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N’Keal Harry ruling was changed by new partial sky judge procedure, but was it the right call?

The NFL has begun using the modified sky judge procedure this year, with the replay official and the league office now permitted to consult with the game officials on several specific, objective dynamics of rule application and game administration. That process was utilized last night to reverse an on-field finding that Patriots receiver N’Keal Harry did not touch a first-half punt by the Bills.

Although the apparent intervention of the replay official or the league office causes eyebrows to rise in suspicion that the powers-that-be are overstepping their bounds, it’s absolutely permitted for consultation to happen for specific aspects of the game, including penalty enforcement, the proper down, the spot of a foul, the game clock, possession of the ball, completion of a pass, interception of a pass, touching of a loose ball, boundary line, goal line, or end line, the location of the football or a player in relation to a boundary line, the line of scrimmage, the line to gain, or the goal line, or whether a player was down by contact.

Before such consultation can overturn the ruling on the field, clear and obvious evidence must be present to justify the change. The goal is to permit real-time assistance on an issue that, if there were a full-blown replay review, the ruling on the field would have been easily reversed.

As to the muff by Harry, the NFL has confirmed that the on-field officials did indeed receive assistance. Which means that the replay official or the league office concluded that clear and obvious visual evidence existed to support the conclusion that the ball touched Harry.

But is there clear and obvious evidence that the ball touched Harry? During the Manningcast, Eli suggested that perhaps the wind caused the ball to move, which is theoretically possible. As a practical matter, however, the question is whether clear and obvious evidence exists to support that the ball touched Harry’s helmet.

The ball definitely moved. However, a similar situation happened in 2015, during a game between the Bears and the Seahawks. During a punt, replay review explored whether the ball struck the leg of a Seattle player. In a weekly video, then-V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino explained that, to overturn the ruling on the field, there must be clear and obvious evidence that the ball actually touched the player.

“Does this ball really jump that far to the right where we think the ball clearly hit his leg?” Blandino said at the time. “It’s reasonable to assume that it hit his leg. But, again, we cannot make a decision based on the ball changing direction. We have to see clear evidence that the ball absolutely touched his leg.”

Said Eli last night, accurately: “You can’t tell if it hit. You see the ball move, but you can’t see it hit anything, I don’t think.”

Added Peyton: “The ball is the same color as the facemask, and so you can’t see [if] it his the facemask.”

In the haste to resolve this one without a full-blown replay review, whoever made the decision possibly forgot that, in a case like these, there must be clear and obvious that the ball touched the player. Movement of the ball, without actual visual evidence of contact, isn’t supposed to be enough. Last night, it apparently was.