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NFL’s “clear recovery” instant replay rule needs to change

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 09: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball against Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium on December 09, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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The Cowboys fumbled the opening kickoff on Sunday and the Eagles recovered. At least, that would be the case if common sense applied. But common sense took a back seat to the NFL’s rulebook, and so the Cowboys kept the ball.

Dallas returner Jourdan Lewis fumbled, the ball was on the ground, and Philadelphia’s Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nathan Gerry and LaRoy Reynolds were the only players around the ball. It wasn’t clear from the replay which of those three players was the first to secure the ball, but there were no Cowboys in any position to recover.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, an official on the field ruled Lewis down. The Eagles challenged, and replay made clear that Lewis wasn’t down. He fumbled. But no replay angle clearly showed which of the Eagles surrounding the ball made the recovery, and so the officials stayed with the ruling on the field, because a ruling of down by contact can only be overturned if there’s a clear recovery.

Former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira said on FOX Sports that when the NFL made the “clear recovery” rule, the idea was that the officials didn’t want to be in a position where they were trying to guess about whether players were fighting over a ball in a pile. What never came up was what to do when every player in the pile was on the same team, as was the case on Sunday.

“The one area that didn’t come into play is if all the members of the pile were on the same team,” Pereira said.

Fellow former head of officiating Dean Blandino agreed that the rule about not using replay to figure out which player came out of a pile with the ball needs to accommodate plays when every player in the pile is on the same team.

“You’ve got to introduce some common sense that if there are only players of one team in the pile . . . you can treat that like a clear recovery,” Blandino said.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, there was no common sense, and the Cowboys kept the ball. That turned out to be incredibly costly: The Eagles likely would have come away with at least a field goal after the fumble, and they ended up losing the game in overtime. No one can say for sure what would have happened the rest of the game, but it’s entirely possible that the difference between the Eagles and Cowboys making the playoffs will turn out to be the officials incorrectly ruling who had the ball after the opening kickoff.