Rare NFL rulebook explanation creates catch/fumble controversy in Eagles-Bears playoff game

It wouldn't be an NFL playoff game without some new and unique officiating issue popping up, and we got just that in the Eagles-Bears matchup on NBC Sunday night, with a would-be incomplete pass almost becoming complete and managing to simultaneously cost both teams points.

How does that happen? Let's try and explain. With the second quarter winding down and the Bears trying to get in possession for some points before halftime, Mitchell Trubisky took a shot down the field to Anthony Miller, who caught the ball. But, for the second time during this game, Eagles defensive back Cre'von LeBlanc managed to get in on the play and break it up.

The play was ruled incomplete, the ref blew his whistle, waved his arms and the play was over. But before the Bears ran their next play, the refs decided to take a peak at the situation. Upon review, it sure looked like Miller caught the ball, made a football move and then fumbled. 

That's precisely what NBC rules analyst Terry McAuley said on the broadcast, immediately pointing out the biggest takeaway from the play is that Miller caught the ball. 

Here's the problem: if this was a catch, it was also a fumble and if it was a fumble, NO ONE PICKED UP THE BALL. Well, technically one of the refs picked up the ball after it sat on the ground forever. 

If this was a catch and a fumble and no one picked up the ball, it would be no clear recovery and the Bears would get the ball. The Eagles even started moving back towards the goal line in anticipation of playing defense in the red zone. 

But after a lengthy review, the head official came out on the mic, mumbled something entirely incoherent about the ball being incomplete and returned the ball to the spot of the foul and made it third-and-3 for the Bears. 

The whole thing was very bizarre and very confusing and one of the exact reasons people get so up in arms over NFL football games on big stages: when there's a "standalone" game that everyone is watching, particularly one with playoff stakes, the job the officials do is only magnified. And when the microscope gets on refs trying to officiate an incredibly complex and subjective game operating at a high speed, things can get ugly.

However, according to the NFL rulebook, this was probably the right decision. As highlighted by the guys at FootballZebras.com:

If it's a "bang-bang" play, then it's ruled incomplete. And this was no doubt a bang-bang play, hence why the refs had to make a split-second decision on the call. 

The dagger here is that the Bears still managed to convert a field goal. As a result, they led going into halftime. If the Eagles had jumped on the ball, it's possible the refs would have given the Eagles the ball on a recovered fumble (seriously, that's how mumbled the explanation for the outcome was). And for the Bears, it's a dagger, because it felt like watching the situation on replay they should been rewarded for the play being a catch and a fumble and no one recovering.

So it managed to cost both teams a few points, even if the ultimate outcome felt "fair." Playoff officiating, everyone! 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories