so as not make the same mistake again. It is also simply disingenuous of the NFL, we are not idiots, it was simply en error, please just admit it.

  15. Mike Schilling says:

    This actually happened in a European game:

    First down: incomplete pass.
    Second down: Defense offside — five yards
    Second down again: Defense offside again — five more yards
    Bring out the chains to measure: a foot short of the first down.

  16. ceolaf says:

    Back in the day, back when the Redskins were worth talking about, perhaps in the awesome 1991 season, the Redskins were victimized by such an occurrence — though without replay.

    This is the bad call I will never forget. A Redskin player got the ball and ran to the end zone. The refs were dutifully unpacking the pile of players fighting for the ball, and meanwhile the ball was in the hands of another player in the end zone.

    Of course, the Redskins were NOT given possession of the ball.

    It happens. And it happens again. And the NFL gets away with it.

  17. Knuckles says:

    Replay is broken. The original call should have zero bearing for starters. Should be reviewed in a central location with a ref not knowing the original call or spot etc..

  18. Knuckles says:

    Easy fix. No girl refs. Solved.

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