Thursday, September 27, 2012

NFL Week 3: A Look Back

I’m sure you’ve heard people talking a lot about the controversial calls made by the replacement officials during Week 3 in the NFL.  As we approach Week 4, starting tonight with the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens, I wanted to look back at the most controversial play of last week (really, the season so far) and explain what it meant. 

We’re also going to look at another one of the calls that, though it wasn’t much of a controversy in itself, the aftermath created some drama.  I also offer some of my thoughts on these calls; although it appears that the referee situation will begin to stabilize tonight, as the league and the referees have come to an agreement that ends their lockout.  I’m anxious to see how players, coaches and commentators react to having the usual guys back…


First, though, I want to feature today’s Player of the Day in this post, instead of the right sidebar.  I broke with the random-selection process to feature him because he played through great personal loss to deliver a memorable performance on the field this past weekend.


Player of the Day TORREY SMITH: Snatching Triumph Out of Tragedy


Just before midnight on Saturday, Tevin Jones, younger brother of Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, lost control of his motorcycle and hit a utility pole on the side of the road in Montross, Virginia (both are in the picture at left; Tevin is in Torrey's jersey).  Though he wore a helmet, Tevin was pronounced dead on the scene (alcohol was not a factor in the accident).  Torrey, who helped raise Tevin and their younger siblings, rushed to be with his family in those early morning hours.  He returned to his team later in the day and, encouraged by a text from his mother, decided to play in the game against the New England Patriots that night.  The Ravens honored Tevin with a moment of silence before the game began.


Playing with unimaginable pain in his heart but buoyed by the support of fans and teammates, Torrey Smith turned in a career performance, catching six passes for 127 and two touchdowns. It was his biggest game since his 165-yard performance in Week 11 of the 2011 season.  His catches were vital in the Ravens’ victory over the Patriots which, as you’ll read below, came down to the final play of the game.  He is expected to play again tonight against the Cleveland Browns.


Torrey Smith attended the University of Maryland and was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft.  While in college, Torrey set school and ACC records with 123 kickoff returns for nearly 3,000 yards; his school-record 5,264 all-purpose yards ranks seventh in ACC history.


Torrey and his family have established a scholarship fund in Torrey’s honor.  Donations can be made payable to The Tevin Jones Memorial Scholarship Fund and mailed to:

Baltimore Ravens
c/o Torrey Smith
1 Winning Drive
Owings Mills, MD 21117


Green Bay at Seattle:  The Game-Ending Hail Mary Pass (or, “The Inconceivable Reception”)

If you watched Monday night’s game between the Packers and the Seahawks, you know it wasn’t a game that either offense wants to remember.  Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers had a pedestrian outing, completing 26 of 39 passes for 223 yards and no touchdowns.  It’s no wonder he had subpar numbers, considering how much time he spent on the turf—he was sacked an incredible eight times.  Seattle’s rookie QB Russell Wilson managed to throw two touchdown passes (though, as I’ll explain, it was really only one), but only accounted for 130 yards (24 of which should be taken away).


The score in the waning moments of the game was 12-7, Green Bay leading.  With a 4th and 10 from the Green Bay 24 yard line with eight seconds remaining, Wilson heaved a Hail Mary pass to the back corner of the end zone.  A crowd of Packers, including safety M.D. Jennings, waited there along with two Seahawk receivers for the ball to descend.  As the ball came down, Jennings jumped up, grabbed the ball and clutched it to his chest; the left hand of Seattle receiver Golden Tate was wedged between the ball and the #43 on Jennings’ jersey. 
As the mass of humanity landed in the end zone, two officials—who had to run in from other parts of the end zone—looked down into pile and, seeing that both Jennings and Tate were holding the ball, ruled that there was a “simultaneous catch.”  When there is a simultaneous catch (i.e., two players have possession of the ball), the offense is awarded the catch (in baseball parlance, the tie goes to the runner).  Therefore, the Seahawks were given six points for the touchdown.


Here’s the problem:  there was no simultaneous catch in that play.  The officials got it wrong.  Simultaneous catches are governed by NFL Rule 8-1-3, Item 5 (emphasis added):


Item 5:  Simultaneous Catch.  If a pass if caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers.  It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control…


In other words, if another player gains control of the ball, an opposing player can’t wrestle with him until he also holds the ball.  This is precisely what happened on the last play of the game Monday night.  As the replay shows, Jennings made the catch at the apex of his leap in the end zone; it wasn’t until he and Tate were on the ground that Tate got his other hand around the ball.


As I have explained, starting last season, all touchdowns are reviewed by the replay officials who will instruct the on-field referee to take a second look at a touchdown ruling that may have been in error.  That happened here, but the ruling was upheld and the Seahawks won.  By the way, simultaneous catch rulings are typically not reviewable.  However, they are reviewable when the catch occurs in the end zone.


To complicate things further, the officials also missed an offensive pass interference call, which occurred when Tate shoved Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields as the ball was heading to the end zone.  If this penalty had been called, the game would have been over no matter who had caught the ball.  Unfortunately, the call and no-call of penalties are not reviewable.


Here is the replay of the catch (in super slow motion):


Now, I have to say that I usually hate it when teams blame the outcome of a game on a single call like this.  My reaction is always the same:  your win or loss shouldn’t depend on last-ditch plays that may or may not be called correctly by the officials.  Final scores are the accumulation of 60 minutes of playing.  Teams and players should only focus on what they can control.  Maybe if Aaron Rodgers hadn’t been sacked eight times the Green Bay offense would have been productive enough to have the game in hand late in the fourth quarter.  Also, if M.D. Jennings had tried to bat the ball down instead of trying to catch it, like defensive players are trained to do on these plays, there wouldn’t have been a catch ruling at all—just an incompletion and the game would have ended.  

I also believe that the media, especially commentators calling the games, have been unduly hard on officials regarding many of the missed and questionable calls that have been made, calls that the regular officials would have also missed or ruled in the same way.


However, my opinions assume that those desperation plays are observed by individuals who are well-versed and experienced in the governing rules, and that the questionable rulings are questionable because they came down to perception—a subjective call.  That wasn’t the case here. 

In this situation, there were multiple lapses by the crew:  first, in an obvious Hail Mary scenario, it’s inexcusable that there was, apparently, no official properly positioned in the end zone to rule on a catch; second, the pass interference by Tate was missed; third, the erroneous simultaneous catch ruling that was upheld on review; and, finally, the inconsistent hand signals by the two officials, one signaling a touchdown and the other signaling a no-catch, created confusion on both sidelines.  If the regular officials had been working this game, at the very least they undoubtedly would have been better positioned to make the calls and the administration of the rulings would have been much cleaner.



New England at Baltimore:  The Over-the-Top Field Goal


The Sunday night game between the Patriots and the Ravens was a much-anticipated rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game, which ended with a missed 32-yard field goal attempt by Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff.  This time, though, it was Justin Tucker’s turn (Cundiff was released by the Ravens in August and now plays for the Washington Redskins):  as time expired, and his team was down 28-30, Tucker kicked a 27-yard field goal to win the game.


However, it wasn’t obvious that the kick was successful at first.  As the ball soared over the crossbar of the goal post, it was still higher than the tops of the uprights.  In fact, it appeared to pass over the top of the right upright.  To the New England sideline, it seemed to be a miss.  Kicks that go over the uprights are specifically addressed in the NFL rules, at Rule 11-4-1(c) (emphasis added):


The entire ball must pass through the vertical plane of the goal, which is the area above the crossbar and between the uprights or, if above the uprights, between their outside edges


So imagine that, at the tops of the uprights, there are long, thin pieces of paper that are taped to the outside their outside edges and extend skyward.  If the ball passes to the inside of those pieces of paper, the field goal is good.  Here was the kick:



Although this play was a close call, and it determined the outcome of a game, the rules are clear and the ruling of a field goal wasn’t controversial.  In the heat of the moment, though, Bill Belichick thought the kick merited review and, confused and upset when it wasn’t being reviewed, he ran up to an official demanding an explanation.  When the official didn’t respond, Belichick grabbed the official by the arm; the official pulled his arm back and continued to jog off the field (you can see this moment at the end of the video above).  Belichick might not have realized that, by rule, field goals that cross over the tops of the uprights are not reviewable.  Currently there is no technology that exists that would help determine definitively where the ball passed the upright.  For that reason, the league specifically decided to carve out such plays from review. 


In any case Belichick crossed a line—coaches may seem free to berate officials as much as they want, but the expression of their fury has limits and one thing they absolutely cannot do is place their hands on officials in frustration or anger.  NFL Rule 12-3-1(g) expressly prohibits “unnecessary physical contact with a game official.”  Belichick now has to pay the price for being touch-feely:  yesterday the league fined him $50,000.  With talk of coaches, and players, berating officials and trying to intimidate them, I’m glad the league took a hard line here.  Even though the arm grab wasn’t meant to intimidate, physical contact is a clear line that is easy to enforce, and remember—it is one of the few rules that don’t require interpretation. 


Moreover, Rule 12-3-1(b) prohibits “using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League.”  In furtherance of that policy, the NFL also fined Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan $25,000 for berating an official after his team’s loss Sunday.  Earlier in the week, Broncos head coach John Fox (above) and defensive coordinator were fined $30,000 and $25,000, respectively, for yelling at officials the prior week. In fact, their actions prompted a memo admonishing against bullying officials. 

I understand a coach using various means of persuasion to get officials to see things their way, but to bully and berate people who are trying their best to keep the games safe and fair is just unprofessional—and certainly not the way to ingratiate yourself with the crew that will be working your next game.  And when is this tolerated in “real life”—can you imagine what would happen if you started ranting and raving at the police officer who pulls you over?

1 comment:

  1. I think the NFL should put upward-shooting laser beams on the outside edge of the goalposts so the refs can see if field goals are good or not.

    Better yet, how about a force field generator that would cause the ball to boink off it if the ball didn't pass through cleanly?

    I have lots of other good ideas!


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