Upon Further Review: Did NFL Officials Blow Travis Kelce Fumble Call Against Arizona Cardinals?

If you have spent any time around the NFL fan forums, Reddit, or fan-powered sites like Bleacher Report or SBNation, you will undoubtedly know that fans are in uproar over a couple of pivotal calls during the Arizona Cardinals win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles blamed the loss solely on the officiating crew, and head coach Andy Ried had nothing positive to say about them either. The bigger concerns have been caused by NFL’s head of officiating Dean Blandino defended the on field call, even though fans still can’t seem to make sense of it. We take a look at the controversial call, and explain if the officials, and Blandino, got it right.

Coming into the game, both the Cardinals and Chiefs were on a two game losing streak. At 9-3, the Cardinals still controlled their own destiny, but at 7-5, the game was considered must win for the Chiefs. After leading for most of the first half, the Cardinals had staged somewhat of a comeback in the second, and the Chefs were in need of points.

Driving late in the game, inside of Cardinals territory Travis Kelce made a catch-and-run that put them well within scoring distance. The catch was challenged by the Cardinals, though Kelce clearly ran for several strides with the ball in his control, and fans, and commentators alike were both confused by the challenge, and convinced that the call would stand. So when the referee came back and announced that the call had been overturned—Kelce had fumbled the ball, and the Cardinals had recovered the ball—fans were furious.

Blown calls happen all the time on the field, that’s why the challenge mechanism exists, but to most fans, the video was clear. That the officials on field, the replay assistants in New York and NFL Vice President of Officiating all confirmed that it was a fumble, but fans just didn’t see it that way, and this left fans very angry.

So what actually happened? Let’s break it down.

Right off the bat, let me be clear, there is some very specific circumstances that make it possible for this to be overturned.

Firstly, the call on the field is key. The call is that Kelce was down by contact. There was no hint at all on the field that Kelce lost the ball. If, for example, the call on the field was a fumble, recovered by Kelce, then there is probably not enough video evidence to overturn this—we’ll get to that later.

Next is Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians’ clever challenge wording. You can’t normally challenge down-by-contact, in and of itself, this is not normally a reviewable play, and while you can challenge a fumble, the rules are vague—the “NaVorro Bowman rule” which was introduced this season muddies the water and simply saying “I challenge the fumble” may not be enough any more, since no fumble was called. You can challenge down by contact if you believe that a fumble occurred prior to the player being ruled down—as happened here—but articulating this to an official can be difficult, especially if a team is hurrying to the line to get their next snap off.

If he had challenged any of these things, and didn’t get his wording exactly right, the officials could have asked him to pick up the flag. Instead, he simply challenged the reception itself, knowing that, although the catch was clear, once one part of the play is challenged, everything else is reviewed. A catch is always a challengeable play which stop the play, and forces the official under the hood to review the entire play.

Finally, there is the video evidence. Officials have access to all available angles, but only in real-time—they cannot slow down, or speed up the video. They need to make the call in real-time, as it played out on the field. They can sync up, and piece together multiple angles to establish what happened, but it needs to be visible on film—you can’t speculate about what probably happened if you can’t see it.

Unfortunately for us, Fox and CBS have no such requirements. They can selectively show only certain angles, if they so choose, they can slow them down, and even freeze-frame the footage to make a point—but this can also mislead the audience. For example, played at 30% speed, a player can seem to have the ball in hand for several seconds, when in fact it was only a fraction of a second. This will come into play here.

We also need to consider the role CBS played in creating the controversy.

Most fans do not learn the rules from trudging through rule books themselves. For most fans—even those who played football at a high-school or college level—rules like video replays and challenges are learned via the commentary they hear. Unfortunately, as we will see, CBS completely blew their explanation of this play.

However, in the ongoing debate, you regularly see fans repeating CBS’s opinion even over that of the league itself. CBS and their commentary team described the play in such a way that makes it difficult for most fans to understand how it could have been overturned, and also failed to properly correct themselves when it was. The commentary team created the environment for the controversy, and the producers stoked the fire by the selective replays they showed.

So onto the play itself.

Firstly, the part of the play that there is no question about—the catch.

There is no dispute that the catch was indeed a catch—Kelce secured the ball and ran more than 10 yards with it before the tackle. The CBS crew initially expressed some real confusion here, stating in no uncertain terms that coaches need to explain explicitly what they are challenging, and that the challenge should be easy to ignore because the catch was so clear. Although coaches do need to state explicitly what they are challenging—certain elements are not challengeable—once the challenge is accepted, all reviewable parts of the play are then reviewed. CBS rules analyst Mike Carey made this clear, but this I have heard this argument repeated in a number of conversations. It also underscores the commentary team’s fundamental lack of understanding in this area.

The fact that Arians challenged the catch actually is very smart—it was one of the few guaranteed-challengeable parts of the play which allowed the officials to stop to take a look. Once the challenge was initiated however, the official has a responsibility to look at the play as a whole, and has to overturn the play if they see anything which is overturnable.

Now, moving onto the fumble itself. It is true that two of the angles—the two CBS showed most often—do not clearly show Kelce lose possession of the ball, and certainly don’t show the ball come out of his hands until Kelce’s back was on the turf. If these were the only angles you actually saw—a real possibility given how often CBS showed them—you would be absolutely right to feel that the Chiefs were slighted. However, these were not the only angles which existed. A third angle, shown below, clearly showed the ball come out of Kelce’s hands before any part of his body was on the ground.

Prior to the hit, it is quite clear to see that Kelce has the ball secured in the crook of his arm. The tips of the ball are not visible, because it is held securely by his hand, and tucked into his elbow.


Several frames later, just a few tenths of a second in real time, Deone Bucannon catches Kelce, and he can clearly be seen knocking the ball away from Kelce.

Knocked loose

Bucannon reaches in with his left hand, and punches the ball loose already the ball is no longer secure and no part of Kelce is on the ground.

Ball is out

Just a couple of frames later, the ball can be seen, completely out of the control of Kelce. Still, Kelce is upright, his knees, arms and back have not touched the ground. This is as clear as a fumble gets in these circumstances. The ball can obviously be seen moving outside of Kelce’s control in the video.

In normal circumstances, down by contact cannot be overturned, however, there are exceptions to this, and one exception to this under the current NFL rules, is in the case of a fumble which occurred prior to down by contact.

Once a fumble has been seen and confirmed by video replay, the only way the ruling on the field—down by contact—can “stand” would be if there was no clear recovery by either player. For a fumble to be confirmed by replay, two things are needed to be seen—both the fumble itself, and the recovery. However, if both of these things are present, the ruling must be overturned. If Kelce would be seen recovering the ball, the call would be a fumble, recovered by the fumbling player, who was then down by contact, and effectively nothing changes but the call. If however Kelce is not seen recovering the ball, and a Cardinals player is, then the call must be a fumble, recovered by the defence.

Many fans simply do not properly understand this. They have argued, and quite persuasively, that since there is doubt about whether Kelce may have regained possession while he and Bucannon were rolling over, the call on the field must stand.

If the call on the field was a fumble, recovered by Kelce, then this would indeed be the case. There is no clear and incontrovertible evidence that Kelce did not, at some point, regain possession of the ball. However, that was not the call which is being overturned. During the call on the field, there was no hint, at all, that Kelce ever lost possession of the football. The call was a completed pass, and a tackle in bounds, resulting in a down-by-contact call.

The video evidence clearly proves this is not the correct call—Kelce fumbled the ball. This, in and of itself, is all the evidence necessary to find that the call on the field was incorrect. If you don’t have possession of the ball, you can’t be down by contact, and the video clearly shows Kelce lost possession of the football before being down by contact.

From then, there would need to be clear and incontrovertible evidence to prove that Kelce did recover the ball. Remember, the call on the field did not include any reference to Kelce recovering the ball, so any there would need to be clear video evidence to prove this.

Which brings us to the more controversial part—the recovery.

In the NFL, some things happen at a moment in time—they either occurred, or they didn’t. A touchdown, for example, occur the moment the ball crosses the plane of the end zone in a players control. Anything that happens after that moment doesn’t occur because the play is “dead” from that point on.

Others, are defined as a “process”. They do not occur in a single moment in time, but instead have multiple components, all of which must be resent for the ruling to be true. One example of this is a catch—where a player must maintain control of the ball until they either make a “football move” with the ball in their possession, or else maintain control of the ball all the way to the ground if they are falling at the time of the catch.

A fumble is the first type—the moment the player looses control of the ball, he is ruled to have fumbled it—a fumble recovery however, is a process. The player must regain complete control of the ball, and maintain control all the way to the ground, and through the process, or else make a football move.

Many fans have argued that Kelce did appear to regain control of the ball with his back on the ground. They insist he had both hands on the ball, in complete control, and spun the ball himself as a celebration. It certainly appears so from some angles, but again, watching all available angles tells a different story.

In the image above, you can clearly see that one of the hands on the ball is that of Bucannon. While Kelce does seem to have two hands on the ball, it is impossible from this still frame to say he is in control of it. It is away from his body by some distance, and Bucannon appears to be pinning the ball against Kelces hands himself.

Looking again at the third replay angle, Kelce has at least one hand on the ball for twenty frames of video—two-thirds of a second—before Bucannon pulls the ball completely free. However, Bucannon also has at least one hand on the ball for the entirety of this time, and this is visible in all but one frame. It is also clear that while Bucannon doesn’t have complete control of the ball himself, it is he, not Kelce is the one who is directing how the ball moves throughout this process.

When shown in slow motion, Kelce appears to have his hand on the ball for several seconds, but in real-time, it is actually far less than a second, and certainly cannot be said to be in control of the ball throughout this entire process of the recovery, which is necessary for a fumble recovery.

What’s more, the ball moves so significantly during this time, it is impossible to consider that Kelce ever had control of the ball at all based on the video angles we have.

Two hands

This frame is the only clear frame where Kelce has two hands on the ball, while Bucannon’s hand cannot be seen. This single frame may be the best possible hope for arguing that Kelce had control of the ball.

Two frames later—one 15th of a second in real-time—however, we see this.

One hand

The ball has moved dramatically. Kelce now has only his left hand cleanly on the ball, and only has the fingertips of his right hand are even possibly touching the ball. On the other hand, the ball is moving towards Bucannon, exactly as you would expect if he is pulling the ball out.

Again, if the call on the field was a fumble recovered by Kelce, this would probably not be enough to overturn that call—because it would be impossible to say that Kelce did not have possession of the ball prior to this—but this is not the call which is being overturned.

Additionally, if the argument was that this was the time the fumble occurred, it would not be conclusive—Kelce probably have been down by contact with possession of the ball before this. However, again this is not the argument. The ball was lost well before Kelce ever went to the ground, so now we need clear video evidence of a recovery by Kelce to rule him down by contact. This simply doesn’t exist.

11 frames later, or just over one third of a second later, we see this.

Ball pulled out

By this point, it is as clear as it can be that  Kelce simply doesn’t have control of the ball, at all. His left hand has now completely come off the ball, and his right is barely holding on. There is never any video of a recovery by Kelce, which obviously means he could never be ruled to have recovered the ball, and be down by contact.

The last factor is a key one, however. For a fumble to be called based on a video review, there also needs to be clear video evidence of a recovery.

This evidence does exist, and Justin Bethel (circled below) can be seen picking up the ball off the turf, in bounds.


Some have argued, however, that because the official can already be seen running in to signal down by contact, the play was already dead, and therefore the recovery didn’t actually happen. They admit that yes, there was a fumble, and yes, Kelce never recovered the ball, but argue that the moment the play was “blown dead” anything that happened after this point doesn’t count.

There are two problems with this, of course. Unlike other similar historic situations, there was no audible whistle in the broadcast or replay. It is therefore impossible to know exactly when the play was “blown dead” and there would certainly be no way for Bethel to know this. Additionally, in none of the angles can the official be seen signaling this prior to Bethel beginning to pick up the ball. This makes it difficult to make this argument even at the best of times.

However, for those who claim this argument, there is also an insurmountable problem. The current NFL rules allow for a recovery after the whistle, when a down-by-contact play has been overturned due to a fumble. Prior to 2006, this was not the case, but a number of controversial simultaneous fumble-recovery/whistles forced the league to change the rules.

Since then, the ball can be recovered after the whistle, if the call on the field was down by contact, and the fumble occurred prior to the player being down, however, the ball cannot be advanced by the recovering team. Had Bethel attempted to run the ball in for a touchdown, it would have come back to the spot of the fumble. He did not, so this is a moot point, however.

As the video evidence clearly shows, Kelce definitely fumbled the ball before being “down by contact”, is never seen regaining control of the ball himself, and Justin Bethel is clearly shown recovering the ball for the Cardinals, so the rules have been interpreted correctly in this case.

CBS are certainly responsible for creating a lot of this controversy, because their on field reporters were so convinced that the call would stand, that they only showed the angles which supported their view. Mike Carey, a fine referee in his day, also botched parts of his explanation, forcing fans to consider that an injustice had occurred. It’s hard to blame Carey for making this mistake, we do not know which angles he had actually seen at this point, or how the call was explained to him prior to coming on the air—it is entirely possible from his explanation that he believed a fumble, recovered by Kelce, was the call on the field.

But the reality is, the call on the field was wrong, the explanation as to why it was overturned was correct, and, while fans may not like the rules, they were, in this case, interpreted properly. If you don’t like the call, blame CBS, not the NFL.

What do you think? Still don’t understand the call? Think we’ve missed something? Let us know in the comments.

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