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Friday, September 23, 2011
Dirty Laundry: Dogged by the 'process'


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.

Jermichael Finley
The 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: