NFL Nation: Bill LEavy

NFL Nation Says: Rulebook complexity

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
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Chris JonesMatthew J. Lee/Getty ImagesThe penalty on Chris Jones brings up the question: Are NFL rules too complex?
Knowing the rules seems the most essential requirement for NFL players, coaches, executives and, yes, officials. So why has 2013 brought so much confusion about the league's official rulebook -- what it says, what it means and how it should be applied?

In examining the issue this week, ESPN's NFL Nation learned that the league will analyze and possibly streamline a set of rules that has grown unwieldy with exceptions, specific scenarios and archaic applications. Indeed, even some of the league's most experienced officials have tripped this season in applying rules.

The issue should come as no surprise, according to former NFL referee Gerry Austin, now an ESPN analyst. A decade's worth of adding nuances to prevent specific instances, not to mention the expansion of instant replay, have taken its toll.

"Over the last 10 or 12 years there have been some changes in rules and interpretations," Austin said. "Up until that point, there were some truly basic guidelines that an official on the field could follow and apply in application of the rules. Now, one overriding factor is that every rule has numerous exceptions. Those all came about when an instance would occur and decision would be made to incorporate it into the rulebook. Now the NFL rulebook has such a large number of exceptions and that adds to the complexity of things. We always had a hard-core basic set of application guidelines and process, and I think that maybe over the past 12 years those got messed with some."

According to Austin, there is hope that NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino will conduct "an in-depth analysis and see where they can bring some of those changes back to the center, so you can get back to a core application of the rules instead of saying, 'This rule applies except …"

In a statement, NFL spokesman Michael Signora said the league is "constantly studying ways we can improve all facets of our game, including officiating. … That includes a rigorous review of the rules, which we analyze each season to identify areas for improvement. The goal of our officiating department is the consistent application of the rules across the board. If there are aspects of the rules we can simplify to aid in that effort, we will work with the Competition Committee to recommend those changes."

The complexities have at least contributed to a series of incorrect decisions, several of which occurred last weekend. Among the examples:

  • Referee Bill Leavy misapplied a dead-ball foul in Week 1, resulting in the San Francisco 49ers playing the wrong down. In Week 3, Leavy administered the wrong enforcement of a penalty against Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier for challenging an automatically reviewed play.
  • A Week 7 discussion between Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz and a member of referee Scott Green's crew ended with the agreement that an apparent forward pass after a blocked kick was not reviewable. In a statement released after the game, the NFL confirmed it was.
  • In Sunday night's game at Lucas Oil Stadium, referee Carl Cheffers lost track of an exception to the rule that gives a defense time to match an offense's substitutions. The rule doesn't apply in the final two minutes of a half, and it cost the Denver Broncos about 10 seconds as their comeback attempt fell short.
  • Referee Jerome Boger correctly penalized the New England Patriots for a never-before called infraction on a field-goal attempt. After the game and the following morning, Patriots coach Bill Belichick revealed he hadn't fully understood the intricacies of the rule himself.

None of these mistakes were issues of judgment. Coaches and officials weren't arguing whether a receiver was interfered with, or if an offensive lineman was holding or whether a running back got the ball past the first-down marker. They were a simple confusion of facts by officials who take weekly rule tests and discuss the answers in pregame meetings.

Technically, there are 17 rules listed in the 2013 NFL rulebook. Those 17 rules, however, are spread out in tiny type over a 121-page document in PDF form. That should give you some idea of the nuance now inherent in playing, administering and managing an NFL game. Is it reasonable to expect officials, let alone coaches and players, to have it all on quick mental recall during a game? ESPN's NFL Nation questioned a cross-section of the league to find out:

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"You've got to be able to take what's on the page [of the rulebook] and you've got to be able to say, 'OK, how are we going to coach this?' That's a process I go through with the officials every week. You send stuff into the officials for a reason. You don't send it in and say, 'You guys were wrong.' You send it in for, 'Now we have to coach our team going forward. Tell us what you're going to do here.' That [push play] is a great example. We're going to show that play to our team and reaffirm what you can and can't do and what the officials' interpretation is going to be."

-- Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, as told to ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer


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"I think the hard part is there is no real consistency in the way it's called, because it's a human [element], and the referees have to interpret. They do the best they can. That's the thing you have to understand. It's hard. … I don't think there are too many rules. The rules that are being made is because of the safety element."

-- Panthers coach Ron Rivera, as told to ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton


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"I heard that that one [field goal rule] was voted on by the players. So that's a rule that you have to abide by. They're stated pretty clearly. Sometimes you obviously have issues with some calls, but for the most part you understand all the rules. Sometimes some rulings can be ambiguous, but if you're penalized for something, especially at your own position, you know [the rule]."

-- Bills center Eric Wood, as told to ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak


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"The whole game has become more sophisticated over time, you've got to try to stay on top of things. I haven't gone back to count or anything, but the rulebook is thicker now, for sure. But playbooks are thicker now, too, on both sides of the ball. Things evolve, that's how it is."

-- Broncos coach John Fox, as told to ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold


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"There's a lot of [rules], all right? There's a lot of them and sometimes it's hard to keep them all straight, but that's part of what our job is and that falls on me as the head coach to make sure our players are informed of what the rules are and make sure that we don't have those costly penalties. But yeah, there's a lot of rules."

-- Raiders coach Dennis Allen, as told to ESPN Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez


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"There's a lot rules. We're asked to keep track of them, so I'm sure it's not too many for the referees and officials to keep track. It is difficult. It is difficult for us to know each and every time what is the right play in that situation. The rules are put in to protect the game, protect the players so you have to adhere to them."

-- Steelers safety Ryan Clark, as told to ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown


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"You could pull out something that happens on every play, but they're not going to throw that flag on every play. So it is a little weird at times with some of the calls, but they're trying to do the best they can in protecting people and getting all the rules straight. But it does get to the point where you're like, 'Huh? What?' Because all these games are real close. All these games are very close and games are going into overtime and everything matters. So if it's a little ticky-tack foul that they think they can just call or whatever, that can hurt the game."

-- Bengals WR Marvin Jones, as told to ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey


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"Yeah, I do actually [have a grasp or know all the rules], because you know why, because our coaches talk about it. Now, the better question is: Do I think New England knew that was the rule [prohibiting pushing a player into the line on a field goal attempt] and tried to get away with it? Most definitely. They coached it. And that's fine, because you're gonna get away with some things."

-- Saints guard Jahri Evans, as told to ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett


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"On a business side, I'll say no, I don't think they have too many rules because they have to cover themselves. From a player's point of view and just playing, I think there are too many rules."

-- Lions guard Rob Sims, as told To ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein


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"It's probably tougher on [officials] to remember everything or it's tougher on them to make the call when they know it's an infraction that could change the game. It puts a little stress on then. But they definitely know it. And if they don't, a lot of time they've got help with replay and all kinds of stuff."

-- Packers DT Ryan Pickett, as told to ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky.
Just before halftime Thursday night, the San Francisco 49ers attempted a scoring opportunity that many fans never knew existed. Buried deep in the NFL's 114-page rulebook -- in Rule 10, Section 2, Article 4(a) -- is the acknowledgement that a team can attempt a free kick immediately after a fair catch.

Phil Dawson's 71-yard attempt was wide and short. Referee Jeff Triplette's crew administered all aspects of the play correctly and without hesitation. But the sudden introduction of such an obscure rule elevated a discussion many of us have been having this week: Has the league's rule structure grown too thick?

After all, veteran referee Bill Leavy has made two mistakes of basic rule application in the three games he has worked this season. Tony Corrente, another respected and experienced referee, added a third error by erroneously waving off a chop block last weekend in a game between the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers.

Is it fair to ridicule Leavy and Corrente for in essence not knowing the rules? Perhaps. But when two experienced officials separately fail to keep a nuance or rule exception straight in their heads, and when the rulebook can give birth to a play most people have never seen or heard of, have we reached a breaking point?

Mike Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating, is wondering the same. Now a Fox Sports analyst, Pereira said this week: "The question has to become, has this manifesto become a little bit too big and too confusing?"

In each instance, a caveat contributed to mis-applying the rule in question. A quick review:

In Week 1, Leavy forgot that a dead-ball foul does not call for a replay of the down. As a result, he put the 49ers in a third-down situation when it should have been fourth down.

In Week 3, Leavy penalized the Minnesota Vikings 15 yards after coach Leslie Frazier challenged an unreviewable call. The rule was rewritten this spring to penalize the team one timeout, rather than 15 yards, in such instances as long as the team had one available.

In Week 3, Corrente did not call a chop block on what was initially a Titans pass play but became a run when quarterback Jake Locker scrambled. Corrente announced that "there is no foul for a chop block because the play turned into a run," but he was wrong about that. A note attached to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 3 states that chop block rules also apply when "an offensive player indicates an apparent attempt to pass block, but the play ultimately becomes a run."

So what is the solution here? Will the long-term shift toward full-time status give officials a better chance to commit the rulebook to active memory? Should the league pare down its exceptions, caveats and other nuance? Would it help to hire and assign an additional official to sit in the press box, rulebook in hand, to help ensure proper application?

Cutting back the rulebook seems as daunting as rewriting the U.S. tax code. The other two suggestions are dependent on the league's financial commitment to officiating. One way or the other, however, the league must move to ensure a most basic expectation: That its officials know the rules.

NFL Week 3 Sunday Studs and Duds

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
10:20
PM ET
Week 3 left us with fewer wrinkles and slightly longer fingernails. After 22 of the first 32 games this season were decided by fewer than eight points, the majority of Sunday's games were double-digit blowouts.

The New York Giants absorbed a 38-0 licking from the Carolina Panthers. It got so ugly at CenturyLink Field that the Seattle Seahawks played backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson for the final 18 minutes, 54 seconds of their 45-17 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. And even one of the closer games, the New York Jets' 27-20 victory over the Buffalo Bills, wouldn't have been that close were it not for the Jets' team-record 20 penalties.

No further setup is needed for our weekly take on Sunday's best and worst performers:

STUDS

Richardson
1. The Trent Richardson trade, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts: The consensus analysis suggested that both teams won the trade that sent Richardson to the Colts for a first-round draft choice. For one week, at least, that analysis held up. The Browns let loose in an upset victory over Minnesota, scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal, setting up a field goal with a fake punt and letting new quarterback Brian Hoyer throw 54 times. The Browns looked like they were having too much fun to accept a tanking of the season; good for coach Rob Chudzinski and his staff. The Colts' acquisition of Richardson, meanwhile, paid off with a goal-line touchdown on his first carry and, more important, seemed to have inspired the presumably displaced Ahmad Bradshaw, who ran for 95 yards in the Colts' 27-7 victory over San Francisco.

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2. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins quarterback: Tannehill didn't put up the raw yardage as he did in previous victories over the Browns and Colts, but his fourth-quarter performance Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons was special. He threw on 12 of the 13 plays on the Dolphins' game-winning drive, completing nine -- including twice on third down -- for 69 yards and a 1-yard touchdown pass to receiver Dion Sims. No one seems quite sure where to classify Tannehill among his fellow quarterbacks in the 2012 draft class, but at this point, we can't ignore his role in Dolphins' first 3-0 start since 2002.

3. Rush offense, Dallas Cowboys: It's certainly worth nothing that tailback DeMarco Murray gashed the St. Louis Rams for 175 yards in an easy 31-7 victory. But this is one of those occasions where the running back shouldn't get all the credit for a big day. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 149 of Murray's yards came before contact. That means the Cowboys did a smart job with their play-calling relative to the Rams' scheme. It also suggests that the Cowboys' blockers did an exceptional job of keeping defenders away from him. It usually takes more than one to get it done, as the kids like to say. (Or maybe they don't. I just made that up.)

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4. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals coach: Lewis' team didn't make it pretty Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, beating the Green Bay Packers despite committing turnovers on four consecutive possessions at one point. So as the Bengals' highlight, I'll pick out Lewis' sharp and, it turns out, critical catch of a poor spot on an apparent Packers first down late in the fourth quarter. Replays confirmed that receiver Randall Cobb's knee touched the ground before the ball crossed the line to gain the first down. On the ensuing fourth-down play, the Bengals forced a fumble and Terence Newman returned it for the game-winning touchdown. It wouldn't have happened without Lewis' challenge. Last season, Lewis didn't get a call reversed. He's already had two in 2013.

5. Defense, New Orleans Saints: Rob Ryan's overhaul of this group continues to impress. No one has scored more than 17 points against the Saints this season, matching the number produced by their 2012 defense over 16 games. Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals managed just one score and 247 total yards in the Saints' 31-7 victory. One of the most encouraging factors has been the play of rookie safety Kenny Vacarro, who broke up a potential game-deciding touchdown in Week 1 and had a fourth-quarter interception Sunday.

DUDS

1. Decision-making, San Francisco 49ers: The team allowed linebacker Aldon Smith to play Sunday against the Colts, two days after he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. Immediately after the game, Smith and the team confirmed he would leave indefinitely to "get better," according to CEO Jed York. It was a weak sequence of events no matter how you look at it. Don't get caught up in whether the 49ers could have officially suspended him based on the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. And let's not worry about whether it would have been fair to discipline Smith, who is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. If the situation is grave enough that Smith needs help away from the team, and assuming that decision was made before the game rather than in the 20 minutes between its conclusion and the announcement, then the 49ers made an indefensible decision to play him. If they were concerned about Smith's well-being, they could have made him a game-day deactivation and sent him to deal with his issues immediately rather than wait to squeeze one more game out of him.

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2. Bill Leavy, NFL referee: Leavy and his crew made their second basic misapplication of a rule in three weeks. Sunday, Leavy overlooked the new wording of the so-called "Jim Schwartz rule" that penalizes coaches for challenging non-reviewable plays. In the second quarter at the Metrodome, Leavy penalized the Vikings 15 yards instead of docking them a timeout after coach Leslie Frazier challenged a fumble. (The rule was rewritten in the offseason.) Instead of getting the ball on the Browns' 26-yard line with two timeouts left, the Vikings faced a first-and-25 at the 41-yard line and eventually settled for a field goal. In Week 1, you might recall, Leavy rendered the wrong down after a Packers penalty and was also publicly contradicted on a personal foul he called by league vice president of officiating Dean Blandino. The NFL rule book is thick and nuanced, but Leavy is a veteran referee. You would hope his mistakes would be of judgment rather than of factual error.

3. Pass protection, New York Giants: There are so many places to spread blame when one NFL team loses to another by a score of 38-0. The NFL deck is heavily stacked against such outcomes, and blame for the Giants' embarrassing performance Sunday can be spread evenly. But I'll focus my angst at the team's pass-protection schemes, which allowed six -- yes, SIX!!! -- sacks in the first 17 minutes of "action" against the Panthers. Manning took seven sacks in the game before the Giants mercifully put in backup Curtis Painter. The Giants are now 0-3 for the first time since 1996 and growing less competitive by the week.

Frazier
4. Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings coach: Recent history (since 1990) tells us the Vikings have a 3 percent chance of making the playoffs after starting 0-3. But that's only part of the concern for Frazier, who got outcoached by the legendary guru across the field (Chudzinski) in his home opener. The Vikings fell for two trick plays on special teams, and for the second consecutive week their defense was helpless on a game-winning drive. Worse, Frazier's errant challenge flag was compounded by his apparent failure to point out Leavy's mistake. Remember, Frazier is essentially in a contract year. It has been assumed he needs a playoff appearance to get a new deal. The Vikings' meager chances of a postseason berth suggest that Frazier is in his final months as the team's coach.

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5. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers quarterback: Only a late surge of garbage yards got Kaepernick over the 100-yard mark against the Colts. He still completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes, took three sacks and finished with an 11.8 Total QBR. Worse, Kaepernick looked hesitant and especially unsure of whether he should run or keep looking downfield for receivers. It's true that tight end Vernon Davis didn't play, and a depleted receiving corps contributed to just one completion on passes that traveled at least 10 yards downfield. But anyone who watches Kaepernick regularly would accept that he is in the first slump of his young career.
So the NFL let it be known Monday that one officiating error in essence wiped out another one during the San Francisco 49ers' 34-28 victory Sunday over the Green Bay Packers.

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Matthews
Is that fair? Or is it convenient?

In the end, I would say it's probably both.

To recap: Referee Bill Leavy's crew originally called offsetting personal foul penalties on Packers linebacker Clay Matthews and 49ers left tackle Joe Staley in the second quarter at Candlestick Park. Matthews hit quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of bounds, while Staley rushed to the scene and got into a shoving match with Matthews.

Dead-ball fouls are not supposed to lead to a replay of the down, according to NFL rules, but Leavy mistakenly ruled a replay of third down. The 49ers scored a touchdown on the next play rather than being forced to kick a field goal. The Packers seemed to get the short end of that trade-off.

The NFL admitted its mistake Sunday, but according to multiple media reports, the league also determined Monday that Staley should not have been called for a penalty at all. In that scenario, Matthews' penalty would have stood and given the 49ers a first-and-goal.

In other words, the league's official ruling is that the Packers weren't victimized because there never should have been an offsetting situation in the first place. That's an awfully convenient way to quell a controversy, but in this case, I think it's the right one.

When you look at the replay, you see Staley sprint over to Matthews but really never engage him physically other than to grab his shoulder pads. Viewed clinically, his actions didn't rise to the level of a personal foul.

In this case, at least, all is well that ended well.

Wrap-up: Steelers 24, Giants 20

November, 4, 2012
11/04/12
9:02
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My thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 24-20 victory at the New York Giants:

What it means: The Steelers are hitting their stride, winning four of their past five games including three straight. Sunday's victory was a statement game for Pittsburgh. The Steelers had pointed to this game at the defending Super Bowl champion Giants as a measuring stick and showed their mettle by overcoming a change to their travel plays, questionable calls by the officials, the loss of two injured running backs and a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Isaac Redman ran for 147 yards and the winning one-yard touchdown as the Steelers pulled off the fourth-quarter comeback. Pittsburgh (5-3) remains one game behind the AFC North-leading Ravens (6-2).

Redman steps up: Redman was the starting running back by default after Jonathan Dwyer (quad) and Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) were inactive. He finished with 147 yards, which was 20 more than what he totaled in five previous games this season. This marked the third straight game that the Steelers have had a 100-yard rusher.

Sanders delivers big plays: Emmanuel Sanders more than filled the void left by Antonio Brown, who injured his left ankle in the first half and didn't return. Sanders caught a four-yard pass for the Steelers' first touchdown and averaged 25.3 yards on three punts. He should've scored on one return but he was stopped by Giants punter Steve Weatherford.

Questionable calls: NFL referee Billy Leavy, who acknowledged he made mistakes in helping the Steelers win their Super Bowl over the Seahawks, wasn't doing Pittsburgh any favors Sunday. Leavy didn't overturn Ben Roethlisberger's fumble in the second quarter, which led to a 70-yard return for a touchdown, even though it looked like the Steeelers quarterback's arm was going forward. Leavy also upheld the Giants' first touchdown when it didn't look like running back Andre Brown had broken the plane. The Steelers were penalized six times for 119 yards.

Roethlisberger over Manning: Roethlisberger has bragging rights over Eli Manning in a matchup of two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks from the 2004 draft. Roethlisberger threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns, including a 51-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace in the fourth quarter. Manning was held to 125 yards, which is 162 yards below his per-game average this season. Roethlisberger has now beaten Manning in two of the three meetings.

Overcoming the fake: The Steelers faced fourth-and-1 trailing by three points (20-17) with 10 1/2 minutes remaining. Even though the Steelers were at the Giants' 3-yard line, it's an easy decision to go for the tying field goal, right? Pittsburgh went for a fake field goal -- kicker Shaun Suisham took a backward flip from holder Drew Butler -- which resulted in a one-yard loss. The Steelers defense, though, forced a three-and-out, and the offense drove 51 yards on nine plays for the winning touchdown. The risky call didn't hurt the Steelers in the end.

Tight travel: Maybe the Steelers should consider traveling on the day of the game for every road trip. Pittsburgh, which couldn't travel to New Jersey on Saturday because its hotel was without power, arrived hours before kickoff. Unlike previous away games this season, the Steelers didn't have the same difficulties in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh outscored the Giants, 14-0, in the final 14 minutes of the game.

What's next: The Steelers return home to play the last-place Chiefs (1-7) on "Monday Night Football."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The 2005 Seattle Seahawks just missed the cut when Jamison Hensley and I ranked our 10 best Super Bowl losers. Not that making such a list would provide consolation.

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Rocky Bernard collected a career-high 8.5 sacks with that Seattle team, only to suffer through a 21-10 defeat to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL. He's back on the Super Bowl stage with the New York Giants and intent upon at least partially atoning for what went wrong six years ago.

"I don't want to feel that pain again," Bernard said. "It's something you can't get over. You work so hard to get to that point and we were so confident going into the game, felt like we could win."

Bernard, like quite a few Seahawks fans, still feels as though officiating errors played a significant role in the outcome. Bernard brought up that aspect of the game without prompting.

"We kind of felt like it was taken away from us," Bernard said.

Referee Bill Leavy later apologized. The NFL stood by the officiating at the time.

Another NFC West Super Bowl alum, ex-Arizona Cardinal Antrel Rolle, can also offset painful Super Bowl memories if the Giants win. Rolle, whose Cardinals lost to the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, started all 16 games and picked off two passes for the Giants this season.

"Being here one time before and not coming out on top, it's a feeling you never, ever get rid of," Rolle said. "I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure I'm not on that side of that fence again."

Also: New England Patriots special-teams player Niko Koutouvides was also part of that 2005 Seattle team. He pointed to the camaraderie of the 2005 team as one of the reasons for its success. He said the current Patriots have the same feel to them.

Rapid Reaction: Seahawks 30, Rams 13

December, 12, 2011
12/12/11
11:45
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks following the Seahawks' 30-13 win at CenturyLink Field:

What it means: The Seahawks improved to 6-7 and kept alive their long-shot playoff hopes. They did not play well enough to inspire much confidence heading into games against Chicago, San Francisco and Arizona. Both offensive lines struggled. Sam Bradford struggled and took a beating. This was an ugly game pitting two teams with severe injury problems on their offensive lines and insufficient firepower. Seattle inevitably pulled away. The Rams' pass-happy play calling near the goal line should invite harsh criticism.

What I liked: Marshawn Lynch and Steven Jackson ran exceptionally hard, occasionally with positive results. Lynch broke multiple tackles during a 12-yard run to the St. Louis 10-yard line in the third quarter. Both defensive fronts exploited mismatches exaggerated by injuries along both teams' offensive lines. The Rams, after allowing more rushing yards than any team in the league before Week 14, did a good job against Lynch early in the game. Jackson gained 50 yards on a screen. The Seahawks were at times effective exploiting the perimeter with Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, an effective strategy against a defense lacking speed outside. Seattle's Brandon Browner made an aggressive, athletic play on the ball to pick off Bradford's pass to open the second half. Browner snagged the ball between his forearm and biceps, controlling it before gathering himself and securing the interception, his fifth of the season. Seahawks quarterback Tarvaris Jackson held the ball too long at times, but he improved as the game progressed. Jackson completed 21 of 32 passes for 224 yards, one touchdown and a 96.4 NFL passer rating.

What I didn't like: The Rams goal-to-go offense remained abysmal and was never worse than when Bradford took an intentional-grounding penalty when a touchdown would have pulled St. Louis within three points late in the third quarter. Why were the Rams passing in that situation? Because that is what they do. The Rams entered Week 14 running the ball only 32 percent of the time from inside opponents' 10-yard line. Only Green Bay has a lower percentage. That type of strategy makes sense for the Packers. They have Aaron Rodgers and one of the NFL's best offenses. The Rams have Steven Jackson and not much else. Later, the Rams ran Bradford on a failed sneak from the 1 despite his bad ankle. Also, Rams receiver Austin Pettis and tight end Lance Kendricks, perhaps wary of previous big hits from Seattle strong safety Kam Chancellor, appeared to shy away from contact early in the game. Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis dropped what should have been a momentum-turning pick early in the game. Both quarterbacks struggled against pressure. Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson held the ball too long. Browner and fellow Seahawks corner Richard Sherman again could not keep their hands to themselves, drawing repeated penalties for interference/illegal contact. Sherman also drew a taunting penalty after breaking up a third-and-goal pass from the 1.

Roster roulette: The Rams kept only two quarterbacks active, Bradford and Kellen Clemens, even though Bradford was clearly hurting. Bradford gutted it out and made it through the game. At one point, however, the Rams' medical team was surrounding him while Clemens warmed up along the sideline.

Skittles shower: Fans showered Lynch with his favorite candy after Lynch's touchdown run blew open the game late in the fourth quarter. That run gave him 115 yards for the game and 969 for the season. Lynch topped 100 yards rushing for the fifth time in six games. He scored a touchdown for the ninth game in a row, not counting the game he missed against Cleveland in Week 7.

Bradford did not look right: The Rams' quarterback showed toughness and mettle, but he had trouble driving the ball downfield. Watching him run away from pressure and then feebly succumb to a sack in the final minutes showed how much Bradford's ankle injury was limiting him. A sense of futility pervaded the Rams at times.

Boos rain upon Leavy: Referee Bill Leavy was working a game in Seattle for the first time since his crew's controversial rulings during Supe Bowl XL angered the Seahawks. Fans booed when Leavy waved off an interference call against the Rams in the third quarter. They would have booed that ruling no matter the referee, but if there was a little extra vigor, the history explained it.

What's next: The Seahawks visit the Chicago Bears. The Rams are home against Cincinnati.

NFC West Stock Watch

December, 6, 2011
12/06/11
1:00
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1.. Free-agent wide receivers. Sidney Rice, the Seattle Seahawks' marquee addition in free agency, landed on injured reserve following his second concussion of the season. Shoulder, knee and foot injuries bothered him earlier. Another free-agent receiver in the division, Braylon Edwards, was inactive for the 49ers while recovering from knee and shoulder injuries. The 49ers invested far less in Edwards than Seattle invested in Rice. Still, these big-name receivers have seen their stock fall. Cheaper, younger alternatives stepped up Sunday, notably the 49ers' Kyle Williams and the Arizona Cardinals' Andre Roberts. Seattle has gotten strong play from undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin all season.

2. Job security in St. Louis. The Rams have lost twice to John Skelton over the past month. They failed to score against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. They are trending in the wrong direction and appear unable to do anything about it. Consider this your weekly "falling" item on the Rams. Not much more to say.

Bill Leavy
AP Photo/Paul SancyaSeattle fans seem likely to remind ref Bill Leavy about their opinion of his work in Super Bowl XL.
3. Bill Leavy's self-esteem. What's this about the league assigning the Super Bowl XL referee to work a game in Seattle for the first time since the Seahawks complained about multiple controversial calls in the big game six years ago? It's scheduled to happen Monday night. Fans have long memories and loud voices. This could be a rough night for Leavy.

RISING

1. Jed York, San Francisco 49ers president. The week would have been a success for York and the 49ers even if the team did not clinch the NFC West title. That is because the 49ers secured $850 million in financing for their proposed stadium. Throwing in a 26-0 home victory over St. Louis for a 10-2 record, division title and team's first playoff berth since the 2002 season was certainly nice, of course. Stocks are rising for quite a few other 49ers, including Williams, new franchise career rushing leader Frank Gore, quarterback Alex Smith, receiver Michael Crabtree, rookie outside linebacker Aldon Smith and others. There wasn't space to honor them all.

2. Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks QB. Jackson appeared to be winding down for the season until he completed 13 of 16 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns during a 31-14 victory over Philadelphia. Marshawn Lynch certainly could have represented Seattle in this spot as well. He was phenomenal against the Eagles. Lynch's stock was already quite high, however. Jackson's enjoyed a higher percentage gain, for sure. This was probably his best game of the season even though the team lost Rice to injured reserve a few days before the game.

3. Ray Horton, Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator. The Cardinals have won four of their last five games, allowing 63 points in those victories. They held Dallas to 13 points, the Cowboys' second-lowest total of the season. They collected five sacks, a high against Dallas this season. Young outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield are improving. Arizona has allowed only five touchdowns in its past five games after allowing 20 in its first seven.
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:

NFC West Penalty Watch: Okung's triple

September, 15, 2011
9/15/11
11:15
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NFL officials flagged Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung three times in 10 games last season.

Okung
Okung
They matched that total against Okung in the 2011 opener at Candlestick Park.

The high total confirms in my mind the thinking that Okung wasn't quite up to speed in his first game back from an ankle injury. He was also facing a very strong San Francisco 49ers defensive front featuring Justin Smith, who had two sacks. One penalty was declined. Another was offsetting.

Facing the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2 will present similar challenges (insert Bill Leavy joke here). Even though the Steelers struggled in their opening-week defeat at Baltimore, their defense was instrumental in drawing three penalties against the Ravens' offensive line. Officials flagged center Matt Birk, guard Ben Grubbs and tackle Bryant McKinnie for holding in that game.

Officials flagged Okung for holding (twice) and a false start. Okung's three penalties last season were for false starts, with two coming during the second half of a 34-18 home defeat against Atlanta in Week 15.

The first chart shows three-year totals for NFC West teams, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Totals count declined penalties.

The Oakland Raiders have the most during that time with 320, counting a league-high 17 in Week 1. The 49ers rank sixth with 260, followed by the Arizona Cardinals (254) and St. Louis Rams (254). The Seahawks are 15th with 234. The Falcons (176), Indianapolis Colts (177) and Jacksonville Jaguars (184) have the fewest.

Officials have flagged NFC West teams 999 times, more than they've flagged teams from any other division. AFC East teams have drawn the fewest (828).

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The second chart shows NFC West individual leaders for 2011. Officials have flagged five players from the division more than once.

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Will trash talk boost Jets-Pats penalties?

January, 15, 2011
1/15/11
4:24
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Here's example No. 1,675 why it's a bad idea to draw unnecessary attention to yourself.

In response to the kind of colorful dialogue you might hear in a Quentin Tarantino film, the NFL has warned teams to watch themselves on the field and that any intimated threats can be used against players if they commit unsportsmanlike acts in the game.

In two tweets, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello confirmed league vice president of operations "Ray Anderson contacted multiple clubs this week so they could remind players comments of a physically threatening nature are always taken into account in evaluating discipline for illegal physical contact on field."

That goes for you, Bart Scott.

The vociferous New York Jets linebacker suggested they would be hunting for New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker, who made several soulful remarks about Sunday's game, likely an homage to the foot-fetish videos Jets coach Rex Ryan and his wife posted on the internet.

"I'll tell you what," Scott told Newsday reporter Roderick Boone. "Be very careful what you say about our coach. [Welker's] days in a uniform will be numbered. Put it like that."

Teams have complained Patriots quarterback Tom Brady receives preferential treatment as it is.

This week's rhetoric, most of which has emanated from the Jets, will have referee Bill Leavy's crew on high alert for head shots, unnecessary roughness and other such unsportsmanlike penalties that could prove costly, especially for Scott, who has been flagged for those types of infractions a few times already this season.

A breakdown of the Jets' misbehavior penalties in the regular season:
  • Unnecessary roughness four times.
  • Personal foul three times (Scott with two of them).
  • Roughing the passer twice (Scott with one of them).
  • Roughing the kicker once.
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct once.
  • Taunting once.

And the Patriots' rundown:
  • Unnecessary roughness four times.
  • Personal foul twice.
  • Roughing the passer twice.
  • Unsportsmanlike conduct once.
  • No roughing the kicker.
  • No taunting.

Although Levy will be working with an all-star assembly Sunday, his guys in the regular season called unnecessary roughness five times, roughing the passer five times, personal foul twice, unsportsmanlike conduct twice and taunting once. They ejected one player (Tennessee Titans safety Donnie Nickey in Week 8).

Both personal fouls on Levy's watch happened in the Patriots' overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6. Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather (for his hit on defenseless Ravens tight end Todd Heap) and Ravens fullback LeRon McClain were the perpetrators.
An end-of-season look at where NFL officiating crews rank in a few categories where discretion and controversy tend to apply, listed by referee (with Walt Coleman scheduled to work Seattle's wild-card game Sunday):

The second chart breaks down defensive pass-interference numbers by crew for the last three seasons.

The next chart breaks down offensive pass interference by crew for the 2010 season only.
Note that Coleman's crew has called only one such penalty this season, second-fewest in the league behind Seattle favorite Bill Leavy.

The next chart breaks down the offensive pass-interference calls by crew for the last three seasons.

The final chart shows three-year totals for roughing the passer, by crew.

Seattle fans might remember the controversial roughing penalty against Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock during the team's defeat at New Orleans in Week 11.

The pivotal play did not draw a fine, tacit admission that referee Mike Carey's crew erred on the call.

Coleman's crews have only four roughing calls over the last three seasons, fewest in the league among referees working continuously since 2008.

Note: All info from ESPN Stats & Information and includes declined penalties.

G'day from Gillette Stadium

October, 17, 2010
10/17/10
11:47
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Despite a glorious New England autumn day, traffic on the way to Gillette Stadium Sunday morning was atrocious for whatever reason. So I'm finally in the press box and ready to cover a big clash between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots.

ESPN will have you blanketed like nobody's business. In addition to the AFC East blog, be sure to visit ESPNBoston.com to read the insights of Mike Reiss, Jackie MacMullan and Mike Rodak et al. Michael Smith will be reporting for television.

Check out our "Countdown Live" in-game chat starring Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson, Reiss, Rodak and me.

The Weather Channel's forecast is for a high of 65 degrees with no chance of precipitation. But wind could be a factor, with gusts up to 15 mph expected.

The referee will be Bill Leavy. A review of game data through five weeks shows Levy's crew's most common penalties are false start (13), offensive holding (12), defensive offside (eight) and defensive pass interference (six).

Also of note, since Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has derided Patriots quarterback Tom Brady about whining over too much contact and begging for flags, Levy's crew has called roughing the passer only once, but on other over-aggression penalties they've flagged unnecessary roughness four times and unsportsmanlike conduct twice.
BEREA, Ohio -- Former Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren admits that he still thinks about the outcome of Super Bowl XL. Seattle lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-10, in a game filled with questionable calls that went against the Holmgren-led Seahawks.

More than four years later, referee Bill Leavy put Super Bowl XL back in the spotlight by recently admitting he blew some calls in the game. On Tuesday Holmgren, now president of the Cleveland Browns, reacted to the news.

"Of course I was disappointed at the time, and because it was the Super Bowl, I still think about it on occasion," Holmgren said. "But like anything in this business, if you let it linger it's going to have an adverse effect on what you do moving forward.

"We didn't play our best football that day. Had we played better and coached better, those calls might not have made a difference. Everyone is human and everyone makes mistakes, and you can't hold one person accountable for the final outcome of that game."

Several former Seahawks applauded Leavy's admission but said the loss still stings.

"On a whole, unless they're going to come out and say 'Hey, here's the trophy and here's your ring,' it's not going to make a difference," Browns quarterback and former Seahawk Seneca Wallace said.

Added former Seahawk Bobby Engram: "I hope [Leavy] feels better about himself. He's human and we all make mistakes. I'm sure he was trying his hardest, but it was difficult for us to overcome some of those missed calls."

Holmgren led two different franchises -- Seattle and Green Bay -- to Super Bowls and is now in his first year attempting to turn around the Browns, who finished 5-11 last season.
Facebook friend Patrick sent a message to me suggesting the NFL erred in sending referee Bill Leavy to Seattle Seahawks training camp. He said some fans booed and called Leavy names when they spotted him on the practice field.

Also via Facebook, Rams fan Brian suggested Leavy's transgressions at Seattle's expense in Super Bowl 40 paled next to the errors another referee, Bernie Kukar, made at the St. Louis Rams' expense in their Super Bowl 36 game against the New England Patriots (Brian might not recall this, but Leavy's crew made a couple tough calls against the Rams, too).

I do recall Rams fans complaining about the Patriots roughing up Marshall Faulk and preventing him from releasing as a receiver out of the backfield, but New England played well enough to win that game, I thought. Similarly, I think the Seahawks did not play well enough to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl Leavy officiated.

With all these warm feelings for referees and officiating coursing through fans, I'm guessing the NFL will be a little more careful in assigning referees to future training camps.

Three pairings I'd like to see during 2011 camps:

1. Leavy and the Seahawks. Perhaps the team could invite fans -- or even former coach Mike Holmgren -- for a question-and-answer session. The league could sell highlight videos ranking Leavy's calls from best to worst.

2. Walt Coleman and the Oakland Raiders. Fans might remember Coleman for his controversial (but correct) tuck-rule interpretation in the Raiders' AFC divisional playoff defeat to the New England Patriots following the 2001 season. Coleman hasn't worked a Raiders game since that memorable ruling. Camping in Napa can't be all that rough.

3. Ed Hochuli and the San Diego Chargers. The referee famous for his muscled physique also became known for the whistle he blew prematurely at the Chargers' expense during a 2008 game against the Broncos. Ironically, Hochuli previously had not worked a Broncos game since flagging Denver nine times for 113 yards during a game against San Diego.

Previously: NFL officiating assignments.

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