NFL To Do Comprehensive Review Of Trouble At Browns' Game

By DAVE GOLDBERG, AP Football Writer

NEW YORK - From instant replay to beer sales, the NFL will review of all aspects of the bottle-throwing melee by Cleveland fans after a replay decision led to the Browns' loss to Jacksonville.

It will not, however, take action against the Browns' owner and president for statements that failed to criticize the fans' actions.

By midday Monday, the NFL had reached two conclusions:

  1. That correct procedures were followed and the correct decision made when replay overturned what had been ruled a fourth-down catch by Cleveland's Quincy Morgan.
  2. That referee Terry McAulay was wrong to declare the game over when the deluge of plastic bottles and other objects from the stands forced him to clear the field. Only commissioner Paul Tagliabue or his designated representative can do that. Tagliabue later ordered the last 48 seconds to be played a half-hour after McAulay declared the game over.

When the players returned to the field and the final seconds were run off, Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell took a knee and the game was over, with the Jaguars leading 15-10.

"As long as the safety issue is there, the referee has the right to clear the field," league spokesman Greg Aiello said. "But you have to finish the game, even in a kneel-down situation. There were 48 seconds left. Anything can happen. They could botch a snap. Who knows?"

The trouble started on fourth down, when Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch threw to Morgan, who appeared to catch the ball at the 9-yard-line. The Browns, who had no time outs left, quickly lined up and Couch spiked the ball with 48 seconds left, presumably giving Cleveland three plays to try to score the go-ahead TD.

But McAulay stopped the play and said he had been buzzed by the replay official in the press box, who told him the Couch-to-Morgan pass had to be reviewed. It was, and the catch was overturned, with officials ruling that Morgan did not have possession.

At issue, however, was whether the spike came before the summons from the replay official, who under NFL rules makes challenges in the last two minutes of each half. At other times, coaches can challenge plays. Under the rules, if a play is run before the challenge is made, the play stands.

McAulay said that the buzzer on his belt went off just prior to the spike but that he didn't have time to stop the play. Mike Pereira, the league supervisor of officials, said the buzzer also alerted umpire Carl Paganelli, who is hooked into the replay system, too.

"The Browns were in a no-huddle offense trying to get to the line of scrimmage to snap the ball and stop the clock," Pereira said in a statement posted by the NFL on its Web sites.

"Things were moving very quickly. When the pager went off (just before the snap), the referee allowed the play to take place before confirming with the umpire and the replay assistant that he was paged for a review."

Meanwhile, the NFL and the Browns were reviewing everything -- from stadium security and beer sales to changes in the replay system that would make communication easier.

One change, for example, might involve the time allowed to make a challenge. Although a challenge is invalid if the next play has been run, there have been several instances in the three years the new system has been in effect where replays have taken place after the next play because of confusion in signaling the officials.

NFL officials also said they contemplated no action against Browns owner Al Lerner or president Carmen Policy, both of whom suggested the behavior of the fans stemmed merely from enthusiasm.

"I don't think Cleveland will take a black eye from this," Policy said Sunday. "I like the fact that our fans care."

The league cited freedom of speech in explaining why it would not penalize Policy or Lerner, although it does routinely fine coaches for criticizing officiating. This, however, did not relate directly to the call.

The Browns have no remaining home games this season. This is the second time in a year that players had to be brought from the locker room to the field to finish a game that had been declared over, although in the first instance there was no fan reaction.

On Dec. 24, 2000, in a game between Miami and New England, Olindo Mare kicked a field goal with 9 seconds left to give the Dolphins a 27-24 lead. After Drew Bledsoe threw one incomplete pass, the clock run out.

However, as the players were leaving the field, referee Johnnie Grier was buzzed and told there were 3 second left. By the time the players were able to return to the field 35 minutes later, most had showered.

But the final three seconds were played, giving the Patriots the time to try one unsuccessful pass.

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)