Going deep on the soul of D.C. sports

Redskins fifth down? Refs, chain gang, FOX were on different pages

December 13, 2010 - 01:13 PM
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The circled area in this screen shot shows the confusion between FOX's yard marker and the official chain gang's yard marker on the play that may or may not have ended with an Anthony Armstrong catch that may or may not have been a first down. (Photo: TBD Staff)

The officials working the Redskins’ game against the Bucs made an obvious error in not calling holding on Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn, who hog-tied Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo to keep him from getting to quarterback Josh Freeman before the quarterback threw what ended up being the game-winning 41-yard touchdown pass to Kellen Winslow.

But another play is under scrutiny as well. Confusion arose in the final 50 seconds of the game, when it appeared that the Redskins got a fifth play as Santana Moss scored on a 6-yard catch to pull his team within 17-16 with nine seconds left.

Four plays before Moss’ touchdown catch, the Redskins lined up at the 12-yard line on first-and-10, and Donovan McNabb completed what appeared to be a 9-½ yard pass to a diving Anthony Armstrong. The receiver slid beneath two defensive backs to make the grab, came down at the 2-½-yard spot, and sprung up and stepped into the end zone.

Armstrong didn’t believe he had been touched, but the officials said he had been, and marked him down at the 2-½ yard mark.

Here’s where the confusion starts . . .. FOX’s telecast shows the yellow first down line at the 2-yard line, and their on-screen down reader shows second down, 1 yard to go. But, the down box read first down, and the first-down sideline marker had been removed because the officials had given Armstrong a first down.

An incomplete pass to Roydell Williams, a run for a loss by Ryan Torain and an incomplete pass to Fred Davis on what FOX displayed, and what Kenny Albert announced, as fourth-and-4 (but the down box said ‘3’) would’ve ended the game. But the officials followed that up by spotting the ball at the 6, and changing the down box to ‘4’. That next play was what FOX commentator Daryl "Moose" Johnston and Albert -- and everyone watching in the press box and at home, and not on the field or sidelines -- thought was the "fifth down."

Moss then got his touchdown catch on what was fourth-and-goal from six yards out.

Afterward, players on both sides said they were aware that Armstrong had been given a first down and they weren’t aware there was confusion.

Head referee Pete Morelli said after the game, “The first pass that was made, the initial ruling was first down to the 2-and-a-half yard line and the auxiliary box on the other side did not turn over. It was showing second down. The primary box on the head linesman side, which is the main down box, had first down. So we corrected the 2 because it hung up there for a while and we corrected it to 1.”

So, according to that assessment, there was no "fifth down."

Also, the confusion would seem to have stemmed from the official spotter thinking Washington needed to get to the 2-yard line, and FOX’s yellow line showing that, and the officials designating the 2-½ as the mark to reach. But it's not even that simple.

Looking back at the picture of the first down play on which the Redskins went to Armstrong, FOX’s blue line of scrimmage marker shows the ball should’ve been placed at the 12. Looking back at the tape, it appears that Casey Rabach is lined up with ball in hand at the 12-½. So, FOX was wrong there as well. BUT . . . They weren’t the only ones. The chain gang was at fault as well, but in a different way.

Look and see where the yard marker and down box stand. The down box, which is supposed to be placed even with the line of scrimmage is around the 12, maybe 12-½ (an official is standing in the way, so you can’t really see). The first down stick and marker, however, is placed at the 3-yard line marker. Do the math. The Redskins, according to the sticks, only had to go 9-½ yards for the first down. And FOX showed them needing to go either 10, or 10-½ yards for a first down (10 if FOX’s measurement was right, 10-½ if the official’s placing of the ball was right).

So, who was right, who was wrong? Did Armstrong get a first down? Fifth down, first down, fourth down? We may never really know the answer to that.

Said Armstrong: “They were just running in to where I caught it and slid and didn’t see them holding up a fist, or two, three fingers or anything. I didn’t know what down it was. I just knew we needed to get into the end zone. They kept giving us chances, so we kept going. I didn’t know, so, so be it.”

Since the Redskins lost, it doesn’t really matter. But its definitely interesting to dissect. Maybe it was a makeup call for the non-call on Penn's hold? Or, maybe it was just something in the water and proof that the Redskins and Mike Shanahan -- with his clock management struggles -- weren’t the only ones who couldn’t get things all the way right on Sunday.


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