Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Pete Carroll thinks Neil deGrasse Tyson is on his side after Seahawks' controversial lateral. Not so fast

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll hailed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's explanation of a controversial lateral in Sunday's Eagles game.

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (left) hailed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explanation of a controversial lateral in Sunday’s Eagles game. But Tyson appeared to agree it was an illegal forward pass.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll (left) hailed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explanation of a controversial lateral in Sunday’s Eagles game. But Tyson appeared to agree it was an illegal forward pass.Read moreAP File Photo / NASA

It seems as if everyone has an opinion about a controversial lateral that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tossed to running back Mike Davis in the fourth quarter of the Eagles 24-10 loss Sunday night in Seattle. The Seahawks later scored a touchdown on the drive.

Eagles fans, livid that coach Doug Pederson didn't challenge what appeared to be an illegal forward pass, were backed up by Mike Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating.

"It was forward and illegal since it was beyond the line," Pereira, who works as a rules analyst on FOX Sports, wrote on Twitter on Monday. "Forward or backward is judged by where the ball is when it leaves the passer's hand to where it first touched the ground or a player. Forget that Wilson tried to throw it backwards. It was tough to judge on the field by the officials, but the Eagles could have challenged and won."

But Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has remained adamant that Wilson's pass was indeed a lateral, and said on his 710 ESPN Seattle show that he even put in a call to famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to settle the debate once and for all.

"We're talking physics now. I'm serious. I'm going to get an explanation about why that was a backwards lateral so that everybody understands," Carroll said. "Because the ball was traveling at the speed that Russell was traveling."

On Tuesday night, Tyson finally weighed in on the play, appearing to call it a lateral thanks to "Galilean Transformation."

"In their reference frame, the ball went backwards," Tyson wrote on Twitter. "It's not their fault they ran forward faster than the ball."

Carroll certainly took Tyson's opinion favorably, writing on Twitter that "Science speaks!"

But not so fast.

For those not invested in the world of physics, Galilean transformations (sometimes referred to as Newtonian transformations) are a complex set of math equations that show how a person's frame of reference, including his or her direction of movement, influences how the person witnesses an event. Basically, think of it as a fancy way of saying optical illusion.

Tyson is saying that relative to both Wilson and Davis, the ball did travel backward, because they were both moving forward faster than the ball. But laterals in the NFL aren't judged relative to individual players; they're judged relative to the field, according to the NFL's own rules. Rule 3, Section 21, Article 5 of the league's rulebook states: "It is a backward pass if the yard line at which the ball is first touched by a player or the ground is parallel to or behind the yard line at which the ball leaves the passer's hand."

So according to the rules, Tyson appears to be contradicting Carroll and agreeing with Richard Di Dio, an associate professor of physics and mathematics at La Salle University, who told my colleague Tom Avril that the play was indeed an illegal forward pass.

"You can't consider the ball's motion with respect to Wilson," Di Dio said. "It has to be with respect to the fixed markings on the field. It went forward."

Avril was able to calculate the velocities of the quarterback and the ball by slowing down video of the play to watch it one frame at a time. Here's what he found:

Wilson was running in a diagonal direction, but what matters is his rate of progress directly downfield. Scrutiny of the video revealed that he was traveling downfield at a rate of 5 yards per second.
The ball, meanwhile, drifted forward at a rate of about 1.7 yards per second, before it was caught by Davis.
That shows that indeed, Wilson tried to nudge the ball backward, as its forward progress was slower than that of the running quarterback (1.7 yards per second instead of 5 yards per second).

The NFL could decide to weigh in on the controversial play during its weekly review.

Staff writer Tom Avril contributed to this report.