When you consider the final score, it's hard to make the case that any one play undid the Ravens in Thursday night's ugly NFL opener against the Denver Broncos. But it isn't very difficult to determine the moment when that intangible pendulum called momentum swung back so hard it knocked the defending Super Bowl champions all the way into next week.
Maybe Peyton Manning still would have picked the Ravens secondary apart if John Harbaugh had thrown his replay flag and ended Denver's first drive of the second half. Maybe that isn't even a maybe. But all you have to do is go back to New Orleans for one nostaglic moment to remember how quickly the flow of electricity can change direction in a football game.
When the Ravens failed to challenge that dropped ball by Wes Welker at the beginning of the third quarter, it set off a chain of events that turned a close game into a record-breaking blowout. So, it's fair to ask why that happened along with all the questions about why the Ravens suffered significant breakdowns in just about every chapter of the playbook.
John Harbaugh said immediately after the game that the coaching staff didn't get to see a replay in time to keep Manning from rushing to the line and running the next play, though every Ravens fan in the Mid-Atlantic region saw that replay on NBC more than 10 seconds before the next snap and cornerback Corey Graham was gesturing to the sidelines that the pass was incomplete.
Stuff happens. There's a lot going on up in those coaching booths and somehow that replay either got overlooked or there was a glitch in the video system. Unless we hear in the next few days that the Ravens have made a formal complaint to the league about some stadium operations snafu at Sports Authority Field that benefitted the Broncos, it was probably just one of several failures to communicate that contributed to the lopsided loss.
Harbaugh has a pretty good record navigating the NFL's quirky replay system over the course of his five-plus seasons as head coach, but it wasn't the first time a missed replay opportunity came back to haunt him. He didn't challenge an out-of-bounds call on what should have been an acrobatic touchdown reception by Derrick Mason in Pittsburgh in 2008 and it contributed to a three-point defeat that was his first loss as an NFL head coach.
Thursday, the missed opportunity to reclaim possession simply flipped a switch — like that overloaded circuit-breaker at the Superdome in February — and the snowball never stopped rolling downhill.
Obviously, the head coach can't see everything that happens on the field and he doesn't get the luxury of throwing that red flag out there every time there's a close call. In this case, Harbaugh had used one challenge to overturn a five-yard gain on a first down play in the second quarter, so he wasn't in a position to gamble with the second challenge flag on the first series of the second half. If he had gotten a slam-dunk indication from upstairs, he would have thrown it and been awarded a third challenge because he got the first two right, but we'll probably never know for sure why that didn't happen.
It's fair to question, however, if the haste to challenge such a short gain in the first half took away the option to act more instinctively later when Graham signaled to the sideline that ball slipped through Welker's hands and hit the ground.
This is where it's also fair to question why the NFL review system is still set up to allow for games to be impacted by blown calls that could be automatically reviewed by an upstairs replay official the way they are in the major college conferences.
The current system also has a built-in home-field bias, because plays that might be reviewed in favor of the home team are quickly replayed on the stadium video boards so the head coach can see them and challenge, while plays that might be challenged by the opposing coach are not. Not sure if there was enough time for that to come into play on Thursday night, but why are we even talking about it when there is technology available to make sure every play is called correctly without significant delay?
The NFL hides behind the need to keep games on a tight schedule for television, but nobody seems to mind the extra 90-second commercial break while the official goes "under the hood" to look at all the replay angles.
Don't misunderstand. This is not some "anti-Raven conspiracy" rant. Harbaugh and his staff take advantage of the video board advantage at M&T Bank Stadium whenever possible — and they should as long as this flawed system remains in place. Also, no one is saying that the Ravens would have beaten the Broncos if that dropped ball had been called correctly and Denver had been forced to punt with the Ravens still leading by three points. The Ravens played a lousy game and were beaten by a superior opponent.
We just know what happened right after that costly non-challenge, and it's not hard to connect some dots and come to the conclusion that there is a better way to protect the integrity of the competition than a system that builds in an extra layer of intrigue and coaching strategy in exchange for the risk that a bad call can impact a game.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.