NFL Nation: Carl Johnson

You saw it just like I did. In their first game since the NFL mandated the 35-yard line for kickoffs, the Chicago Bears twice kicked off from their 30-yard line in Saturday's preseason opener. Referee Jeff Triplette allowed it twice until Carl Johnson, the NFL's vice president of officiating, put a stop to it via a phone call to the Soldier Field press box.

So what gives? Why did the Bears add 5 yards to their kickoff coverage territory? And why were they initially allowed to do it? Was it a matter of strategy or confusion?

The answer appears to be both.

At the start of the Bears' locally-produced broadcast, announcers Sam Rosen and Erik Kramer -- presumably reflecting the team's position -- said the rule gives each NFL team an option to mark the ball as high as the 35-yard line. The Bears, Rosen said, had chosen not to take that option. In fact, coach Lovie Smith later told reporters that he wanted to see his coverage teams cover a kick that was more likely to be returned.

Smith: "We know [place-kicker] Robbie Gould. We can put it on the 35, and he can kick it out each time."

One problem: The rule was not intended to provide a choice. Its intent was not to limit kickoff returns but to improve safety on kickoffs. Only a deeply interpretative analysis of the rule's wording would suggest otherwise. Here is how Rule 6, Section 1, Article 2(a) is written in the 2011 NFL rule book: "The restraining line for the kicking team shall be its 35-yard line for a kickoff and its 20-yard line for a safety kick."

I guess you could define "restraining line" as the furthest possible point a team can kick off, and infer that a team could line up further back even though it would seem to create a better chance for a return. Otherwise, I'm not sure why Triplette allowed it, and Johnson's call made clear he shouldn't have.

To be fair, I can see where the Bears were coming from. Generally speaking, kickoffs at the 35-yard line should increase the likelihood of touchbacks and/or short returns. But based on what Gould told the Chicago Tribune, the Bears aren't convinced that touchbacks will rule the day when the weather turns colder.

"By moving it to the 35," Gould told the Tribune, "they think there are going to be more touchbacks and there may be in warm-weather places but not in Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh. There are going to be plenty of places where you're not going to get touchbacks."

On a warm night like Saturday, Gould's kickoffs were likely to carry deep into the end zone. But if touchbacks do indeed diminish later in the season, the Bears ostensibly wanted to practice their coverage schemes in the preseason.

Let's not be completely naive here. The Bears opposed the rule change in March because it will diminish the annual field-position advantage they get from their strong return game. So let's not completely rule out the possibility of gamesmanship and/or that the Bears were making a one-time passive protest to the rule change.

Two people could reasonably argue whether a kickoff from the 35-yard line, combined with a 5-yard limit on head starts for cover men, will actually improve safety. But when a rule is changed for safety reasons, there is no leeway.

It's worth noting that Bears defensive end Corey Wootton was lost for four weeks because of a knee injury on the opening kickoff. I doubt whether the extra 5 yards contributed to the injury. But unless I'm missing something here, the Bears won't get another opportunity to "test" their coverage teams unless they take a delay of game penalty and Triplette shouldn't have allowed this one.
Reviewing Saturday's preseason action at Soldier Field:


Chicago Bears 10, Buffalo Bills 3

Preseason record: 1-0

Of interest: None of the anticipated drama for this game played out. Tailback Matt Forte played despite the lack of a contract extension, although it's worth noting he played one series and didn't get a carry. (He did make one catch.) Marion Barber ended up rushing for 45 yards on seven carries, and Chester Taylor had three yards on three carries. ... And by all accounts, the playing surface at Soldier Field held up despite some visible seams between the sod. The only issue: Longtime Chicago-area sportscaster Peggy Kusinski said she was told by security officials that no cell phone photos of the field were allowed. ... The first-team offensive line played the entire first half but gave up four sacks, including three to Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, who gave left tackle J'Marcus Webb fits. I thought two of Merriman's sacks, against backup quarterback Caleb Hanie, came in part because Hanie held the ball. ... Defensive tackle Henry Melton flashed in the first quarter, getting into the backfield on three early plays. That's an encouraging sign. ... The Bears kicked off twice from the 30-yard line before, saying the NFL's new rule for kickoffs at the 35-yard line was optional. NFL officiating czar Carl Johnson was forced to call Soldier Field to tell them otherwise. Interesting but ultimately a meaningless attempt by the Bears. ... Finally, demoted receiver Johnny Knox made an a strong impression on special teams, reminding everyone how fast he is during a 70-yard kickoff return. He also returned two punts, but that job will go to Devin Hester in the regular season.

Local coverage: No one criticized the field, reports Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune. But quarterback Jay Cutler did say: "I don't know. It is what it is. I don't think it is going to change, so we just have to play on it." ... Knox, via Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times: "I know what I need to do -- just handle my business on the field and that's what I came to do. I'm just trying to make the best of it and make plays when I can." ... The Bears' offensive line needs more time together, writes Dan Pompei of the Tribune. ... New defensive lineman Amobi Okoye had two sacks, notes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.

Next: Aug. 22 at New York Giants (ESPN)

New Orleans rookie defensive end Cameron Jordan has ended his contract holdout. The Saints just announced they have agreed to terms with the first-round pick.

With veteran defensive end Will Smith possibly facing a four-game suspension to start the season, Jordan has a shot to be in the starting lineup on opening day. But he has some catching up to do after missing all the offseason work due to the lockout and the first few days of training camp.

But Jordan, a University of California product, has all sorts of potential. In 50 college games (33 starts), Jordan produced 16.5 sacks, five pass deflections, four forced fumbles and was known as a strong run defender.

The Saints also announced a few other moves. The team has agreed to terms that will keep offensive lineman Zach Strief with the team. The Saints also signed linebacker Clint Ingram, tight end Tory Humphrey and defensive back Terrail Lambert. The Saints also waived rookie cornerback Josh Gatlin and rookie guard Carl Johnson.
The Saints just sent out their official list of undrafted rookie free agents they say they’ve agreed to terms with. Let’s take a quick run through the list.
  • Isa Abdul Quddus, safety, Fordham
  • Harold Beilby, offensive tackle, Marian (Ind.)
  • John Chiles, wide receiver, Texas
  • Ryan Colburn, quarterback, Fresno State
  • Jarred Fayson, wide receiver, Illinois
  • Harry Flaherty, tight end, Princeton
  • C.J. Gable, running back, Southern California
  • Michael Galatas, wide receiver, Millsaps
  • Josh Gatlin, cornerback,North Dakota State
  • Michael Higgins, tight end, Nebraska-Omaha
  • Jerimiha Hunter, linebacker, Iowa
  • Kolby Hurt, fullback, Missouri State
  • Carl Johnson, guard, Florida
  • Dexter Larimore, defensive tackle, Ohio State
  • DeAndre McDaniel, safety, Clemson
  • Josh Morgan, wide receiver, Walsh
  • Kyle Nelson, long-snapper, New Mexico State
  • Dwight Roberson, linebacker, Oregon State
  • Mike Smith, offensive lineman, Nebraska
  • Ryan Taylor, center, UCLA
Hat tip to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com, who pointed out via Twitter (@jasonjwilde) the NFL's official explanation for the play we ranted about Wednesday. The NFL Network appearance of Carl Johnson, the league's vice president of officiating, provides us a platform for a quick follow-up.

For starters, Johnson acknowledged that referee Peter Morelli's crew erred on a critical call in the second quarter of the Green Bay Packers' 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Tight end Tony Gonzalez should not have been credited with a 6-yard reception on fourth down.

"It was not a catch," Johnson said. "He did not maintain firm grasp and control."

There is no disputing that conclusion. But in the process of explaining what happened, Johnson provided further grist for our argument against the current replay system.

He touted the instance as "an excellent example of the chess games teams play" and praised the Falcons for rushing to get off another play and prevent Packers coach Mike McCarthy from challenging the call. Johnson also acknowledged that "TV networks aren't obligated to show significant replays or any types of replays" and said that the home-field advantage in the replay system "balances out" because "you have eight home games and eight away."

Johnson is simply the messenger of the NFL's policy-making monolith, so I don't blame him personally. But how can this be a fair way of neutrally officiating high-stakes NFL games? Getting calls right shouldn't be subject to "chess games." The NFL can't be solely reliant on TV networks if they're not obligated to provide the service they're being counted on for. And home-field advantage only balances out if there is an equal number of questionable calls spread among your 16 games -- an unrealistic possibility, at best.

Grrrrrrrrrr.

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir on this one, but count me as still riled by Sunday's sequence and now disheartened by the league's response.

One other note before I drop this (for the moment): A few of you pointed out something I should have realized myself in the original post. Network feeds inside NFL stadiums often run on a significant delay, and that was the case Sunday in the Georgia Dome. Sitting in the press box, I could watch the play live and then look up at the television monitor to see the same play just starting.

So if you were viewing at home, you saw a solid replay of the "catch" well before the Falcons took the next snap. But if you were in the coaches' booth, you didn't see that replay until after the next play occurred in live action. Without spending too much time in a space-time continuum debate, the bottom line is that McCarthy is right: His assistants didn't see any replay of the play until it was too late. Consider the internal feed delay another pock on the system as currently configured.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Jeff Fisher just shared something I never knew: The Thursday before the Super Bowl, the NFL hosts a dinner for the all-star officiating crew that is assigned to the big game.

Fisher, who interacts with the officiating department often as co-chair of the powerful competition committee, has been here to work for the NFL Network and will be at the dinner Thursday.

It’s the final such evening for the director of officiating, Mike Pereira, who is retiring and will be replaced by Carl Johnson.

“They’ll probably be something special for Mike,” Fisher said. “I think he’s done a tremendous job. I say this over and over. Coaches on Mondays either win or lose games. He loses every Monday, it’d be hard on him, that’s how it is.

“I don’t think people around the league realize how hard he works to try to achieve some consistency and to maintain consistency in the grading system and everything that’s involved in his job. People on the committee happen to have a better understanding because we work with him during the offseason.”

It’s cool that the league does the dinner for the Super Bowl crew.

Here’s the list of those who’ll be featured guests:

Referee Scott Green, umpire Undrey Wash, head linesman John McGrath, line judge Jeff Seeman, field judge Rob Vernatchi, side judge Greg Meyer and back judge Greg Steed. The replay assistant is Jim Lapetina and the video operator is Jim Pearson.

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