From a mangled opening coin toss to a bizarrely broadcasted reference to a series of debatable calls, referee Ed Hochuli had a memorable game Saturday in Charlotte, N.C. Let's use our Officiating Review format, dusted off and tweaked for the postseason, to run through the highlights of Hochuli's day in the Carolina Panthers' 27-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Incident: Hochuli initially didn't follow NFL procedure for the coin toss.
Analysis: The rule book requires the referee to ask the captain of the visiting team for a heads or tails call. The coin-toss winner can defer to the second half. He can choose to receive the kickoff, or he can choose to kick off in a particular direction.
The coin toss was not televised, but according to reporters on the scene, Hochuli asked the Panthers for their choice even after the Cardinals won the toss. Cardinals captain Calais Campbell stepped in and implored Hochuli to rectify the mistake. Ultimately, the Cardinals won the toss and elected to receive. The Panthers chose to defend the east goal.
Incident: Those in attendance at Bank of America Stadium heard Hochuli refer to someone as "Jungle Boy."
Analysis: According to multiple reporters on the scene, during the third quarter Hochuli said: "I got the word from Jungle Boy that was a good call" while his stadium microphone was on.
The statement merited a live explanation from Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating. According to Blandino, Hochuli was referring to replay official Tom Sifferman, who apparently goes by that nickname. (Former NFL vice president Mike Pereira suggested it emanates from Sifferman's golf game; he rarely hits the fairway.)
This season, for the first time, NFL referees have a wireless microphone to speak to their crewmates during a game. Blandino said that Hochuli intended to open that microphone to make the comment, but "mistakenly" used the stadium microphone. He zigged when he meant to zag.
There was no harm done in this instance, but it did serve as a reminder that referees with multiple microphones should assume that anything they say during a game could be heard publicly and edit themselves accordingly.
Play: Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson is called for unnecessary roughness.
Analysis: Late in the first quarter, Johnson got a step on Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie and got to quarterback Ryan Lindley just as he released the ball. Johnson jumped, put both hands on Lindley's back and threw him to the ground.
Watched in real time, the play did not appear egregious. But Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(a) of the NFL rule book reads: "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. ... 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 the passer with the defensive player's arms."
Johnson's final move of taking Lindley down was the appropriately penalized act.
Play: Hochuli picks up an illegal contact flag originally called on Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Analysis: Midway through the second quarter, Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin got a step on Peterson down the left sideline. Peterson grabbed Benjamin as he ran by, but Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw the ball to the other side of the field.
The initial call was for illegal contact, which prohibits defenders from grabbing receivers beyond 5 yards past the line of scrimmage before the pass is thrown. Hochuli determined that the pass had already been thrown when the contact occurred.
The replay showed that Newton, in fact, still had the ball in his hands when Peterson grabbed Benjamin. Illegal contact would have been the correct call, but it's fair to point out the tricky mechanics here. The official must first note the contact and then look back into the pocket to see whether the quarterback has thrown yet. Human nature dictates a lag of some length. He can't see both the grab and the quarterback simultaneously.
Play: Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson is called for pass interference after an incomplete pass on third down.
Analysis: On third-and-goal from his 3-yard line, Newton floated a pass to tight end Greg Olsen, who was running parallel to the line of scrimmage at the 1. The ball fell incomplete, but Hochuli's crew called Jefferson for pass interference.
This was an excellent call at a critical moment, even as it came shortly after a decision to allow significant contact against Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd on an earlier series. The replay showed Jefferson putting his left hand on Olsen's left shoulder and pushing off in order to gain height and make a play on the ball.
Side judge Boris Cheek appeared to tell Jefferson that he "played through" Olsen's back to break up the pass, which would violated Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(b) of the NFL rule book. Article 2(g) of that same rule, meanwhile, prohibits a defender from initiating contact by "shoving or pushing off" to create separation. In either event, Jefferson was guilty.
Play: No intentional grounding called when Newton's pass bounces in the right flat with no eligible receiver in sight.
Analysis: Newton was under heavy pressure from Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who yanked him to the ground as he was releasing the ball. Hochuli announced that there was no intentional grounding because the ball landed in the vicinity of an eligible receiver, but the only player near it seemed to be Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers -- an ineligible receiver.
Replay reviewed whether Newton threw a backward pass, but the intentional grounding question was not reviewable. Still, Hochuli got that call right -- even if his explanation seemed wrong.
According to Rule 8, Section 2, Article 1, Item 2, intentional grounding should not be called "if the passer initiates his passing motion toward an eligible receiver and then is significantly affected by physical contact from a defensive player that causes the pass to land in an area that is not in the direction and vicinity of an eligible receiver."
Newton could be judged to have been "significantly affected" by Campbell's pressure. It's not clear where Newton was trying to throw the ball, but the hit played a role in where the ball landed.