Did Washington really recover the fumble by Cleveland RB Duke Johnson?

There's no doubt that Duke Johnson fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter against the Redskins, but video shows the Browns' running back holding the ball out of the pile. Who's wrong?
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Duke Johnson fumbled. Duke Johnson recovered his own fumble. Washington was awarded the ball.

Despite the NFL’s attempt to explain away what happened with 9:40 left in Sunday’s Browns-Redskins game, video evidence points rather obviously to the contrary. Here’s the play in question, which occurred with Cleveland trailing Washington, 24–20, but driving in the fourth quarter:

Johnson definitely fumbles—there’s no disputing that. But keep your eyes on the left side of the screen about eight seconds into the above video. You’ll see Johnson holding the football aloft after recovering it and standing up. Meanwhile, line judge Sarah Thomas races in as several other players wrestle for possession of a ball that’s not there. She points Washington’s direction, ruling the play a turnover.

The NFL’s explanation later, via Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com:

“The on-field ruling was a fumble, recovered by Washington. It was confirmed as a fumble by instant replay without the need to stop the game. As to the recovery, several different angles were looked at, but with nothing definitive shown, there was no need to stop the game because the on-field ruling that awarded possession to Washington would have stood.”

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OK, so let’s try to figure this out. There are two possible explanations for how Washington was awarded the ball here: 1. A Redskins player recovered the ball and had full control of it, then Johnson grabbed it away and stood up; or 2. Thomas botched the call.

According to ESPN’s Pat McManamon, Thomas’s explanation was the former. McManamon reported that “Thomas said she saw a Washington player with the ball on the ground before Johnson stood up with it.”

This does happen, on occasion. Players will fight for the football at the bottom of a pile, the officials will make a ruling on which team has recovered, and then the scrum will continue with possession changing hands after the fact. Based on the video above, there is almost no way that happened here. Before a whistle is even heard in that video, Johnson has stood up with the ball. Thomas rules that Washington has possession with Johnson standing next to her, the ball in his hands.

In other words, the call was wrong.

Why, then, was this the verdict again Monday?

Johnson was briefly at the bottom of the pile when he was tackled, but apparently grabbed the ball and got to his feet before the real wrestling took place. He is not required to remain on the ground, with control of the football, in that situation in order for the ball to be awarded to his team.

“I thought I recovered it,” Johnson said, via Cleveland.com. “But at the end of the day, I can’t fumble.”

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Cleveland coach Hue Jackson added this during his postgame press conference: “There’s frustration. But when the official tells you it’s already been reviewed and it’s their ball, there’s nothing I can do. I can yell, scream or do whatever. It’s not going to change the call.”

Coaches are not permitted to challenge turnovers, as a series of rule changes in 2012 made such plays subject to automatic review—that is, only the replay booth can signal the referee to take another look. Had Jackson throw his challenge flag, the Browns would have been hit with a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Plays involving possession are fully reviewable, although Rule 15 in the NFL’s rulebook states: “If the Referee does not have clear and obvious visual evidence as to which player recovered the loose ball, or that the ball went out of bounds, the ruling on the field will stand.” The replay booth did not tell referee Jeff Triplette to check out the video, but this essentially is what the league’s defense has been. (Triplette, by the way, also unleashed this doozy of a penalty call Sunday.)

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The NFL’s senior VP of officiating, Dean Blandino, released a video Sunday night addressing a pair of controversial calls from Week 4’s action. The Johnson fumble was not included.

The league has admitted officiating mistakes in the past, however infrequently. It goes without saying that its preference is to find some way to back the call made on the field.

So far, that has been the case here, despite it being rather clear that a critical error was made.