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December 28, 2021

NFL official blames 'communication lapse' for weird replay review on DeVonta Smith touchdown

The catch, another example of the rookie's elite sideline awareness, may actually be a sign of progress for the NFL's replay system

There was an odd officiating sequence in Sunday's Eagles-Giants game when Jalen Hurts tossed a third-and-goal touchdown to DeVonta Smith along the edge of the end zone.

The play was called a touchdown on the field, then ruled incomplete after a brief review, and then deemed a touchdown again after a closer examination. 

The Eagles never looked back on their way to a 34-10 victory, which has given them a clear path to the playoffs.

It's pretty rare to see the NFL make officiating adjustments in real time when doing so will make the league appear sloppy or indecisive. Years of notorious bad calls and experimental tweaks to the replay review rules finally may have landed the NFL in a place that works well enough to ensure the correct rulings are made, even if it's not pretty. You'd prefer them to just get it right the first time, but the willingness to be wrong is refreshing. 

After Sunday's game, NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Walt Anderson explained why the officials wavered over Smith's catch.

"It was really just a communication lapse on our part," Anderson said. "We originally were seeing heel down. So, the original communication between the replay booth and the referee was that it looked like it was going to be an expedited review. And I know the referees are trying to make those announcements quickly. By the time we could say there are additional angles, he had already made that announcement."

The difference-maker on the call was Smith moonwalking his foot like Michael Jackson, as he put it.

"By rule, if the toe comes down first and then the heel comes down in one continuous step, then it's out of bounds," Anderson said. "But if there's any kind of a drag with the toe, then that toe drag gets credit for the second step, in this case."

Anderson didn't get into specifics about what informed the premature ruling, or why such a catch would go to an expedited review, considering it was a touchdown that started to put the game out of reach for New York.

"We just wanted to stop play and make sure we were looking at all of the angles and make sure that the rule was applied correctly," Anderson said.

It doesn't appear that there was any real question about Smith's control of the ball as he fell out of the end zone. Since it was originally called a touchdown on the field, there was no evidence to overturn that ruling. 

An interesting scenario to consider would have been if the officials did not correct the call. Touchdowns are subject to the automatic review process, which is initiated by an official on the field or a member of the officiating department at the league's command center in New York. The Eagles would not have had recourse to challenge the play, since it already was automatically reviewed.

Smith has made a number of sideline and toe-tap catches this season that seemed pretty impossible at first glance. He's the sort of player who may see some of his sideline receptions called incomplete or challenged more often than others, simply because he's got the kind of body control and hands that others don't — and you don't expect them to be clean catches. 

"That's two weeks in a row he's made big-time, toe-tap plays, dragging that foot," Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts said after the game. "That's something we practice all the time. We preach all the time. DeVonta may be in his first year, but he's a true pro."

Smith and the Eagles, now in the NFC's final Wild Card spot, will take on the Washington Football Team on the road next Sunday with an opportunity to clinch a playoff berth with a little help from around the NFL.