NFC West: officiating

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The St. Louis Rams are putting on the pads for their Saturday scrimmage in the Edward Jones Dome. This will be the second time during training camp the Rams have worn not only shoulder pads but also the hip, knee, thigh and tail pads mandated for games under a new NFL rule, a change coach Jeff Fisher called no big deal.

"We've had them on once and it was no big deal with anybody," Fisher said, "so we'll have them on [Saturday] and then we'll have them on the third time for the real deal -- the preseason game."

While putting on pads would seem like a logical move in a contact sport, some players are rolling their eyes. San Francisco 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin is one of them. I caught up with him at training camp recently and he said he's never worn leg pads in 10 NFL seasons.

"If guys want to wear pads, fine, but I don’t think it should be mandatory," Boldin said. "I think the NFL is doing it just to cover their butts. It is what it is."

An officiating crew led by umpire Garth DeFelice has been monitoring the 49ers' practices and providing tips on rules. However, game officials won't be the ones inspecting uniforms. They won't say anything if they see a player without pads. Instead, a league-hired inspector assigned to each stadium will monitor players and report violations to the officiating crew.

"Let's say the Rams come here to play," DeFelice said. "[The inspector] is going to look and say, 'No. 27 doesn't have knee pads. Make him put them in.' So, we're going to go to 27 and say, 'Get out, you have no knee pads.' That's all we're going to do."

If the player returns to the game without pads and the inspector informs officials of the violation, the crew will assess a 5-yard penalty. Another violation in the same game would lead to a player ejection.

Note: I'll be traveling home Saturday, processing interviews and working on the "Camp Confidential" file for the 49ers, currently set for Sunday. Have a great day.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, frustrated over the absence of a late pass-interference call in Super Bowl XLVII, might not embrace a stat ESPN's John Clayton dug up for his latest "Inside the Huddle" video (above). I can help on that front, however.

"In the past 110 playoff games," Clayton reports, "there have been only one defensive holding call and two pass interference calls in the final two minutes."

Good note, and as Clayton reveals, one of those defensive pass interference calls went against the 49ers' Tarell Brown in the divisional playoffs this season.

What about the other one? Glad I asked.

The other pass-interference penalty during the final two minutes of a playoff game helped the Seattle Seahawks force overtime against Green Bay in a wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field following the 2003 season. Referee Bernie Kukar's crew flagged Packers linebacker Nick Barnett for interfering with Seahawks tight end Itula Mili on a third-and-goal play from the 6-yard line. Fifty-nine seconds remained in regulation. The pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Mili had fallen incomplete. The Packers led, 27-20.

The penalty against Barnett gave the Seahawks first-and-goal from the 1. Shaun Alexander scored on the next play and the game went to overtime, where the Packers won on Al Harris' interception return.

So, there is at least some precedent for officials to call pass interference in a goal-to-go situation during the final minutes of a tightly-contested playoff game.

"I would say it exactly like Bill Polian," Harbaugh told 95.7 The Game in San Francisco. "A penalty is a penalty no matter when it occurs in a game. It could occur in the first play of the game. It could occur on the last play of the game, or any play in between. That's the rules of football."
The Super Bowl officiating horse isn't quite dead, but it's taking a pounding. There's no reason to keep pounding it without advancing the conversation.

Mike Pereira, the former NFL officiating vice president working for Fox, advanced it during a recent conversation with KNBR radio in San Francisco. The transcript from sportsradiointerviews.com highlights a few reasons why Pereira thought officials were correct in calling no penalty against Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith on the 49ers' fourth-and-goal pass for Michael Crabtree in the final minutes:
  • No holding: The ball was in the air when Smith and Crabtree were contacting one another, according to Pereira. That eliminates holding or illegal contact as possible calls. Pass interference then becomes the only potential call. San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was pleading for a holding call after the play.
  • No protest: Crabtree did not demonstrably plead for a penalty flag after the play. Players often complain even when there's no foul. The absence of a complaint in such a high-stakes situation suggests Crabtree had none.
  • Fade route: There's usually going to be contact on a fade route, Pereira noted. The rulebook reads, "If there is any question whether player contact is incidental, the ruling should be no interference."
  • Speed of game: Pereira thought slow-motion replays exaggerate the effects of contact. He pointed to analyst Phil Simms' initial reactions to the real-time play as accurate.

I would have appreciated a more technical review of pass interference rules. Pereira referred to "any type of material restriction that would’ve kept Crabtree from making the catch" as the standard. He specifically singled out the term "material restriction" as appearing in the rulebook. My version of the rulebook uses that phrase in association with illegal blocks, not in relation to interference.

My version of the rulebook outlines the following acts as pass interference, among others that are not listed:
  • Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent's opportunity to make the catch.
  • Playing through the back of an opponent in an attempt to make a play on the ball.
  • Grabbing an opponent's arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass.
  • Extending an arm across the body of an opponent, thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, and regardless of whether the player committing such act is playing the ball.
  • Hooking an opponent in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the opponent's body to turn prior to the ball arriving.
  • Initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass.

The rulebook then outlines the following acts, among others that are unnamed, as "permissible" ones:
  • Incidental contact by an opponent's hands, arms or body when both players are competing for the ball, or neither player is looking for the ball. If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference.
  • Inadvertent tangling of feet when both players are playign the ball or neither player is playing the ball.
  • Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players, except as specified in 8-3-2 and 8-5-4 pertaining to blocking downfield by the offense.
  • Laying a hand on an opponent that does not restrict him in an attempt to make a play on the ball.
  • Contact by a player who has gained position on an opponent in an attempt to catch the ball

A notation beneath this section then specifies that eligible offensive and defensive players have the same right to the path of the ball and are subject to the same restrictions.

Around the NFC West: Two strong takes

February, 5, 2013
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Good morning. The NFL offseason is officially here, but the San Francisco 49ers' experience in Super Bowl XLVII will remain a topic for discussion this week, I am sure.

We've got some strong takes to run through this morning.



Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune thinks the Super Bowl officials messed up royally by failing to call holding against Baltimore's Jimmy Smith on the 49ers' final offensive play.

"Analysts have argued that the refs won’t make that call in a game-deciding situation, or that the contact was mutual and that sort of thing had been tolerated throughout," he writes. "But when a defender is going Greco-Roman on a receiver, and has such a grasp that the jersey is being pulled, it should be a penalty at any point in the game."

You'll be likely to agree if you watch the play enough times in slow motion. I thought throwing a flag would have been worse than not throwing one, but if the NFL were to study that play outside its dramatic context -- essentially treating it as though it were a play from a preseason game as opposed to one potentially deciding a Super Bowl -- would the league consider that a penalty or not?

I'm also interested in revisiting the interception 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw. Retired linebacker Bill Romanowski called out receiver Randy Moss for failing to make sufficient effort on the play. I saw the play live, but with travel considerations, I wasn't able to watch the game closely on replay. I'll have a chance now.

Linebackers such as Romanowski don't always sympathize with receivers such as Moss. I'll study that play realizing Romanowski probably expects receivers to play the way linebackers play. Most of them do not.
A quick layover in Denver allowed me to rejoin the Super Bowl aftermath conversation via Twitter.

Officiating remained prominent on San Francisco 49ers fans' minds. That's fine by me. Even if you think the Baltimore Ravens played better and deserved to win Super Bowl XLVII -- that is my view, even though expressing it caused one guy to click Twitter's unfollow button in frustration -- there is no rule against discussing how officiating affected the game.

We'll see for years to come clips of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh pleading for a holding call against Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith on the 49ers' last-ditch attempt to win the game on fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line. It's a permanent part of the conversation.

Win probability calculations showed the 49ers having a 32 percent chance of winning the game before that fourth-and-5 play. The incomplete pass dropped the 49ers' chances to 6 percent. The change of 26 percentage point was the largest for any play in the game, according to Albert Larcada of ESPN Stats & Information.

A penalty against the Ravens would have given the 49ers first-and-goal from the 1-yard line with one timeout remaining. Their win probability would have jumped to 55 percent in that situation. The difference between 6 percent with no call and 55 percent with a call made the officials' ruling worth about one-half of a victory.

Some have also asked about the play when the Ravens blatantly held multiple 49ers players in the end zone, allowing Baltimore punter Sam Koch to run time off the clock before taking a safety. Officials clearly should have flagged the Ravens for holding on the play. While doing so would not have changed the result of the play, officials are supposed to call penalties when they see them regardless of circumstances to promote the integrity of the game. It's not their job to determine whether a penalty would really matter.

Questions about calls that mattered gain more traction amid evidence officials looked the other way in other situations.

One more thing: Rules would have allowed the 49ers to call for a fair catch on the Ravens' free kick following the safety. Doing so would have compelled San Francisco to attempt a field goal on the next play -- in this case, from the San Francisco 19-yard line.

The Arizona Cardinals tried this unsuccessfully during a 2008 game against the New York Giants. In such a case, the kicking team can execute a drop kick or a use a holder, but all kicks must be executed without a tee. Also, there would be no snap on these plays. Defensive players would have to stand 10 yards off the ball while the kicking team attempted the try.

Boger gets high marks from his doubter

February, 4, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- The officiating website footballzebras.com made headlines before Super Bowl XLVII by questioning Jerome Boger's appointment to the game as referee.

Despite complaints from San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Boger and his crew members got high marks from the website for their handling of the game.

Footballzebras.com founder Ben Austro's only significant complaint was for failing to limit post-play antics. Austro thought the Ravens' Cary Williams should have been ejected for shoving an official. But the interference and holding penalties Harbaugh wanted called against Baltimore during the game's frantic final moments did not represent errors in officiating, according to the website.

"When a receiver runs a route right at a defensive back and bumps him, there is an acceptable amount of holding that does happen, because the receiver initiated the holding," Austro wrote. "In this case, there was mutual pushing, so it all waves off. There needed to be a more egregious restriction of the receiver in order to draw a foul."

Former NFL officiating boss Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, also supported the non-call in that situation. My own view was that throwing a flag would have been worse than not throwing one. The play was still frustrating from a 49ers standpoint. Anyone in Harbaugh's situation would have wanted a call as well.

"Together, it was an even-called game," Austro wrote. "The points of disagreement were true judgment calls; there wasn’t anything that really moved out of a gray area throughout the game."

A closer look at Super Bowl referee

January, 30, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- Jerome Boger is the referee assigned to work Super Bowl XLVII.

Don't yawn just yet.

The NFL's handling of the assignment, while already under unprecedented scrutiny, will become a much bigger story if an officiating miscue influences the outcome between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

Boger's assignment to the game has generated controversy amid accusations the NFL reversed eight negative marks from his report card.

The implication, spelled out by the officiating website footballzebras.com, is that the NFL went out of its way to assign Boger to the game in the interests of promoting racial diversity. The NFL has denied this happened.

Footballzebras.com has taken officiating coverage to new levels in a short period of time. We're left wondering to what degree the Boger report reflects legitimate concerns or sour grapes from anonymously quoted officials feeling jilted over their own standing within the officiating hierarchy.

Whatever the case, Boger finds himself under unusual pregame scrutiny through no fault of his own. He worked the 49ers' divisional-round victory over Green Bay without incident. He previously worked three other divisional-round games. He has never worked a conference championship game or Super Bowl.

As we noted back in October, Boger's crews have called a league-high number of holding penalties against interior defensive linemen. That was notable at the time because New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had recently suggested 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith "gets away with murder" by holding opponents to free up outside linebacker Aldon Smith for sacks.

Boger's crew has called a league-high 18 holding penalties against defensive linemen since 2008. That is about triple the average and six more than runner-up Ed Hocholi's crew. Boger's crew called zero such penalties this season, however. Crew tendencies can be difficult to discern because officals work a relatively small number of games. Also, regular-season trends might not hold up because the NFL shifts to all-star crews for the playoffs.

The first chart shows where Boger's crew has ranked in number of penalties called over the past three seasons. The NFL has maintained 17 crews. I've singled out a few choice penalties for display in the chart. The row showing personal fouls reflects calls labeled as unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness and general personal fouls. Other 15-yard penalties are not included.

Boger's crew members called many of the penalties listed in the chart, of course. Referees are primarily responsible for roughing-the-passer and some holding calls. The NFL spells out each official's responsibilities on its website.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jerome Boger is the referee assigned to the San Francisco 49ers' divisional-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday.

Boger is working with an all-star crew, customary for the playoffs. Regular-season crew tendencies might not apply as much.

With an assist from ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together a chart showing 49ers games Boger has worked over the years.

Boger worked the 49ers' memorable 27-24 defeat at Minnesota in 2009. Brett Favre's late touchdown pass, not the officiating, made that one memorable.

Last season, Boger's crew negated a Michael Crabtree touchdown at Cincinnati, ruling that the receiver had stepped out of bounds. The call was questionable, in my view, and former officiating director Mike Pereira agreed. Also in that game, Boger called a false-start penalty against "the entire offensive line" of the 49ers.

More recently, Boger was the ref for the 49ers' 45-3 victory against Buffalo.

LANDOVER, Md. -- A few thoughts from the FedEx Field press box as the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins warm up on the field about 30 yards away:
  • Peter Morelli is the referee. The Redskins have to hope officials watch closely for the aggressive tactics Seattle's cornerbacks use in coverage. Morelli's crew called only two of 62 penalties for illegal contact in the NFL this season. His crew was right at the NFL average with 17 calls for defensive pass interference. His crew was ranked tied for second with 12 penalties for defensive holding. Here's the deal, though: Morelli's crew is not working this game. It's an all-star crew. Referees are directly responsible for calling roughing the passer. Morelli called four such penalties this season, right at the NFL average.
  • The word on Morelli. Football Zebras is increasingly becoming a resource for officiating analysis. Its thoughts on Morelli: "Pete Morelli always gives a yeoman-like performance; he’s not going to win you over with style points, but he runs a tight ship." Note that the NFL removed head linesman Dana McKenzie from this game to avoid potential conflict with Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall stemming from a previous incident.
  • White on white. The Seahawks are wearing their white pants and white jerseys for this game.
  • Watch for tight ends. The Redskins have allowed 10 touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season. Only Houston (11) and Denver (11) have allowed more. The Seahawks' Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy could be players to watch. Each had three touchdown receptions during the regular season. Seattle's tight ends had zero touchdowns during the 2011 season.
  • Putting on the clamps. Seattle has allowed 10 touchdown passes to opposing wide receivers. That ranks fifth in the league and is in line with some of the Seahawks' division rivals. The top five in fewest scoring passes allowed to wideouts: Atlanta Falcons 7, San Francisco 49ers 9, Cincinnati Bengals 10, Seahawks 10, St. Louis Rams 10. Arizona ranked 15th with 14 allowed.
  • Guard in cross hairs.. The Seahawks think rookie right guard J.R. Sweezy has Pro Bowl potential. They're also taking a risk playing such an inexperienced player against a team known for unleashing confusing blitzes. Sweezy struggled against Arizona in the opener and again, at times, against St. Louis in Week 17. He did not play much in between. I'll be watching to see how well he handles protections.

The teams will be announcing inactive players soon. I'm not expecting big surprises. Of course, If I were expecting big surprises, they wouldn't be surprises.

NFC West penalty watch: Goldson's fine

December, 21, 2012
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Objections to NFL fines for unnecessary roughness fall into a couple categories.

Some objections pertain to the rules themselves. Others pertain to rules interpretations.

The first category should cover objections to the $21,000 fine levied against San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson for a Week 15 hit on New England's Aaron Hernandez.


Goldson struck Hernandez in the head area with his own helmet while Hernandez qualified for protection as a defenseless receiver. That's a penalty under the rules.

The 49ers incurred a 15-yard penalty for this particular play. They still came out ahead. The hit rocked Hernandez. On the next play, Hernanez failed to make an aggressive play for a ball, enabling an interception.

Safeties in particular walk a line on these types of plays. They want to dissuade opposing teams from throwing over the middle. They also want to keep their paychecks and avoid potential suspensions.

As the NFL continues to penalize players for hits to the head, we should expect defenders to adjust by lowering their target areas. Opponents could suffer fewer concussions, but taking hard hits to the ribs, back and abdomen is no fun, either.

In this case, Hernandez qualified as defenseless under the rule protecting "a receiver attempting to catch a pass, or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner."

Goldson was flagged under rules prohibiting "forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him."

Scoring changes affect Brady, Kaepernick

December, 21, 2012
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The Total QBR scores for Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick have changed slightly after the NFL made changes to the official play-by-play account from the San Francisco-New England game Sunday night.

The first change involved the interception return for 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers against Brady with 8:02 left in the first quarter. The return was for 63 yards. It had been listed previously as a 53-yard return. Brady's QBR score for the week is now 57.0. Fifty is considered roughly average.

The other change involved a pass from Kaepernick with 7:39 remaining in the first quarter. The pass has been changed from one covering minus-5 yards to one covering zero yards. That means Kaepernick has 221 yards passing, not 216. It also means Delanie Walker has 34 yards receiving, and the Patriots' Aqib Talib gets credit for a 5-yard fumble recovery. That change upped Kaepernick's QBR score from 87.1 to 87.7.

Separately, the latter play should have been ruled as an incomplete pass, the NFL determined in its weekly officiating review. Walker did not possess the ball long enough to make a football move, as required by rules.

"This actually never went to review," Dean Blandino of the NFL office said. "The replay official confirmed it upstairs without bringing the referee over and that is a mistake."

The 49ers were driving deep in Patriots territory at the time.

Quick look at rule cited on 49ers-Pats punt

December, 16, 2012
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Referee Ed Hochuli and crew needed an extended period to sort out what happened when the San Francisco 49ers' Ted Ginn Jr. risked muffing a punt against the New England Patriots on Sunday night.

It was tough to see whether the ball struck Ginn before New England recovered. Hochuli awarded possession to the 49ers based on Rule 9, Section 2, Article 2 from the 2012 rulebook. That rule states:
" 'First touching' is when a player of the kicking team touches a scrimmage kick that is beyond the line of scrimmage before it has been touched by a player of the receiving team beyond the line. If the ball is first touched by a player of the kicking team, it remains in play.

"First touching is a violation, and the receivers shall have the option of taking possession of the ball at the spot of first touching, provided no penalty is accepted on the play, or at the spot where the ball is dead. First touching does not offset a foul by the receivers. There may be multiple 'first touch' spots, if more than one player of the kicking team touches the ball before it is touched by a player of the receiving team."

That was a confusing sequence. Thanks to K.C. Joyner for pointing the the specific part of the rulebook covering that play. The 49ers hold a 14-3 lead and are driving deep in Patriots territory.

Cardinals, Seahawks draw 49ers-Rams ref

December, 9, 2012
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SEATTLE -- Carl Cheffers, the referee assigned to work the Arizona-Seattle game Sunday, was the same one presiding over two controversial scoring plays earlier this season.

Cheffers' crew incorrectly allowed a Carolina touchdown to stand during the Panthers' 21-13 victory over Washington in Week 9.

The NFL issued a statement acknowledging the error.

Last week, Cheffers' crew worked the San Francisco-St. Louis game featuring multiple questionable calls. According to former NFL officiating director Mike Pereira, the crew erred in calling intentional grounding against 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The penalty resulted in a safety, helping the Rams force overtime in a game they won, 16-13. The 49ers disputed the call. Cheffers' crew also called roughing the passer against he Rams' Robert Quinn, who was not fined on the play.

The website Football Zebras grades officials each week, projecting which ones will qualify for postseason work. The site suggests Cheffers' crew is having a rough year and will not qualify. The site says Mike Carey, who worked the Seattle-Chicago game last week, has been assigned to the 49ers' game against Miami in Week 14.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made headlines after Week 7 for asking the NFL whether Seattle's cornerbacks were playing too aggressively.

Seven weeks later, he might want to ask the league whether officials have anything against his own team.

The 49ers are averaging 9.6 accepted and declined penalties per game since defeating the Seahawks in that Week 7 game. Only St. Louis (10.6) has averaged more penalties per game over that period.

San Francisco averaged 6.9 penalties per game previously. The team was tied for the 11th-fewest penalties in the NFL through Week 6.

The chart shows holding penalties accounting for an additional two total penalties per game. The 49ers have been averaging fewer penalties for defensive pass interference and tripping in particular, but not enough to offset gains in other areas.

"That’s something that we’ve got to get a lasso around real quick," offensive coordinator Greg Roman told reporters this week. "49er football is smart, tough, opportunistic football, and penalties certainly don’t fit into that equation.

"We just had too many of them. Some of them we personally didn’t agree with and are just looking for some explanation on, and hopefully we can learn from that and move on."

Mike Iupati (four), C.J. Spillman (three), Aldon Smith (three), Chris Culliver (three) and Ahmad Brooks (three) have the most penalties among 49ers players from Week 8 to present.

Spillman (four), Dashon Goldson (four), Joe Staley (four) and Carlos Rogers (four) had the most among 49ers players through Week 7.

Meanwhile, officials have called fewer penalties per game against Seattle's defensive backs since Harbaugh commented on their play. The average has dropped from 3.3 penalties per game to 2.0 per game.

Why there was no 10-second runoff Sunday

November, 28, 2012
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The Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks were tied in the final minute Sunday when officials flagged Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews for illegal motion.

Some have asked why the penalty did not necessitate a 10-second clock runoff.

The answer is simpler to understand than the reasoning behind the rule. Basically, penalties for illegal motion do not stop the clock. In this case, the Dolphins spiked the ball right after the motion penalty. While the penalty negates the play for statistical purposes, it does not negate the result of the play, which was a spiked pass and automatic clock stoppage.

Had the Dolphins been guilty of a false start, that penalty would have stopped the clock, in which case the penalty would have given Miami an advantage, in which case two things could have happened. Officials could have run 10 seconds off the clock, or the Dolphins could have elected to burn their final timeout.

As things worked out, the Dolphins took the penalty. They saved their timeout and had plenty of time to run down the clock before attempting the winning field goal.

Previously: Scott Linehan, then head coach of the St. Louis Rams, wasn't happy when a similar interpretation helped the Seahawks claim a 2006 victory against his team.

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