NFC North: Dirty Laundry

Dirty Laundry: (Il)legal celebrations

December, 12, 2012
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Watching Sunday night's game from NFC North blog headquarters allowed me to monitor your Twitter discussion more closely than if I had been at Lambeau Field, and one of the larger debates of contention came during a series of post-touchdown celebrations. There still appears to be some confusion about what the NFL does and doesn't allow, and why.

Specifically:

Not everyone understood why the Detroit Lions received a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration after tight end Tony Scheffler's three-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.

Some of you thought Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers deserved a taunting penalty for holding the ball aloft at the end of his 27-yard touchdown run.

And a few of you are still wondering why the Lambeau Leap is not considered excessive celebration.

First, let's quote from the 2012 NFL rule book. Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 covers the topics above. Among the acts the league considers to be unsportsmanlike are:
  • Using baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.
  • Prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations by an individual player. Players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground. A celebration or demonstration shall be deemed excessive or prolonged if a player continues to celebrate or demonstrate after a warning from an official.
  • Two or more players engaging in prolonged, excessive, premeditated, or choreographed celebrations or demonstrations.
  • Possession or use of foreign or extraneous object(s) that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or the sideline, or using the ball as a prop.
  • Removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play during a celebration or demonstration, or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player.

After Scheffler's touchdown, running back Joique Bell joined the celebration midway as Scheffler appeared to be mimicking the act of shoveling snow. That was a clear violation of the "two or more players" portion of the rule.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz said Bell's decision was "not very smart" and added: "It was one guy coming in and just in the moment right there and not making a good decision, not realizing the way that it would be interpreted."

Rodgers, meanwhile, raised the ball with his right hand as he crossed the eight-yard line on the way to the end zone. There were two Lions defenders chasing him and a third, cornerback Jacob Lacey, was closing in from Rodgers left.

In other words, Rodgers held the ball away from all three players as he ran. That's why referee Tony Corrente did not call him for taunting or baiting. Had Rodgers held the ball in the direction of any Lions player, that probably would have been a penalty.

Finally, we addressed the Lambeau Leap issue during Tuesday's SportsNation chat, but let's further enhance the answer. To be clear, the NFL wrote these rules with the idea of grandfathering in the Lambeau Leap. As long as only one player jumps into the stands, there is no penalty. By overt definition, it is not considered excessive, and it's only prolonged if the player is still in the stands when the extra point is kicked. Typically, players jump back to the field after a few seconds.

Hopefully that clears everything up -- until next time.

Now, on to our Penalty Tracker.

From the start, the Green Bay Packers' decision to line up for a 58-yard field goal attempt last Sunday at Ford Field didn't make sense. Place-kicker Mason Crosby had already missed from 50 yards (twice) and 38 yards, and another miss would have given the Detroit Lions the ball near midfield in a game they already led 17-14.

The Lions seemed suspicious, first calling a timeout and then stationing returner Stefan Logan on the field, presumably to field either a short kick or a quick kick. You know what happened next. Tight end Tom Crabtree mimicked the same movement he used to score on a fake field goal in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears, popping out of his stance before the snap and stopping behind long-snapper Brett Goode as if to take a pitch from holder Tim Masthay.

Crabtree then returned to his spot, but not before referee Ron Winter called him for a false start. The penalty forced the Packers to punt, as they probably should have done in the first place, but also raised two questions:
  1. What was the difference between what Crabtree did and when an offensive player goes in presnap motion?
  2. What exactly were the Packers trying to accomplish?

On the first point, the NFL recently drew a more defined distinction between legal movement before the snap and movement clearly designed to draw opponents offside. Here is how the rule book instructs officials to make that distinction, from Rule 1, Section 4, Article 2:

"It is a False Start if the ball has been placed ready for play, and, prior to the snap, an offensive player who has assumed a set position charges or moves in such a way as to simulate the start of a play, or if an offensive player who is in motion makes a sudden movement toward the line of scrimmage. Any quick abrupt movement by a single offensive player, or by several offensive players in unison, which simulates the start of the snap, is a false start."

Intuitively, I think this should make sense to anyone who saw the play. Crabtree didn't back off the line, turn and jog as players normally do when they go in motion. He moved "abruptly" as if the snap had already occurred and then extended his hands to catch a pitch. In essence, the Packers designed an illegal play.

I have heard of teams checking with officials before games on the legality of a potential play, but the officials' response on those occasions are not binding. They still need to see the play occur in real time. So even if the Packers checked with Winter pregame, they wouldn't have a recourse.

As for the second question, Crosby said after the game that the play was initially intended to draw the Lions offside. If they remained in place, Crosby said, "the intention was to kick it" when Crabtree got back in position. Overall, it's safe to say the play wasn't the highlight of the Packers' otherwise winning effort in Detroit.

On to our Penalty Tracker:

When do NFL coaches use a challenge for purposes other than overturning a call? When they're looking to channel their inner James Naismith, of course.

We've written on this topic before, but it merits reinforcement because you don't see it often. When Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz challenged an incomplete pass Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, he did so as much to give his tired defense a breather -- "one of those basketball-type challenges," Schwartz said -- as to seek reversal.

Let's set up the decision.

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
AP Photo/Mel EvansJim Schwartz bought his defense three minutes to regroup with a challenge during an Eagles trip into the red zone.
The Lions were trailing 10-6 with four minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Philadelphia Eagles had a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, and the Lions defense had already been on the field for about 25 of the game's first 40 minutes. A touchdown would have given the Eagles a two-score lead against a Lions offense that was struggling to get moving.

On first down, quarterback Michael Vick threw a hurried pass to running back LeSean McCoy in the left flat. The ball arrived before McCoy turned around, and it bounced off his back. As the whistle blew, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch grabbed the ball off the ground in the event the play was ruled a backward pass and therefore a fumble.

Referee Bill Vinovich ruled the pass incomplete, and replays made clear the ball traveled nearly two yards forward -- from almost the 12-yard line, where Vick threw it, to inside the 11, where it hit McCoy.

So why did Schwartz use one of his two challenges, and risk one of his three timeouts, to seek reversal? As Schwartz explained afterward, his defense needed a physical and mental regrouping -- much like a basketball team that has withstood an extended run of points from its opponent. Schwartz also noted how important a red zone turnover would have been at that point if officials saw something different in a further examination of the replay.

Here's how Schwartz explained his thought process:

"It was at least a little bit close. We had clear recovery and they had made a good drive to that point, and I was talking to the guys upstairs and I said 'Do you have a replay?' And they didn't. And I said 'Well, what did it look like?' and they said 'Well, it's close.' And I said 'If it's close, I'm going to throw it.' Because ... the reward is so great, if we're able to get a turnover.

"Imagine if it had been the other way and it had been slightly backwards and we didn't get a replay and we didn't challenge it and we were sick to our stomachs after the game saying, 'Jeez, we could have gotten a turnover in the red zone, taken points off the board and everything else.'

"And literally part of the thought process there was 'Hey, look, we could use a timeout now anyway,' and a challenge is always a long time out. You know, they go under the hood and give everybody a chance to regroup and things like that. You can sort of, you know, catch your breath and think about your next call and things like that. So, more of looking at it as an extended timeout. Might not have done it if that was our last challenge but it was our first challenge, we still had another one that we could handle it."

I went back and timed the break the Lions' defense got as a result. Nearly three minutes elapsed from the moment the play was over until the Eagles broke the huddle for their next play. The Lions ended up making a stand, benefiting from an offensive pass-interference call on tight end Brent Celek's apparent touchdown and also getting a sack from defensive end Cliff Avril on third down. An ensuing field goal left the Lions with a more manageable 13-6 deficit, and we know what happened after that.

From time to time, I'll provide updates on how NFC North coaches are faring with their challenges. Below is a six-week glimpse.

MINNEAPOLIS -- As the NFL's replacement officials bumble through their now two-month stint, we often have discussed the difference between errors of judgment and errors of facts. All officials, replacement or permanent, make the former. The latter, borne of misunderstanding or misapplication of rules, is far less excusable and has generated a significant credibility question for the current system that no one seems to care about.

[+] EnlargeToby Gerhart
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireVikings running back Toby Gerhart gains no yards and fumbles the ball to the 49ers in the fourth quarter.
We saw yet another example of it Sunday in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings' 24-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. In essence, referee Ken Roan granted the 49ers a challenge at a time they were ineligible for one, ultimately leading to a change of possession on what Roan ruled a fumble by the Vikings' Toby Gerhart. Roan admitted the mistake in an interview with a pool reporter after the game. Fortunately for all involved, the decision did not impact the outcome.

The details: With 3 minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the game, Gerhart gained three yards on second-and-10 at the 49ers' 35-yard line. The 49ers called their final timeout in anticipation of a critical third-down play. But during the timeout, coach Jim Harbaugh threw his challenge flag after noticing on replays that Gerhart lost control of the ball. (The 49ers' Patrick Willis had fallen on the ball.)

A team must have at least one timeout available to mount a challenge, and technically, Harbaugh had just used his last one. Roan said Harbaugh called him to the sideline and said: "Hey, this is something that I want to challenge, but I just used my last timeout. Can I challenge and get my timeout back? How does that work?'

"He asked the guys on the side and they came over and got me," Roan added. "What I told him was, 'Well you challenged it not knowing what the result of the play was going to be.' So I granted him the challenge and we went and looked at it. That was wrong. I should not have. In order to do that, he has to have two timeouts left."

Actually, he needs just one. But we'll let that one slide for the larger point. Roan is only partially at fault here. It's totally unreasonable for the NFL to have expected lower-level officials to master its thick and nuanced rule book in time to make a credible showing this offseason. They are particularly vulnerable to suggestion in that area, and I wonder if Harbaugh really needed to ask, "How does that work?" Obviously we can't prove it, but you wonder if Harbaugh didn't try to capitalize -- smartly, I might add -- on the uncertainty to gain a competitive advantage.

Gerhart did in fact lose control of the ball before he was down, even though it appeared that umpire Tim Morris was in the process of blowing the play dead (by raising his hand). Again, it's important to note the play didn't affect the game's outcome. Four players later, Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson intercepted quarterback Alex Smith to ice it. But the game was not over until Harbaugh used the timeout that Roan gave back to him to challenge another potential fumble two plays after Robinson's interception.

I know there were other erroneous calls in NFC North games Sunday, but this is the one I witnessed. This joke can't end soon enough.

Related: Roan's crew made an impossible call on the opening kickoff but quickly corrected it.
Some officiating calls are as direct and objective as they can be. A receiver steps out of bounds. A defender grabs a facemask. A running back's knee touches the ground.

Many, however, are subjective and require officials to match the action with a set of rules that doesn't address every specific instance. Officials must make a real-time decision about what they saw and how it applies to the general standards of the NFL, usually without the benefit of a possible replay challenge.

[+] EnlargeClay Matthews
Adam Bettcher /Getty ImagesClay Matthews was penalized for this hit on Christian Ponder.
Roughing the passer falls squarely into the latter category, especially as the league has attempted deep regulation of the contact quarterbacks can receive. Every week of the NFL season includes some debatable roughing calls, or non-calls, and we had at least two in Week 7 here in the NFC North.

The first came in the second quarter of the Detroit Lions' 23-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Referee Bill Leavy called Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, resulting in a first down after an incomplete third-down pass.

Vanden Bosch vehemently protested, pointing at the replay as it was shown at Ford Field. A review of the play shows that Vanden Bosch might not have initiated much helmet-to-helmet contact. But he at least inadvertently hit Ryan's neck/chest area with the top of his helmet and facemask, which technically violates NFL rules.

Here is the applicable language straight out of the NFL's 2011 rule book: "A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture for example, (a) forcibly hitting the passer's head or neck area with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him, or (b) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/"hairline" parts of the helmet against any part of the passer's body."

In this case, it was up to Leavy to determine whether Vanden Bosch's hit qualified as "forcible contact." Given that both Vanden Bosch and Ryan fell to the ground as a result, I can see why Leavy decided it was.

The second play came in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game at the Metrodome. Referee Peter Morelli called Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews for roughing against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. A second look at the play, as well as the photograph accompanying this post, shows Matthews in a textbook tackling position with his helmet clearly to the side of Ponder's body just after the release.

Part of that form was to grab the back of Ponder's legs. In the course of leaning forward to complete the throw, Ponder left his feet. The force of contact with Matthews drove Ponder onto his back.

It might have looked like a standard football play to you and I and even Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who was broadcasting the game and objected to the call. But check out how the NFL rule book addresses such a situation:

"When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender's weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up or cradle the passer with the defensive player's arms."

Remember: This part of rule enforcement is subjective. It was up to Morelli to decide whether Matthews "unnecessarily" or "violently" threw down Ponder and/or landed on top of him with most of his weight. Morelli also needed to judge if Matthews made an effort to "wrap up or cradle" Ponder to break his fall, as anti-football as that might seem.

Given the NFL's emphasis on quarterback safety, it's not surprising that Morelli leaned toward Ponder on that play. I don't think Matthews intended to drive Ponder to the ground, but that isn't the question. Did he drive Ponder to the ground? Morelli's judgment was that he did.

On to our Penalty Tracker:

Dirty Laundry: Sideline intrusion

October, 12, 2011
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On game day, every NFL team has what is often called a "get-back coach." Typically, it's a strength coach or assistant who doesn't have a strategic game-day role. Regardless, he's the one who regularly walks up and down the white boundary of the sideline, telling players and coaches to "get back" and avoid a penalty for inadvertently entering the field of play or obstructing an official's view of the sideline.

After all, here's what Rule 13, Section 1, Article 4 of the NFL rule book says:
All team personnel must observe the zone restrictions applicable to the bench area and the border rimming the playing field. The only persons permitted within the solid six-foot white border (1-1) while play is in progress on the field are game officials. For reasons involving the safety of participating players whose actions may carry them out of bounds, officials’ unobstructed coverage of the game, and spectators’ sightlines to the field, the border rules must be observed by all coaches and players in the bench area. Violators are subject to penalty by the officials.

Sunday night at the Georgia Dome, referee Jeff Triplette penalized the Green Bay Packers 15 yards late in the third quarter for violating a rule that generally doesn't reach the penalty stage. In his announcement, Triplette said: "They came on the field as the play was ending."

Triplette has been known to freelance a bit in his explanations, as we discussed earlier this season. Many of you have complained about the call. But in this case, his crew made a legitimate decision after an acceptable number of warnings.

NBC cameras caught line judge Jeff Bergman showing Packers coach Mike McCarthy two fingers, and McCarthy confirmed Monday that officials had previously given the Packers two warnings before calling a penalty on the third instance.

Replays showed the Packers' sideline exploding with emotion when two Falcons players, Akeem Dent and Eric Weems, seemed to collide with punt returner Randall Cobb at the end of a fair catch. The Packers were anticipating a call for fair-catch interference, and special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, among others, charged onto the field to greet Cobb and congratulate him for maintaining control of the ball.

Slocum made it about halfway to the numbers, or about six yards, before heading back to the sideline. After speaking to Bergman, McCarthy barked a few choice words toward Slocum. I don't know if Slocum was the offender Bergman identified, but by the letter of the law he would have been justified if he made the call because of Slocum's intrusion.

McCarthy said the blame lies "clearly on the head coach and our operation" and added: "I was disappointed to say the least. We had two warnings. I thought the officials did an excellent job … as far as communicating to us. It was a very emotional, energetic game. Our guys were into it, but we were sloppy on the boundaries. That is clearly on the coaching staff in making sure that everyone's back there."

This isn't meant to poke at the Packers' perfect record this season. Many of you have asked about this call, and I'm just explaining to you what happened. We've all seen players and coaches jumping onto the field after a big play. But usually, officials don't need to issue more than one warning to a sideline. It's well within their purview to issue a penalty thereafter. Ultimately, the Packers overcame the 15-yard loss and finished the ensuing possession with a touchdown.

As for why Triplette didn't call for interference of a fair catch, replays show that Dent didn't make contact with Cobb. I'm guessing that Triplette ruled Weems was blocked into Cobb, which is a debatable but defensible call.

Now, on to our 2011 Penalty Tracker after a week away:

Dirty Laundry: Dogged by the 'process'

September, 23, 2011
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Even with Week 3 games nearly upon us, many of us in the NFC North are still exchanging pleasantries about a series of Week 2 officiating calls. Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com has a nice review of a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty against Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop, and I'll take another look at two other calls that piqued my interest.

The first: An end zone pass ruled incomplete during the Packers' 30-23 victory over the Carolina Panthers. I'm guessing you've seen the play.

The Packers were facing third down from the Panthers' 19-yard line with 10 minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers lofted a high pass down the left sideline to tight end Jermichael Finley, who had lined up as an outside receiver. At about the 2-yard line, Finley jumped in front of Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Finley got two hands on the ball, tucked it in his right arm and braced for impact with the ground.

[+] EnlargeJermichael Finley
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThe pass to Jermichael Finley was ruled incomplete after the tight end lost the ball when he hit the ground.
The photograph accompanying this post shows Finley had possession with two feet in the end zone. But a moment later, the ball squirted free when his right arm hit the ground. Referee Alberto Riveron ruled the play incomplete, and Packers place-kicker Mason Crosby booted a 37-yard field goal on the next play without a challenge from coach Mike McCarthy.

As we Black and Bluers learned in Week 1 last season, the call was correct based on a rule the NFL considered changing during the offseason but ultimately left intact. It's the same rule that forced officials to call an apparent touchdown catch by the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson incomplete against the Chicago Bears.

A reminder of how the rule is worded, straight from the NFL's official 2011 rulebook: "It is a catch if in the process of attempting to catch the ball, a player secures control of the ball prior to the ball touching the ground and that control is maintained after the ball has touched the ground."

The Johnson play generated controversy because he lost "possession" by intentionally placing the ball on the ground after what he thought was a legal catch. Hence, our education on the "process" of securing possession.

The Finley play was more straightforward. He unintentionally lost possession when his right arm touched the ground. During his weekly radio show at ESPN 540, Rodgers said: "It's an incompletion by the rules." But he also added that the rule "is a little bit ridiculous."

I agree. My view on this play remains the same as it was last year. It makes sense to me, at least, for the NFL to acknowledge the fact that possession standards in the end zone should be different than they are in the field of play.

If a running back carries the ball into the end zone, it's a touchdown no matter what happens thereafter. If a defender knocks the ball out of his hands after it crosses the plane, it's still a touchdown. So why are the standards higher for a receiver on a pass play? Once the receiver establishes possession, as Finley clearly did based on the photograph, why isn't the play over at that point? Why does he have the additional burden of maintaining possession until the end of an arbitrarily-determined process? Beats me.

Meanwhile, the second play came in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings' 24-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Referee Jeff Triplette's crew called Vikings defensive end Jared Allen for roughing the passer with six minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the game. The play added 15 yards to a 19-yard pass and put the Buccaneers in position for the first of two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

When you watch the replay, you see Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman scramble to the right sideline and fire a pass to receiver Dezmon Briscoe. A moment after release, Allen hit Freeman in the chest with his right shoulder. In announcing the call, Triplette said Allen "turned and lowered his shoulder into the quarterback."

"That's a new one," Allen said after the game. For what it's worth, I couldn't find anything in the rule book that specifically addresses a defensive player lowering his shoulder into a quarterback. There are references to hitting a quarterback's helmet or neck, to clubbing his arm and to driving him into the ground at the end of a hit, but nothing that addresses the use of a shoulder in any way.

The closest applicable language was this:
"A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as 'stuffing' a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball, even if the rusher makes his initial contact with the passer within the one-step limitation provided for in (1) above. When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender's weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up or cradle the passer with the defensive player's arms."

Allen didn't stuff Freeman or wrestle him to the ground, but those are only examples of the NFL's definition. Officials have some discretion to determine what an "intimidating and punishing" act is. In this case, Triplett ruled that Allen intentionally lowered his shoulder in an attempt to elevate the force he hit Freeman with. It was a subjective judgment call that apparently doesn't have to be spelled out in the rulebook.

On to our updated penalty tracker:

Thanks to some excellent pilots who showed no fear of quarter-mile visibility here in the snowy Upper Midwest, I've returned safely to NFC North blog headquarters after three days at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans. And thanks to Justin over on Facebook, I realized we spent so much time pulling apart the new kickoff rules that we neglected to point out the approval of another rule close the NFC North (blog's) heart.

By a 30-2 margin, NFL owners approved a significant change to instant replay -- one that shifts some of the burden of in-game oversight from coaches to third-party replay officials. Those of you who participated in our Dirty Laundry discussions last season know that I'm all about removing coaches from the primary role in rectifying officiating mistakes.


[+] EnlargeJohn Kuhn
AP Photo/Jim PrischingPackers fullback John Kuhn wasn't sure he scored on this second-quarter run that was ruled a touchdown against the Giants. The play was not reviewed.
Under the new rule, coaches will still have two challenges available to them -- and a third if they win the first two. But replay officials are now entrusted with reviewing every scoring play in addition to all plays that occur after the two-minute warning of both halves and all of overtime.

Competition committee chairman Rich McKay, who is also president of the Atlanta Falcons, referred to the change as a "modernization of instant replay." I would certainly consider it an evolution. To me, this change is an important step in removing gamesmanship, home-field advantage and other subjective or arbitrary elements from what should be an objective and relatively clinical process.

It could still leave a final ruling for many key plays in the hands of coaches, but you have to start somewhere. As important as they are, touchdowns seem the logical place to begin.

Of the inequitable instances we discussed last season, there is one in particular that would be impacted by this rule.

If you remember, Green Bay Packers running back John Kuhn was credited with an 8-yard touchdown run during a 45-17 victory over the New York Giants in Week 16. Immediately after referee Walt Anderson's crew awarded Kuhn the touchdown, he jumped to his feet, sprinted to the sideline and began rolling his index finger to encourage the Packers' extra-point team to hurry onto the field.

It was a smart move and completely within the rules. We've seen many occasions over the years where a kicking team has moved into position before a coach had seen a replay that could spur a challenge. In the case of Kuhn's score, which came with less than two minutes remaining in the first half, the Packers kicked even before the replay official completed its review.

Kuhn admitted afterward that he wasn't sure if he had scored before his knee touched the ground. Based on what McKay said this week, such opportunities to circumvent the system will be dramatically lessened if not eliminated altogether.

"That replay assistant will be required to confirm every scoring play," McKay said. "If he doesn't confirm the play, obviously, the referee will review the play. The ball would be held by the umpire until he has gotten the signal that the play had been confirmed."

Some of you are probably concerned that reviewing all scores will cause long delays and disrupt the flow of the game. McKay didn't rule out that possibility but suggested a forthcoming set of timing guidelines could mitigate those instances. As much as I like having fresh material for Dirty Laundry every week, I would be willing to add a few extra minutes to each game if it ensured a material decrease in obviously missed calls during regular season games.
Regular readers know we spent a number of Have at It and Dirty Laundry posts discussing the state of the NFL's instant replay system. Most notably, I was concerned about the intersection of strategy and officiating: Why should it be up to a limited number of coaches' challenges to determine whether wrongs get righted?

[+] EnlargeMike McCarthy
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireA new proposal could eliminate the need for Green Bay's Mike McCarthy and other head coaches to throw challenge flags on scoring plays.
In that vein, I was thrilled Wednesday to learn that the NFL's competition committee has proposed a change to the replay system that partly reflects our concerns. If the change is approved, replay officials will have the authority to review a scoring play at any point in the game. Coaches would have two challenges at their disposal as well, although the possibility of a third -- awarded if the first two were decided in your favor -- would be eliminated.

I view this as a strong step in the right direction, one that could pave the way for the replay system to move completely under the umbrella of an objective third party. As you know, I'm not a big fan of teams capitalizing (legally or otherwise) on home-field advantage to aid their own opportunities for instant replay while scuttling opponents'. I also don't like that a coach must weigh the import of the call before challenging it because of his limited opportunities. To me, if the technology is available, calls should be corrected.

Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, the chairman of the committee, said Wednesday on a conference call that there has been some discussion about "looking at the college system downstream," which places the burden of a review on officials in the press box, not coaches.

"Our system works pretty well," McKay said. "It is just in our mind we do put a lot of stress on the coaches because of the fact that they deal on the road with different video boards that tend to not always show the review. We just felt like on scoring plays, on major plays, why not use the same process we use in the last two minutes and relieve them of that responsibility? We want to see what the effect is. We certainly do not want to slow down the game, and I don’t think any of us ever see us going back to a system that we had where every play was reviewable based on the decision of the guy upstairs.

"But this is a step where we think we are benefitting the coaches and potentially making sure that on the biggest plays of the game, we have the opportunity to confirm all of them."

I couldn't have put it better myself. This is a perfect first step. Expanding the possibility of replay to all scoring plays should reduce the instances where strategy and gamesmanship influence challenge decisions. If it works well, it appears the competition committee will continue expansion. I don't want every play reviewed, and neither does the committee, but I do want to see as many questionable calls subject to review as possible.

Dirty Laundry: Holding back progress

October, 7, 2010
10/07/10
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Sometimes, a relatively harmless penalty can mark a significant shift in the flow of a game. Consider tight end Jermichael Finley's first-quarter holding call Sunday in the Green Bay Packers' 28-26 victory over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.

[+] EnlargeJermichael Finley
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireDid Jermichael Finley's penalty drastically alter the course of Sunday's game against Detroit?
The Packers had cruised to a touchdown on their opening possession, and they started their second with an 11-yard pass to Finley. Then, on first-and-10 from the Packers' 33-yard line, tailback Brandon Jackson sprinted around right end for 12 yards. Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch committed a silly personal foul at the end of the play, bumping Packers tight end Tom Crabtree, and the Packers could have resumed play at the Lions' 40-yard line.

But referee Mike Carey's crew whistled Finley for holding during a key block on Lions linebacker Zack Follett, creating an offsetting situation and wiping out the play entirely. The Packers technically weren't backed up, as they resumed play with another first-and-10 at the 33, but they realistically lost 27 yards on the exchange. And more important, it was one of the last successful runs the Packers would have until the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Of their next 22 plays before their final possession, only two were a designed run of more than three yards.

Worse, the call was shaky at best. When you watch the replay, you see Finley blocking down on Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, helping right tackle Mark Tauscher push him inside, and then peeling off toward Follett as Jackson runs by.

Finley engages Follett for several seconds before Follett breaks away to chase the play. As the outside linebacker, Follett was responsible for containing Jackson toward the sideline.

The block looked pretty good to me. I suppose there are two possibilities to explain the call. Finley's right hand landed on the outside of Follett's shoulder pads, creating the often-called visual of a player blocking "outside of the opponent's frame." Here's how the NFL rule book defines that scenario:

A blocker may use his arms, or open or closed hands, to contact an opponent on or outside the opponent's frame (the body of an opponent below the neck that is presented to the blocker). If a blocker's arms or hands are outside an opponent's frame, it is a foul if the blocker materially restricts him. The blocker immediately must work to bring his hands inside the opponent's frame, and as the play develops, the blocker is permitted to work for and maintain his position against an opponent, provided that he does not illegally clip or illegally push from behind.

While Finley didn't immediately bring his hand back inside, I also didn't think he was "materially restricting" Follett from the play, either.

Second, the replay shows Follett having some difficulty breaking away from Finley after turning to run. Did Finley grab him, another fair cause for a holding penalty? I didn't see that, either. Sometimes, a defender using substandard technique to separate from a blocker is rewarded when an official assumes he can't break away because he is being held.

The Packers finished the drive poorly, and Tim Masthay's 21-yard punt gave the Lions good field position for a touchdown drive of their own. What started as a possible early blowout became a competitive game. Would that have happened had officials passed on the Finley hold? It's hard to say, of course. But in retrospect, it changed the early direction of the game.

Now, on to our updated Challenge Tracker:

Dirty Laundry: A backward ruling

September, 29, 2010
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Here's all we can say for Week 3: The NFC North has seen better weeks in the penalty department. Our teams were called for a combined 43 penalties in two games Sunday afternoon and Monday night, including 18 on the Green Bay Packers and 12 on the Minnesota Vikings. There are so many to choose from for our weekly Dirty Laundry feature, so I've somewhat arbitrarily selected two.

The first was one that didn't pass the smell test at the time and, as it turns out, can't be reconciled in the NFL rule book, either. As you might recall from Sunday's game at the Metrodome, referee Ed Hochuli's crew ruled a third-quarter Brett Favre pass incomplete even after it landed four yards behind the line scrimmage.

It seemed the play should have been ruled a backward pass and thus a live ball. Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson was in the process of recovering it at the 25-yard line when whistles blew. In a lengthy explanation, Hochuli said that Favre's arm was initially moving forward and that it was re-directed by contact -- in this case, by blitzing Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy.

Indeed, here's what Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 says about that topic:
When a Team A player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional movement forward of his hand starts a forward pass. If a Team B player contacts the passer or the ball after forward movement begins, and the ball leaves the passer's hand, a forward pass is ruled, regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player.

One problem: When you watch the replay, Favre's arm was never moving forward. Peterson was always his intended receiver, and he was at best one or two yards behind Favre at the time of the pass. At the moment Levy hit him, Favre was standing at more than a 90-degree angle to the line of scrimmage. Unless I'm missing something, Hochuli's crew misapplied this rule. It should have been a backward pass, and it should have been marked on the yard line that Peterson would have recovered it on.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Burnett
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliMorgan Burnett's 24-yard pass interference penalty gave the Bears a first down on Green Bay's 9-yard line.
Our second call sparked some outrage within the Packers' locker room. Cornerback Charles Woodson pleaded for a philosophical shift away from the mentality that he thought left officials no choice but to call pass interference on rookie safety Morgan Burnett with 1 minute, 44 seconds remaining in Monday night's game at Soldier Field.

"Somehow," Woodson said, "you've got to get away from letting quarterbacks throw the ball up for grabs when both players have engaged downfield and then you get the penalty and they get the ball at the [9]-yard line. That needs to change. That's heartbreaking for a team to battle all game and then it's always the offensive guy that gets that call. That has to change."

Woodson was blitzing on the play and didn't see it live. Perhaps he saw a scoreboard replay, but I have to agree with ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski. "That will be called every single time," Jaworski said during the live broadcast.

When you watch the replay, you see Burnett running to catch up with Bears receiver Earl Bennett at about the 10-yard line. Burnett first runs into Bennett and then wraps his right arm around Bennett's left hip. His hands remain in contact with Bennett even as he turns to look for the ball, which quarterback Jay Cutler had overthrown.

It's one thing to have contact as two players are playing the ball. Woodson has a point in arguing that those calls should be evened out or just wiped out altogether. But I don't see a time in the near future when NFL officials will allow defenders to grab and hold receivers before they turn to look for the ball themselves.

On to this week's Challenge Tracker:

Dirty Laundry: Possession standards

September, 15, 2010
9/15/10
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Calvin Johnson/Greg JenningsAP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times/Getty ImagesDetroit's Calvin Johnson, left, and Green Bay's Greg Jennings both had apparent touchdowns negated because they didn't maintain possession.
With one eye closed, I peaked at the mailbag Wednesday morning. Guess what? You filled it with more than 1,000 notes laced with understandable anger about Calvin Johnson's touchdown-turned-incompletion at the end of the Detroit Lions' 19-14 loss Sunday at Soldier Field. Some of the comments reflected an incomplete understanding of NFL rules, others questioned the interpretation of the rule in question and some offered suggestions for correcting what clearly is a problem moving forward.

In our inaugural 2010 Dirty Laundry post, I'd like to address your anger briefly, acknowledge there is more to the issue than a rule that doesn't make sense and humbly propose my own home-cooked solution.

First things first. Your anger was totally justified and I understand why it was directed toward me. I wrote the initial post pointing out the rule used to uphold the call. But many of you complained about a headline on our NFL index page that suggested Lions fans "get over it." To be clear, that sentiment was over the top and didn't reflect my thoughts.

Secondly, many of you were frustrated because I suggested the call was accurate based on the wording of the rule. I still believe that to be the case, but I will acknowledge that officials have some subjective burden here in determining when the so-called "process of the catch" is complete. Many of you wondered how far officials could take this point, and I understand what you're saying.

Regardless of those details, the call will stand. The bigger question is how the NFL can avoid overturning touchdowns that clearly pass the "smell test."

We first touched on this issue last season when Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings lost a touchdown under similar circumstances. Here's what I think: One way or the other, the NFL needs to standardize its rules for possession in the end zone. If it can get to that point, I think we can solve this problem.

Consider a running play or a reception made at say, the 20-yard line. All the runner or receiver needs to do is move the ball across the white plane while maintaining possession in order to score. It doesn't matter if a defender swipes the ball away a nanosecond later, or if the ball carrier is tackled after crossing and subsequently fumbles. It's a touchdown every time.

That's different than what happens in the field of play, obviously. A ball carrier can lose the ball at any point before he is ruled down. But that distinction provides a jumping-off point for addressing the "process of the catch" issue. In short, the NFL should eliminate the process requirement -- that a receiver maintain possession even after coming down with two feet in bounds -- only for plays in the end zone. Anything that happens afterward should be moot, just as with the runner who dives across the white line just before a linebacker knocks the ball away.

I realize we're not comparing apples to apples here. A running back who dives across the line has already established possession. A receiver who is leaping for the ball in the end zone has not, and the intent of this rule is to ensure the same standard for a catch regardless of where it happens.

But that equanimity doesn't make intuitive sense to me. It opens a slippery slope of determining how long to extend the play in the end zone before it is ruled a catch. In Johnson's case, the rule gave officials the leeway to make an incomplete call because the ball touched the ground a moment after he landed with both feet in bounds and the ball firmly in his grip.

So what would be the downside of standardizing a separate set of rules for possession in the end zone? The new rule would require receivers to land in the end zone with possession and two feet in bounds. If they do, it's a touchdown regardless of what happens next, just as with the ball carrier who breaks the plane and then loses the ball.

Defenders would lose the opportunity to break up the pass play, one that they would otherwise have on a pass to the 20-yard line. But I'd rather see that inequality than one that requires officials essentially to wait and see if a receiver loses possession after establishing it on a catch in the end zone.

That's just my two cents to add to the mix. As always, we'll close with our weekly NFC North Challenge Tracker, which looks at each coach's successes and failures in challenging officials' calls. In Week 1, Minnesota's Brad Childress was the only coach to throw the red flag.

Rewind'09: Dirty Laundry

January, 6, 2010
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Dirty Laundry was originally conceived as a way to track the success and failure of each NFC North coach in using their challenge flags. It morphed into a landing spot for discussion on any number of officiating issues, but let’s circle back this week on our first focus.

You can see the final Challenge Tracker numbers in the chart at the bottom of this post, according to official NFL figures. A few thoughts:
  • Packers coach Mike McCarthy led all NFL coaches with 14 challenges this season. The second closest was Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (11). Every circumstance is different, but I think McCarthy proved to have a more liberal approach than most other NFL coaches. He got away with throwing an illegal third challenge flag Nov. 15 against Dallas and admitted at midseason that “sometimes emotion gets involved in your decisions.”
  • Only six teams’ coaches threw the flag less than Detroit’s Jim Schwartz, who challenged six plays. I don’t know that I have a single explanation for that approach, but I thought it was interesting that Schwartz chastised himself this week for losing his cool too often on the sideline. “I lose my mind a lot of times during practice and during meetings and things like that,” he said. “During the game I’d rather not that be the case.” Did that limit his opportunities to think through the process of challenging calls? It probably didn’t help.
  • Chicago’s Lovie Smith got only two of his nine challenges overturned. That 22.2 percent rate was the fourth-worst mark in the NFL It’s never been one of Smith’s strong suits; his six-year rate is 32.7. Smith also created the biggest replay-related news story of the year when he challenged a play after first calling a timeout Dec. 13 against Green Bay. Officials upheld the original call, and the Bears lost two timeouts during the episode.
  • Minnesota coach Brad Childress challenged fewer plays than in any of his previous three seasons but finished with his best conversion rate (55.6). He had previously challenged 12 plays in 2006 and 11 in 2007 and 2008. This season’s rate was the seventh-best in the NFL.

Dirty Laundry: Replays and facemasks

December, 30, 2009
12/30/09
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I imagine many different thoughts and ideas poured forth when officials ruled that Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson had fumbled on the 14th play of overtime Monday night. Was his knee down? Will Minnesota challenge the ruling? And why did Peterson’s head twist awkwardly on his way to the ground?

For a moment, confusion reigned. Chicago’s offense hustled onto the field, hoping to run a play before a challenge occurred. Minnesota’s sideline stood idly before calling a timeout. What was going on?

The sequence gives us an opportunity to illustrate some details and limitations of the NFL’s instant replay system.

First, I’m sure a few people were caught off guard by the fact that coaches can’t challenge plays in overtime. Only the replay official can initiate a replay in overtime. That’s why the Vikings called a timeout instead of throwing a red flag -- to give the replay official more time to consider a review.

Second, there were two different questions about this play. Was it a legal fumble? And did Bears cornerback Zack Bowman grab Peterson’s facemask prior to the fumble? If called, the facemask would have reverted possession to the Vikings. (NFL rules state: "If the passing team is fouled and loses possession after a completion, enforcement is from the previous spot, and the ball will be retained by the passing team after enforcement of the personal foul.")

During a review, the replay official looks at every aspect of the play -- not just the original question. For example, an official might initiate a review to determine if a catch was legal but subsequently notice the quarterback was over the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball. If that was the case, he could issue a penalty on the quarterback regardless of whether it was originally contemplated.

So initially Monday night, I wondered if a review of the fumble would lead to a retroactive facemask penalty. Such instances are rare, but I confirmed with an NFL spokesman that the replay official has the option to expand his review in such ways.

As it turns out, a facemask is not a reviewable infraction. It falls under the "subjective" category that replay typically avoids.

Most everyone agrees that Peterson’s knee had not yet touched the ground when the ball popped loose. It was a legal fumble. But I was surprised at how split your opinion was on the facemask issue when I glanced through the mailbag. Jerry of Omaha wrote that Bowman’s hand "glanced off Peterson's facemask but didn't grab it. Your lack of objectivity is nauseating."

Tim of Grand Rapids, Minn., wrote: "Why is nobody mentioning the facemask on AP when he fumbled the ball? His head was yanked around and it may have been a contributing factor."

Minnesota coach Brad Childress said: "I thought his facemask got grabbed as he put the football on the ground which will do that sometimes, but still in all he’s got to keep that thing in our possession."

The replay seemed pretty evident to me. Peterson’s head turned sharply to the left at the same time Bowman grabbed it. I can see where officials missed it, considering the number of players in the area.

Facemask penalties get overlooked all the time for that reason. But in this case, it was a missed call at a particularly critical time in the game.

On to our updated Challenge Tracker:

Dirty Laundry: 'Indisputable' evidence

December, 23, 2009
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Alex of Gwinn, Miss., is mad as heck and not going to take it anymore. Here’s what Alex dropped into the mailbag: “In your opinion, was the overturned fumble caused by Clay Matthews the worst overturned challenge of the year? What happened to ‘indisputable visual evidence?’”

The play in question occurred late in the first quarter of Green Bay’s 37-36 loss at Pittsburgh. Referee John Parry’s crew originally ruled Matthews had sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a seven yard loss, causing a fumble that Matthews also recovered.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin challenged the play, arguing that Roethlisberger’s arm was moving forward before Matthews hit him. If true, NFL rules call for the play to be ruled an incomplete pass -- negating the sack and turnover.

As Alex notes, the NFL rule book is clear on how officials should approach replay reviews: “A decision will be reversed only when the Referee has indisputable visual evidence available that warrants the change.”

FOX’s camera crew offered a number of clear angles, and I just watched those replays a dozen times. I even slowed down the sequence to a frame-by-frame pace to see if, as NFL rules require, “the ball initially moves forward after leaving the passer’s hand.” I’m sorry, but I can’t see it.

There is a frame where Roethlisberger is holding the ball behind his head. Matthews’ right hand is outstretched and about an inch away from the ball. On the next frame, the collision has already occurred.

It’s possible that the ball moved forward a millisecond before Matthews’ hand arrived. But nothing I saw was indisputable. It wasn’t a matter of not having a camera angle; it was simply a very close call.

Even Roethlisberger seemed surprised the Steelers won the challenge. You don’t have to be a lip reader to know what he said after Parry reversed the call: “Wow.”

Ultimately, the decision resulted in 46 yards of lost field position for the Packers. Instead of taking over on the Steelers’ 27-yard line, they got it at their own 27 following a punt.

I don’t know if I would call it “the worst overturned challenge of the year,” but I don’t think this is the kind of play originally contemplated for instant replay.

On to our updated Challenge Tracker:

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