NFC West: Phil Luckett

The NFL rulebook is far more detailed than one might realize.

The 2011 version ran 113 pages and included information such as how a referee should rule if an NFL coach sends all his players, not just captains, to the middle of the field for the pregame coin toss (ruling: loss of coin-toss option for both halves and loss of 15 yards on the opening kickoff).

There's a lot to know, and good reason for concern as the NFL prepares to use replacement officials while the regular ones remain without contracts. But we should also remember what happened when the NFL used replacement officials to open the 2001 regular season. The games continued without incident.

"No major controversies in Week 1", an ESPN.com headline read afterward.

"I thought they did a great job," Eric Moulds, then a receiver for the Buffalo Bills, said in the story.

I was a beat reporter covering the Seattle Seahawks for those 2001 opening games. A check through the stories I filed from Seattle's 9-6 victory at Cleveland found only passing reference to the replacement officials. The sixth item in an eight-item notebook I filed spanned 61 words and featured then-coach Mike Holmgren, a man never afraid to criticize officials, saying the replacements "did a good job" that day.

Even future union leader Kevin Mawae, then a New York Jets center, gave the replacements a vote of approval: "I thought they did a good job. ... Even the regular guys miss a few calls from time to time, so for the most part they did a good job."

Critics of the current replacements have resorted to picking nits over errors made during exhibition games.

One current replacement ref had to issue a correction after messing up the coin-toss announcement at the Hall of Fame game. Big deal. Remember Phil Luckett?

Another replacement official signaled touchback for a punt downed at the 4-yard line, a call overturned on replay. That miscue was laughable, but just last season, regular officials missed a yard-line spot by five yards, as San Francisco 49ers fans should recall.

"The officiating crew incorrectly spotted the ball at the Detroit 35 instead of the 40, where Ted Ginn went out of bounds," the NFL said in a statement after the 49ers' victory at Detroit.

It's possible the current replacements aren't as good as the ones used in 2001. Perhaps they're even far worse. Those are difficult things to know. People sounding the alarms probably haven't studied the officials all that closely. They wouldn't know.

Most of the outrage stems, I suspect, from people unsympathetic to a wealthy league playing hardball against officials earning relatively small sums for their work. I'm sure they'll pounce if the replacements do make significant errors, but even the most established officials can make them.
Brees/FavreUS Presswire/AP PhotoBrett Favre, right, never got a chance in overtime in last season's NFC Championship Game, as the Saints won the coin toss and Drew Brees drove New Orleans to a game-winning field goal.
A coin toss is no way to settle any NFL game, let alone a classic playoff battle or, worse, the Super Bowl.

ESPN's John Clayton and I can agree on that.

The prospect of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or any elite quarterback never touching the football during overtime keeps league executives awake at night, or at least during meetings of the competition committee. There's a decent chance those meetings will produce changes to overtime rules for the playoffs, a subject Clayton and I will try to resolve in regulation.

Mike Sando: Greetings, professor, and welcome to the NFC West blog. Aren't you on the competition committee?

John Clayton: Not quite, Mike, but if I were, I'd be inclined to vote for change. The current overtime rules are fine for the regular season. Why have a cheap overtime victory in the playoffs?

MS: This might be a good time to formally introduce the proposed rules change. Both teams would get at least one possession in overtime unless one team scored a touchdown on the first possession. This would prevent a team from moving quickly into range for the winning field goal before the other team had a chance to get its offense on the field. And I get that part of it. No one wants to see kickers trump quarterbacks. But let's also not forget about the first four quarters. Both quarterbacks have plenty of chances to win games during regulation. Let's not tinker with rules lightly.

JC: What I like is it's only going to be in the playoffs. Since 2002, there have been five times in the playoffs in which a quarterback turned the overtime coin toss into a victory. Quarterbacks are getting very good at taking drives down the field in two-minute situations. It's becoming more frequent. It happened only once from 1958 until 2002.

MS: Right, but the new rule wouldn't have affected all of those games. Peyton Manning never touched the football in overtime of the Colts' wild-card playoff defeat at San Diego a year ago. His team scored 17 points in regulation, took a knee on the final play and then watched San Diego put together a 10-play, 75-yard drive to the winning touchdown. The right team won that game and the right team wins most of them. I can't remember feeling shortchanged after watching a kicker win a playoff game in overtime. I'm also not a big fan of having different rules for the playoffs. Football should be football, right?

JC: Sudden death would turn into sudden deferral if the league applied this proposed rule to the regular season. At least in playoff games, you're always trying to win.

MS: We've gone from 15 ties per season from 1962 to 1973 to less than one tie per season over the last 36. That's a good thing.

JC: The current rule was put together in 1974 to stop ties, and it worked. That is the function of these rules. It minimizes the chance for ties. At least when you get into the playoffs, there are no ties. They will play until somebody scores. And then it starts to make sense to take advantage of a chance to have a second possession, the chance to neutralize a field goal. Why have a cheap overtime victory in the playoffs as opposed to one where you earn it? In the regular season, if you go to a mandatory two possessions in OT, now all of a sudden you're eating 8 minutes off the clock and there's a better chance for a tie because there's no second OT.

MS: I'm not feeling much urgency on this one. There's too much emphasis on everything having to be perfectly fair. The current rules aren't perfect, but this is football, not the legal system. I didn't have a problem with Brett Favre never touching the ball in overtime against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings botched the end of regulation and deserved to lose and we all know what happened the last time Favre had possession during overtime in a playoff game. He threw it to the other team.

Winning or losing by a field goal is part of football. There's nothing cheap about a kicker coming through in the clutch and getting mobbed by his teammates. Those kicks aren't gimmes under pressure, as kickers demonstrated last postseason. They're dramatic precisely because the game's outcome hangs in the balance. I also think it's vital for the league to consider unintended consequences for any rule change. More on that in a bit. Before we go any further, what are the odds of this rules change even passing when owners get together in Orlando for their spring meetings later this month?

JC: I would give it only about a 45 percent chance even though it’s a good proposal. The main problem for passage is that there are a lot of traditionalists in the NFL -- the Bidwills in Arizona, Mike Brown in Cincinnati. They are typically going to say no because they don't like change. There has always been a block that was against replay and a block against rules such as this one. But that 45 percent chance is the best chance for an overtime rules change in many years.

MS: Let's say the new rule passes and the allegedly great threat of cheap overtime field goals in the postseason is ended. The final minutes of regulation in a tie game might feel a little different. I wonder if teams might be more inclined to play for overtime, perhaps lowering the stakes in regulation. We should also consider how games might change after one team scores a field goal on the first possession of overtime. The second team would never punt, but there might be less drama in the knowledge that an answering field goal would buy additional time.

JC: As you know, Mike, I think one of the great parts of the game now is how the elite quarterbacks work the two-minute offense. The beauty of this rule change is that I don’t think it’s going to change it too much. Because of the possibility of a team losing the coin toss and giving up a touchdown drive that might lose the game, I think the quarterbacks will still drive for the winning score in regulation rather than just settle for overtime. That would be different in the regular season. Teams without elite quarterbacks would turn defensive and just settle for the overtime game. In the playoffs nowadays, you have to have an elite quarterback. You’re only talking about one or two playoff games a year in overtime. I’m not concerned as much about watching the punter. I’m concerned about seeing the elite quarterback. This rule change should pass because it doesn’t dampen the excitement of a playoff game. That might happen if you just go to the two-possession rule. The touchdown factor for the first possession puts this one over the top.

MS: We're out of time, which can only mean one thing. Let's flip a coin and settle this thing. Where's Phil Luckett when you need him?

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


Espe from Seattle writes: Hi, I was reading your blog and came across the seattlepi.com article calling for Justin Forsett and I really have to agree with it. Julius Jones has 27 carries for 128 yards, but those numbers are a little skewed thanks to the 62 yard run against the Rams. Without that run, he has 26 carries for 66 yards a very poor 2.53 yards per carry. He also isn't that much of a threat in the passing game, having five receptions for only 17 yards.

On the other hand, Justin Forsett has eight carries for 52 yards, six catchs for 57 yards and they use him a lot on third down because he is a very good in pass protection. People say he doesn't have the speed, but I dont think he needs the speed because he himself says he has great acceleration and with the blocking scheme, I think he is a more suited back than Julius Jones.

Mike Sando: Long runs do count and the Seahawks should know this better than most after watching Frank Gore bust 79- and 80-yard runs. Jones gets credit for that 62-yard run. Otherwise it's unfair to count Forsett's longer runs late in a game his team trailed by double digits. Jones is also very good in protection.

I think it's way too early to make a decision on the starting running back. Seattle has suffered quite a few changes up front. Jones hasn't had much of a chance to get going. It's also different carrying the ball on early downs in a close game. Forsett has never touched the ball with fewer than three wide receivers on the field. He has not run the ball in the base offense, in other words.

Six of Forsett's eight carries were on third down. He has touched the ball four times in the first halves of games. Forsett has shown enough, in my view, to start getting some carries earlier in games and as part of the base offense. But to suddenly install him as the starter would undermine Jones prematurely while rewarding a player who might not be ready or even suited for such an expanded role.

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