The brain trust of the NFL, amid a season rife with controversy over postgame fines imposed on players and yet another blunder by its officials Sunday at Heinz Field, yesterday offered mea culpas and a possible rule change in time for the playoffs.
NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira said yesterday that league officials are moving to convene the Competition Committee in a special meeting so it can modify rules interpretations and avoid a recurrence of the bizarre touchdown-or-no situation that concluded the Steelers' victory against visiting San Diego.
Just as referee Scott Green did the night before, Pereira admitted that the crew misinterpreted the rules and incorrectly disallowed a 12-yard Troy Polamalu fumble return for a touchdown that would have made the score 17-10, rather than an 11-10 score that was the first in the league's 12,837-game history.
The aim of the change: To ensure the crew properly applies the rules by allowing the replay official, who buzzes the referee once to signal that a play should be reviewed, to so notify the lead official a second time.
"It's safe to say it's already in the process of being reviewed," Pereira said. "If we let the replay guy say, 'Hey, wait a minute, they're talking about the wrong pass,' ... then we can correct an egregious mistake like that. I think that's something the Rules Committee [i.e., Competition Committee] has to look at, and look at soon, how we administer the replay. This is just one instance. Could we put it on the wrong 45-yard line? Could we put it on the wrong hash? Could we put it at the wrong clock time?"
The NFL released a statement trying to clarify the muddled events at games' end Sunday.
With five seconds remaining, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers threw an underneath route to running back LaDainian Tomlinson for pass No. 1. Tomlinson then lateraled to receiver Chris Chambers for pass No. 2. Chambers then heaved backward a lateral pass No. 3 that Polamalu punched to the ground, picked up and rumbled into the end zone as time expired. Green and crew signaled a touchdown, and a replay ensued.
Upon further review, they judged Tomlinson-to-Chambers lateral Pass No. 2 to be an illegal forward pass -- though Pereira later found all three passes on the play to be valid and proper under NFL rules.
However, the officials then ruled correctly that the play resulted in a touchdown because, in a rule new to this season, an illegal-forward-pass play is allowed to continue so long as that pass is caught rather than dropped, Pereira said.
With the Steelers aligning for an extra-point try, Green and crew huddled once more. Pereira said they then erred again by determining that the third and final lateral, the Pass No. 3 that Polamalu interrupted, fell to the ground and therefore was an incomplete pass ending the play.
So the officials ended the game in confusion and without a touchdown.
As it was, the ending didn't change the outcome of the game for the Steelers (7-3) or careening Chargers (4-5) -- who felt they earlier lost a September game to Denver due to a referee's gaffe.
Pereira, who said he had an amiable discussion with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney yesterday morning, added that he spoke with Green Sunday night and yesterday morning. Pereira declined to say whether the officials had been or would be penalized.
"It's the normal process of how we review the game. Certainly, it's a mistake that has been made. He and the crew will be held accountable for that. It's the normal routine we go through to hold them responsible for mistakes like this."
Chuck Finder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .