Having struggled all afternoon against Arizona's aggressive defense, the Detroit Lions looked as if they finally had created some good fortune for themselves when WR Jeremy Ross made a heads-up punt return after the Cardinals failed to down the ball.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians wasn't so sure.
Arians challenged Jeremy Ross' return, contending that Cardinals CB Justin Bethel had downed the ball at Detroit's 1. Bethel was the first to reach Drew Butler's kick. He slipped on the goal line, then reestablished position at the 1 and knocked the ball back into play.
Ross picked it up before the Cardinals could down it and returned it nearly 50 yards, taking advantage of a little-used NFL rule -- once the kicking team touches the football, the return team can attempt to run it back without fear of fumbling; if they do fumble, the ball reverts to the initial spot where it was touched and the return team maintains possession.
After reviewing the play Boger ruled that Bethel indeed secured possession of the football and downed it before tossing it back toward his teammates.
Here's a look at the play, via The Cauldron:
The NFL's vice president of officiating and head of its replay war room, Dean Blandino, tweeted that the correct ruling was made:
In ARZ when the kicking team possesses the ball it is dead by rule. #28 had possession and threw it back. Different than batting it back.— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) November 16, 2014
Whether it was correct or not, it was important. Instead of having the ball just across midfield into Arizona territory, the Lions were backed up to their own 1 -- the play also could have been ruled a touchback, for what it's worth, had Boger or his crew deemed that Bethel had not made it back into the field of play before touching the football. FootballZebras.com offered a little more explanation:
If you rule catch, then it is down at the 1. I would expect to see more process in recovery, but heave back to field is the football "act"— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) November 17, 2014
In a lot of ways, the headache here is similar to the arguments that occur over "completing the catch". There is so much gray area in the rules that it's tough to figure what does or does not fall under the guidelines.
Bethel may have had both feet down with the ball firmly in his grasp, but how many times have we seen a similar play continue until the kicking team clearly downs the football? Rarely, if ever, is the ball then moved back to the spot where the ball was first touched.
Detroit's subsequent drive reached the Cardinals' 47 (one yard shy of where Ross had returned the ball) but stalled out on a 4th-and-2 incompletion.
That's really where this game was won and lost anyway: with Arizona's defense suffocating Matthew Stafford and the Lions' offense. But the astute challenge by Arians and resultant questionable decision by Boger still stood as a key moment in a hard-fought game.