American Football

Why wasn’t forward progress stopped on the Rhamondre Stevenson fumble against Cincinnati?

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NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Related: Instant analysis from Patriots’ 22-18 loss to Bengals

Rhamondre Stevenson lost a fumble late in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals, effectively ending the New England Patriots’ bid at a victory. Down 22-18, they were five yards from scoring what could have been a game-winning touchdown.

Alas, it did not happen; Stevenson’s fumble was a pivotal play en route to New England’s demise. It also came with a major question attached to it:

Why was forward progress not stopped before Stevenson lost control of the ball?

The running back did not fumble the football upon initial impact, after all, but rather while being driven back by Bengals defensive lineman D.J. Reader and safety Vonn Bell. However, that alone did not yet constitute forward progress coming to a halt in the eyes of the officiating crew led by referee Craig Wrolstead.

“In order to have forward progress, the runner has to be controlled by the defense,” Wrolstead told pool reporter Mike Reiss after the game. “He has to be held and controlled, and basically have his feet taken away. We felt that he still had his feet. So, we did not feel that he was held and controlled by the defense. He was still able to gain yardage and then also, obviously, there was still a chance that he could fumble.”

That opinion was shared by Ben Austro of officiating blog Football Zebras:

Looking closely, we see that this is actually exceptional whistle discipline by the crew. Stevenson is just being pushed back but is not being controlled by any of the Bengals linemen. Merely being pushed back but still being on his feet, Stevenson is attempting to make a second effort to advance and has no restriction to do so. The second effort actually reduces the forward progress to reset at that spot.

Simultaneous to that second effort, the ball is punched out. Since the forward progress benefit was lost, this is a fumble. A forward progress call is not reviewable.

Not everybody agreed with the call, though. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said after the game that he believed that the play should have been whistled dead before the fumble.

And Stevenson? The sophomore back took a diplomatic approach when asked his thoughts on the matter in the postgame locker room.

“Doesn’t really matter what I think,” Stevenson said. “They called it a fumble and they recovered the ball. So, whatever they call.”

Following the fumble, which was officially caused by Bell and recovered by B.J. Hill, Cincinnati took possession at its own 23-yard line: on top of Stevenson turning the ball over, quarterback Mac Jones was also flagged for unnecessary roughness. The New England defense did force a three-and-out on the ensuing drive but the offense — which again had a rough day — failed to score within the final 40 seconds.

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