NFC North: Carl Johnson

You saw it just like I did. In their first game since the NFL mandated the 35-yard line for kickoffs, the Chicago Bears twice kicked off from their 30-yard line in Saturday's preseason opener. Referee Jeff Triplette allowed it twice until Carl Johnson, the NFL's vice president of officiating, put a stop to it via a phone call to the Soldier Field press box.

So what gives? Why did the Bears add 5 yards to their kickoff coverage territory? And why were they initially allowed to do it? Was it a matter of strategy or confusion?

The answer appears to be both.

At the start of the Bears' locally-produced broadcast, announcers Sam Rosen and Erik Kramer -- presumably reflecting the team's position -- said the rule gives each NFL team an option to mark the ball as high as the 35-yard line. The Bears, Rosen said, had chosen not to take that option. In fact, coach Lovie Smith later told reporters that he wanted to see his coverage teams cover a kick that was more likely to be returned.

Smith: "We know [place-kicker] Robbie Gould. We can put it on the 35, and he can kick it out each time."

One problem: The rule was not intended to provide a choice. Its intent was not to limit kickoff returns but to improve safety on kickoffs. Only a deeply interpretative analysis of the rule's wording would suggest otherwise. Here is how Rule 6, Section 1, Article 2(a) is written in the 2011 NFL rule book: "The restraining line for the kicking team shall be its 35-yard line for a kickoff and its 20-yard line for a safety kick."

I guess you could define "restraining line" as the furthest possible point a team can kick off, and infer that a team could line up further back even though it would seem to create a better chance for a return. Otherwise, I'm not sure why Triplette allowed it, and Johnson's call made clear he shouldn't have.

To be fair, I can see where the Bears were coming from. Generally speaking, kickoffs at the 35-yard line should increase the likelihood of touchbacks and/or short returns. But based on what Gould told the Chicago Tribune, the Bears aren't convinced that touchbacks will rule the day when the weather turns colder.

"By moving it to the 35," Gould told the Tribune, "they think there are going to be more touchbacks and there may be in warm-weather places but not in Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh. There are going to be plenty of places where you're not going to get touchbacks."

On a warm night like Saturday, Gould's kickoffs were likely to carry deep into the end zone. But if touchbacks do indeed diminish later in the season, the Bears ostensibly wanted to practice their coverage schemes in the preseason.

Let's not be completely naive here. The Bears opposed the rule change in March because it will diminish the annual field-position advantage they get from their strong return game. So let's not completely rule out the possibility of gamesmanship and/or that the Bears were making a one-time passive protest to the rule change.

Two people could reasonably argue whether a kickoff from the 35-yard line, combined with a 5-yard limit on head starts for cover men, will actually improve safety. But when a rule is changed for safety reasons, there is no leeway.

It's worth noting that Bears defensive end Corey Wootton was lost for four weeks because of a knee injury on the opening kickoff. I doubt whether the extra 5 yards contributed to the injury. But unless I'm missing something here, the Bears won't get another opportunity to "test" their coverage teams unless they take a delay of game penalty and Triplette shouldn't have allowed this one.
Reviewing Saturday's preseason action at Soldier Field:


Chicago Bears 10, Buffalo Bills 3

Preseason record: 1-0

Of interest: None of the anticipated drama for this game played out. Tailback Matt Forte played despite the lack of a contract extension, although it's worth noting he played one series and didn't get a carry. (He did make one catch.) Marion Barber ended up rushing for 45 yards on seven carries, and Chester Taylor had three yards on three carries. ... And by all accounts, the playing surface at Soldier Field held up despite some visible seams between the sod. The only issue: Longtime Chicago-area sportscaster Peggy Kusinski said she was told by security officials that no cell phone photos of the field were allowed. ... The first-team offensive line played the entire first half but gave up four sacks, including three to Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, who gave left tackle J'Marcus Webb fits. I thought two of Merriman's sacks, against backup quarterback Caleb Hanie, came in part because Hanie held the ball. ... Defensive tackle Henry Melton flashed in the first quarter, getting into the backfield on three early plays. That's an encouraging sign. ... The Bears kicked off twice from the 30-yard line before, saying the NFL's new rule for kickoffs at the 35-yard line was optional. NFL officiating czar Carl Johnson was forced to call Soldier Field to tell them otherwise. Interesting but ultimately a meaningless attempt by the Bears. ... Finally, demoted receiver Johnny Knox made an a strong impression on special teams, reminding everyone how fast he is during a 70-yard kickoff return. He also returned two punts, but that job will go to Devin Hester in the regular season.

Local coverage: No one criticized the field, reports Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune. But quarterback Jay Cutler did say: "I don't know. It is what it is. I don't think it is going to change, so we just have to play on it." ... Knox, via Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times: "I know what I need to do -- just handle my business on the field and that's what I came to do. I'm just trying to make the best of it and make plays when I can." ... The Bears' offensive line needs more time together, writes Dan Pompei of the Tribune. ... New defensive lineman Amobi Okoye had two sacks, notes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.

Next: Aug. 22 at New York Giants (ESPN)

Hat tip to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com, who pointed out via Twitter (@jasonjwilde) the NFL's official explanation for the play we ranted about Wednesday. The NFL Network appearance of Carl Johnson, the league's vice president of officiating, provides us a platform for a quick follow-up.

For starters, Johnson acknowledged that referee Peter Morelli's crew erred on a critical call in the second quarter of the Green Bay Packers' 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Tight end Tony Gonzalez should not have been credited with a 6-yard reception on fourth down.

"It was not a catch," Johnson said. "He did not maintain firm grasp and control."

There is no disputing that conclusion. But in the process of explaining what happened, Johnson provided further grist for our argument against the current replay system.

He touted the instance as "an excellent example of the chess games teams play" and praised the Falcons for rushing to get off another play and prevent Packers coach Mike McCarthy from challenging the call. Johnson also acknowledged that "TV networks aren't obligated to show significant replays or any types of replays" and said that the home-field advantage in the replay system "balances out" because "you have eight home games and eight away."

Johnson is simply the messenger of the NFL's policy-making monolith, so I don't blame him personally. But how can this be a fair way of neutrally officiating high-stakes NFL games? Getting calls right shouldn't be subject to "chess games." The NFL can't be solely reliant on TV networks if they're not obligated to provide the service they're being counted on for. And home-field advantage only balances out if there is an equal number of questionable calls spread among your 16 games -- an unrealistic possibility, at best.

Grrrrrrrrrr.

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir on this one, but count me as still riled by Sunday's sequence and now disheartened by the league's response.

One other note before I drop this (for the moment): A few of you pointed out something I should have realized myself in the original post. Network feeds inside NFL stadiums often run on a significant delay, and that was the case Sunday in the Georgia Dome. Sitting in the press box, I could watch the play live and then look up at the television monitor to see the same play just starting.

So if you were viewing at home, you saw a solid replay of the "catch" well before the Falcons took the next snap. But if you were in the coaches' booth, you didn't see that replay until after the next play occurred in live action. Without spending too much time in a space-time continuum debate, the bottom line is that McCarthy is right: His assistants didn't see any replay of the play until it was too late. Consider the internal feed delay another pock on the system as currently configured.

BBAO: Lions end Zack Follett's season

October, 28, 2010
10/28/10
7:40
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Wednesday afternoon, we noted the Detroit Lions had claimed cornerback Brandon McDonald off waivers but hadn't yet announced a corresponding move to open a roster spot. That mystery is now solved. Linebacker Zack Follett, the self-proclaimed "Pain Train" who rose to starting status during offseason workouts, was placed on injured reserve because of a scary neck injury suffered Oct. 17 against the New York Giants.

The injury is not believed to be career-threatening, but Follett won't play again this season. He is the seventh player the Lions have placed on injured reserve.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Lions were working Ashlee Palmer in Follett's position during practice Wednesday, according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. Bobby Carpenter is another possibility for the job.
  • The Lions are expecting quarterback Matthew Stafford to be able to run all facets of their offense in his return, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on not getting sacked Sunday night by the Minnesota Vikings, via Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "It starts with the guys up front. I hope last week is the beginning of something special, because the way they protected really forced the defense into abandoning the rush and trying to jump and tip balls. As a quarterback, that's your best friend. When I can wake up Monday and Tuesday and feel that good, that's really encouraging."
  • Rodgers and the Packers' passing game will need to be on the same page Sunday against the New York Jets, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Packers players had no sympathy for the calls that went against the Vikings last Sunday, writes Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Vikings quarterback Brett Favre understands the expectations of coach Brad Childress, notes the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings fans aren't clamoring for backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to start Sunday at the New England Patriots, notes Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com has the quote from Carl Johnson, the NFL's vice president of officiating, who said on the NFL Network that a 17-yard touchdown reception by tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on Sunday night should have been ruled a touchdown: "In the referee [Scott Green]'s judgment, he thought that there was movement, that there was some loss of control, in his judgment. However, as we further assessed the play, we saw that there was not enough to change this call, and therefore, we wished the ruling on the field would have stood as a completed catch. There just wasn't enough to overturn this call."
  • Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times on the tendency of Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz to paint a rosy picture: "It might be reassuring to hear the offensive coordinator speak so glowingly about the Bears' crushingly disappointing offense if not for his growing credibility gap. Since joining the Bears, Martz has gone out of his way to raise the stakes by continually gushing about his quarterback, receivers, running backs and even his offensive line. The problem is, the offense has performed far below expectations through the first seven games, and when asked for reasons why, it's almost impossible to get a straight answer."
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune: "No one seemed interested in embracing the cold facts -- this offense is in worse shape than it was a year ago"
  • The Bears plan to run more after they return from the bye, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.

BBAO: NFL to fine Brad Childress

October, 26, 2010
10/26/10
7:45
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

This one was almost expected. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the NFL is certain to fine Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress for critical remarks he made Sunday night about Scott Green's officiating crew after a 28-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Among other things, Childress called it the "worst-officiated game I've seen."

I also wonder if part of the discipline will revolve around Childress' decision to reveal the details of a private conversation he had with Carl Johnson, the NFL's vice president of officiating, about two calls that went against the Vikings that night. Childress told reporters Monday that Johnson admitted the Vikings should have been awarded a touchdown on Visanthe Shiancoe's 17-yard reception in the second quarter. It's also possible that Packers tight end Andrew Quarless would have had a 9-yard touchdown reception reversed if Childress had challenged it.

I'll repeat that I'm all for more transparency when it comes to the NFL's officiating. For that reason, I'm glad Childress told us what Johnson said. But the bottom line is the NFL has a strict policy: No public criticism of officials, and no revelations from private conversations. Childress violated both of them.

Continuing around the NFC North:

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