NFL: Yes, the ref can use an index card to determine a Cowboys first down

Shutdown Corner

It turns out NFL referee Gene Steratore can use an index card to determine a first down.

While former NFL supervisor of officials Jim Daopoulos originally told Pro Football Talk that referees have been informed they’re “never allowed to use anything other than their eyes to make that decision,” the league confirmed to the website that there’s not actually a rule against using a piece of paper to determine whether there’s any room between the football and the down marker between the chains.

That’s how close the measurement was on the occasion of a fourth-quarter sneak on fourth down by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. While officials seemed unable to determine with the human eye whether the ball should be turned over on downs to the Oakland Raiders, Steratore whipped out an index card and couldn’t slide it between the ball and the marker, giving the Cowboys a first down.

Dallas scored a field goal on the drive that proved the difference in a 20-17 victory, so you’ll be shocked to learn that a Raiders-Cowboys game ended in controversy, with Oakland fans protesting in the stadium and on social media. Steratore said after the game that the index card only “reaffirmed” what he saw, so even if he never took out the card, the Cowboys were going to get the first down.


The NFL’s stance that there’s “no prohibition” of using a prop to aid in a measurement remains consistent with what the league pointed out in 2013, when ref Bill Vinovich used a piece of paper in much the same way during a game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.

“Though it is very unusual to see the referee use a card to aid in the measurement, there is nothing that prohibits it in the rules,” an NFL spokesman told the Akron Beacon Journal at the time, via PFT.

That story also suggested the league would prefer its officials not to use props, which begs the question: Why hasn’t it been written into the rulebook in the four years since? The index card or paper measurement relies entirely on how the official conducts the test, and it would be almost impossible for a ref to slide the prop perfectly perpendicular with the ground and parallel to the hashmark.

Then again, the fraction of an inch that determined Sunday’s call is entirely reliant on a somewhat arbitrary ball placement, determined by an official who can’t possibly track it flawlessly through a pile of 300-pound men, so we can all continue to complain about it, no matter what side you’re on.

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