NFL Nation: Inside Slant

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BOSTON -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has an idea. And now, for the first time in NFL history, it's a realistic possibility.

Imagine a young quarterback walking into a room at the Saints' practice facility. He straps on a headset, flips a switch and plays a virtual game against the Atlanta Falcons' defense. His vision is filled with current Falcons schemes and players, who move and react based on data compiled by the NFL's "Next Gen Stats" program.

"The challenge we have all the time is that it's the one position where there's only one of them in the game the entire time," Payton said Friday during an appearance at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "The game ends, and how do you get those guys snaps, real-time snaps? Much like we develop pilots -- they do a lot of simulator work -- I think the opportunity exists [in football]. Especially when you're able to accurately show movement with chips, exactly how it unfolds with the defense."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Sean Payton
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesSaints coach Sean Payton says in-game data compiled by the NFL's "Next Gen Stats" program that validates a scouting report and game plan could "make for a more confident playcaller."
As we discussed in December, the NFL compiled real-time data in 18 stadiums and a total of 130 games last season using RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. Chips inserted into shoulder pads allowed the league's partner, Zebra Technologies, to map movement and create player profiles. Only a sliver of the data made it to the public, via a series of measurements fed to broadcast networks, and the truth is the NFL doesn't know yet what it will do with the rest.

"The possibilities are endless," Matt Birk, the league's director of player development said. "[But] that's a discussion that's going to be had: What happens if we do make some or all of these stats available, maybe through the sideline tablets we already have? That's not something we would just rush into. Competitively, what kind of advantage or disadvantage would that provide?"

More than half of the league's teams are already using similar GPS technology to monitor player health and exertion during practice. It has led to some relatively big changes in practice structure -- the Green Bay Packers, for example, shortened their Friday practices and elongated their Saturday workouts based on data -- but to me the bigger issue is how it could directly impact games.

For one, as Birk suggested, teams could be much quicker to make in-game adjustments if they're getting data directly, as opposed to subjective information from the press box.

"During the week," Birk said, "coaches come up with the game plan. They'll say, 'We have this wrinkle this week, and every time we line [a player] up here, here's the play we're going to run.' The saying was, 'Let [the other team] figure it out on Monday.' They're not going to realize it during the game, but they'll figure it out Monday when they watch the film.

"Now, if you talk about where a guy is lined up with real-time data during games, they're going to have that, and you have to adjust. So you have to think about, responsibly, what does that mean for the way a coach's job is going to be [complicated]?"

Quipped Payton: "I think it means there are going to be more MIT grads coaching."

Turning serious, he offered a schematic possibility. In-game data, he said, could help determine whether to play "press" or "off" coverage by comparing a player's speed against press to his burst when defenders are off the line of scrimmage. In-game validation of a scouting report and game plan, he added, could "make for a more confident playcaller."

So why is the NFL hesitant to release this data to teams? For one, it wants to understand better how it could be used. Some franchises will always be better at exploiting a competitive advantage, but unleashing the information before knowing its true effect conceivably could upset the balance of power more than a league based on parity would like to see.

Second, frankly, is the impact on finances and contracts. How would this kind of data change the value of players? If it shows that a receiver is running 20 percent slower in his fifth year than his second, would his value be diminished? On the other hand, would an agent argue for more money when his player runs faster deep routes than any other in the league?

"It'll allow you to compare players in-game to players that have come before," Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk said. "That's not only for the fans, but for coaches and GMs. It's going to cut down on a lot of the conversations of, 'Does he still have it? Can he still play?' Well, here is the data. It doesn't lie.

"I have a feeling that this is going to be used. A GM and an agent, they are going to sit down, and those numbers we used to not know, they're going to have that information ... and it's going to matter."

For now, Birk said, the NFL is focused on three potential uses in the relatively immediate future. It can only help player wellness, much as GPS tracking has impacted practice structures. It could improve officiating by evaluating their movements in real time, and it could make drills at the scouting combine more relevant. (Here's Mike Rodak's news story on that possibility from ESPN.com.)

"Once the toothpaste is out of the tube," Birk said, "you can't put it back in. So it's tough to say where this is going. Those decisions will be made far above my pay grade. But no decisions are made in haste. The competition committee will want to look at this, and that will give us the historical perspective we need, which is important."

Yes, we might be a few years away from virtual quarterback development. But the baseline information is already available. It's just a matter of how the NFL harnesses it.
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U.S. District Judge David S. Doty issued a ruling Thursday in the complicated legal case between Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Let's digest the situation, and its larger implications, by addressing a series of questions.

What does the ruling mean?

Peterson remains suspended, but he is in position for an early reinstatement from a suspension originally set to hold through at least April 15.

Why?

Doty ruled that arbitrator Harold Henderson violated the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in upholding Peterson's suspension after an appeal hearing in December. In Doty's words, Henderson "simply disregarded the law of the shop."

How?

Among other things, Doty ruled that Henderson did not explain in his ruling why Peterson was punished under the terms of an enhanced personal conduct policy put into place after he was indicted for crimes related to injuring his son. According to Doty, the NFL and Henderson did not adequately justify why Peterson could be retroactively punished.

What's next?

An NFL spokesman said the league is reviewing the decision. Ultimately, it must decide whether to appeal Doty's ruling, grant another internal hearing to Peterson or reinstate him and move on.

What's the likeliest choice?

The NFL's litigious ways leave all possibilities open, and ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt projects an appeal of Doty's decision. [UPDATE: The NFL has said it disagrees with the decision and will plan to appeal.] The smartest strategy, however, might be to reinstate Peterson and be done with this public fight and spectacle. Even in admitting legal defeat, the NFL would have succeeded in keeping Peterson away from its fields and facilities for more than six months. For now, it has also pocketed $4.15 million worth of Peterson's game checks from last season. Is it worth fighting over six more weeks of an offseason suspension?

How wounded is the NFL by this ruling?

Not as severely as you might think. It now seems clear that the league overstepped its labor agreement in its haste to remove both Peterson and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice from the public eye. If its strategy was to act first and deal with repercussions later, it has largely worked. Neither Rice nor Peterson got back on the field in 2014. Their legal victories can't change that. Now the NFL can move forward and (legally) use its enhanced personal conduct policy for all future incidents.

You sure about that?

Look, legal defeats are embarrassing. And at some point, the NFL will be damaged by a labor relationship that winds up in litigation far too frequently. Something has gone wrong when the courts are determining the eligibility of players. But hopefully, the NFL has viewed its legal approach as immediate crisis management rather than a larger strategy to sidestep its CBA when convenient.

How will this ruling affect Peterson's status with the Vikings?

For now, not at all. The player and team are still prohibited from direct contact unless and until the NFL formally reinstates him. So for now, there is no change. The Vikings' public position is that they want Peterson back, although they won't comment on a contract that would pay him $12.75 million and count $15.4 million against the cap. When he last spoke publicly, Peterson told ESPN.com that he is "uneasy" about a return to Minnesota.

When will we know where Peterson will play in 2015?

The ball really can't start moving until Peterson is reinstated. Whenever he is, the Vikings will put their plan into motion. If they want to restructure or renegotiate his contract, discussions could begin immediately. If they plan to cut him, they could do that at any time, as well. They could trade him as early as March 10, which is also the earliest he could sign with another team as a free agent if the Vikings have released him.

What do you think will happen?

The Vikings have a history of trading star players when they are disgruntled. In the past 10 years, they have shipped away a Hall of Fame receiver (Randy Moss, 2005), a franchise quarterback (Daunte Culpepper, 2006) and arguably their best player (Percy Harvin, 2012). To add Peterson's name to that list would be an extraordinary litany.

There are people in the Vikings' organization who desperately want him back, but there are others who are conflicted. Add their uncertainty to Peterson's public uneasiness, and you have a relatively common template for parting ways. If the Vikings want to keep him, their one bit of leverage is money. They almost certainly can (and would) pay him more than any other team to play in 2015.
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So you want to change the Calvin Johnson rule? You want a secure football and two feet on the ground to qualify for possession? OK. Consider this future scenario.

Your quarterback throws a deep pass down the middle. His receiver jumps and grabs the ball with two hands. Both feet touch the ground as he falls. Absent the Calvin Johnson rule, it's a catch at that moment.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDez Bryant's catch that was overturned in the 2014 NFC divisional playoffs has become another controversial example of the Calvin Johnson rule.
But wait. The ball comes loose and hits the ground. No defender has contacted the receiver. By definition, it's a fumble. The safety recovers. What would have been an incomplete pass is now a turnover.

It's easy to bang the table and call out the NFL's "process" requirement for possession when going to the ground. We all saw Johnson make what looked like a game-winning touchdown reception for the Detroit Lions in 2010. Most everyone watched as the rule mandated an overturn of Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's catch in the 2014 playoffs. It's more difficult, however, to craft a rule that would effectively make those plays legal catches without creating new consequences or wider gray area for game officials.

The league's competition committee resumed a conversation last week about the process rule, which requires a player going to the ground in the act of making a catch to "maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground." It abandoned a similar discussion four years ago, unable to identify a favorable alternative, but the Bryant episode has spurred another good-faith effort. Even so, the same issues exist, and there is no guarantee a rule-change proposal will make it to ownership for a vote -- let alone pass.

A play similar to the one in this post was included in a league video distributed to coaches and eventually posted publicly. On that play, a defender intercepts the ball and loses it on the way to the ground. A receiver recovers it for what would be a gain of 40 yards absent the process rule. Speaking over the video, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino notes that if "we make this a catch, then in the middle of the field, when the receiver is not contacted, we're going to have more fumbles. We're going to have more catches and fumbles."

It's difficult to know how many plays would be affected by eliminating the process rule. There are no readily available statistics on plays where the receiver loses the ball, after touching the ground, as he's falling. We would like to think a change would only fix the problems, without creating new ones, but that hasn't always been the case in NFL history.

As we discussed last week, the NFL is aware that its rulebook has expanded into the longest and most complicated in American professional sports. It knows one of the top reasons too: movements sparked by individual plays that don't sit well with an influential group. As he spoke with a few reporters last month, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent seemed to be cautioning against an overreaction to a high-profile but possibly infrequent instance.

"A lot of times, every coach, based on an experience they may have had, they're motivated to change the rule," Vincent said. "That's how the rulebook in some cases expands, because of one play. You figure as coaches turn over, there might be a play that cost them a game, you add another proposal, another tweak. ... This is where the wisdom comes in, when [the competition committee] starts talking about the history of how we got to here. Then someone says, if you adjust it this way, this is why we did this, to keep this part from happening. ...

"There [have been] two major plays."

Let's remember the purpose of this rule. As Blandino notes in the video: "We have to have a bright line in order to be consistent." The "bright line" is a clear and relatively easily seen guideline to determine possession in instances where receivers are falling to the ground. Without it, officials would have to judge whether the ball is secure and the feet are down before a ball might squirt loose in the process of falling.

In a vacuum, you could say that NFL officials should be able to see that sequence, either live or via a replay challenge. You could also accept the trade-off for some inconsistent judgment calls in exchange for elimination of a rule that occasionally runs counter to what the naked eye tells us.

Finally, you might question how frequently we would see additional fumbles. It's worth noting the example in the NFL video appears to have been culled from a 2010 game between the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins.

My educated guess: The league is motivated to operate outside the bubble that has complicated its rulebook. If anything, as Vincent said last month, there is an internal movement to simplify the rules. At the very least, "fixing" the Calvin Johnson/process rule will require a level of creativity that is not easily projected.
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Lawrence Jackson remembers the moment, and everything that followed, down to its finest detail. As a Detroit Lions defensive end in 2010, Jackson was chasing Dallas Cowboys quarterback Jon Kitna. When Kitna sidestepped him, Jackson collided with teammate Kyle Vanden Bosch, spun in a helicopter motion and felt himself go limp for a few seconds.

"When I got to the sideline," Jackson said, "I knew I was concussed. But I wasn't disoriented. It wasn't like I didn't know where I was. I just had a headache and I could tell. But at that time, the test was pretty easy if you don't have a significant concussion. It still is. They asked me what day it was, approximately what time it was, what quarter we were in. They wanted me to say the months backwards and a few other things. I got those right. I didn't look disoriented, so they really didn't have any choice but to let me go back in the game."

[+] EnlargeLawrence Jackson
Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports"Unless you're really screwed up," Lawrence Jackson said, "anybody can pass a sideline [concussion] test."
Jackson returned, sacked Kitna on his third play back and went on to one of his better games in a Lions uniform. Taking care to avoid further contact with his head, and playing through what he felt was an "out-of-body experience," he totaled 1.5 sacks in 32 snaps. He reported his symptoms the following day and was held out of the Lions' next game, a sequence of events that Jackson recalled via phone this week amid continuing discussion about the condition of New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman in Super Bowl XLIX.

Edelman, as we noted at the time, displayed concussion symptoms based on the NFL's current protocol after a hit from Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. Edelman did not leave the game -- although he was administered a sideline concussion assessment between possessions, according to The Associated Press -- and he ultimately scored the winning touchdown. Edelman has refused to discuss the hit, most recently during an interview with the New York Times last weekend, citing the Patriots' rules about discussing injuries publicly.

To Jackson, speaking not from a medical sense but from personal experience, the episode is fairly simple. Edelman, Jackson guesses, endured what players refer to as "getting your bell rung," but what is in reality a sub-concussive injury. It leaves players altered and vulnerable but still aware enough to pass a typical sideline test if they don't disclose their condition verbally.

Of course, we don't know the details of Edelman's circumstance and might never find out. But the issue, along with Jackson's story, illuminates what is currently an unavoidable gap in the NFL's concussion-related efforts. Whether or not it happened with Edelman, players still can and do beat the sideline test despite the best efforts of medical science and a protocol the league enhanced in 2013.

"Unless you're really screwed up," Jackson said, "anybody can pass a sideline test."

This mindset doesn't come as a surprise to the NFL's medical community. I spoke this week with Dr. Javier Cardenas, the medical director of the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center in Phoenix. Cardenas also serves on the NFL's head, neck and spine committee and was one of the league's two independent sideline neurologists at the Super Bowl. Although he couldn't speak specifically about Edelman's case -- other than to say: "If there is a question about evaluations being made, I can assure you they were made" -- he readily acknowledged the shortcomings of the current sideline protocol.

When I told him Jackson's theory about beating the test, Cardenas said: "It's true. It's true. The test is as good as we have today. We do our best. The truth of the matter is, this is a two-way street. Of course, not always are the athletes aware of their injuries. Some of them don't recognize they have a concussion, but when they do recognize, the truth is they have a responsibility to their team, to themselves, to their loved ones of declaring that they don't feel right. The tests are only as sensitive as they can be. They're imperfect."

Cardenas estimated that only 10 percent of concussions result in an easily diagnosed loss of consciousness or obvious disorientation. The rest lead to varying stages of what is termed "altered consciousness," the type Jackson said he suffered in Dallas.

The NFL's enhanced protocol put an independent neurologist such as Cardenas on each sideline; they stand at catty-corner 25-yard lines to maximize coverage of the field. An independent athletic trainer is stationed in the press box, and the three scan the field throughout the game for possible concussions, using a video assembly on the sideline to review hits when necessary.

[+] EnlargeJordan Cameron
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsDoctors hope to one day be able to test for concussions chemically through saliva or blood.
The NFL has distributed guidelines for the initial sideline test of a player displaying symptoms, viewable here. Cardenas said he first asks a player to describe "what happened," knowing that any gap in the story is usually a sign of a concussion. Players must recite facts such as the opponent, what quarter the game is, who scored last, who won the previous week and then repeat a series of numbers and words. If the player's responses are deemed unsatisfactory, he is taken to the locker room for a full assessment.

But it's the initial test that a slightly altered player, or one whose symptoms could be delayed, can reasonably pass. To combat this shortcoming, Cardenas' research group is among those searching for a more objective assessment tool that would identify the release of certain chemicals from the brain associated with concussions.

The "holy grail," Cardenas said, is a custom mouth guard that would change colors when it detects the concussion-related chemicals in saliva. Research to that end is underway, but reliable tests are probably years away if at all.

Until then, Cardenas said, the best path to overcoming limitations of the sideline test is a culture change that he says is already underway. It's worth noting, of course, that Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril was ruled out of the Super Bowl because of a concussion.

"In the time I've been doing this," Cardenas said, "I've had more players coming off the field and saying, 'I don't feel right. I've got to sit.' I actually see more athletes self-report at the professional level than in the college and youth levels. To me, that an athlete [Avril] was taken out of the biggest game in the world because of a concussion was an important message."

Jackson isn't so sure. Despite the risks of playing with a concussion, Jackson said he has no regrets and thinks many players would feel the same way. At the time, he said, he was fighting an internal impression among Lions officials that he spent too much time in the trainers' room with mild injuries anyway.

"My family and friends, they expressed a little concern," Jackson said, "but I felt proud of the fact that I was concussed and went back into the game and was able to play. It was almost like you're on a battlefield and get an arrow in the chest, and you break it off and you go back to battle. I felt like it was good for me to be there for my teammates. I had the option to pull myself in that situation but I didn't want to."

The NFL announced last month that documented concussions dropped by 25 percent in 2014 compared to 2013, a real and important number. But the difficult truth is that concussion diagnosis remains a subjective matter, especially in real time during games, and the solutions remain incremental.
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Monday marks the unofficial start of the 2015 NFL season, at least from a roster-building perspective. Let's take a quick look at what's happening this week:
  • Tags: Teams have between Monday and March 2 to place a franchise or transition tag on pending free agents. The NFL hasn't released exact figures because the 2015 salary cap has not been set, but count on roughly a five percent increase from the 2014 numbers listed here. (Franchised players must be paid the average of the five highest-paid players at their position, or 120 percent of the previous year's salary, whichever is higher. Depending on the designation, the tags require at least a first-round draft pick in compensation to sign as a free agent.)
  • Combine: The traditional schedule for the 2015 combine in Indianapolis has been moved up a day. That means the first group of players will begin arriving Tuesday for health evaluations and measurements. The first workouts -- for offensive linemen, tight ends and special teams -- will be Friday.
  • Competition committee: The group charged with maintaining on-field integrity and fair competition will meet at the combine to begin discussing possible rule changes for 2015. According to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, topics include expanded instant replay and how better to judge whether a receiver has made a catch. Also expected to be on the agenda: Expanding the postseason and re-imagining the extra point.
Steven HauschkaAP Photo/Stephen BrashearAs fans endure rulebook fatigue, the NFL is tinkering with kicking staples in place nearly a century.
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The NFL's competition committee will meet this week to debate proposals that would fundamentally change the game, a list ranging from an expansion of instant replay to extension of the postseason to a reimagining of the extra point. So now is a good time to recount a story that Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, told a small group of reporters two days before Super Bowl XLIX.

A few weeks earlier, Vincent found himself listening to talk radio in Green Bay as he drove to Austin Straubel Airport, reliving the controversial divisional playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. He wanted to know how fans were reacting to a rule that disallowed what by all evidence looked like a legal catch by Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in the fourth quarter of the Packers' 26-21 victory.

"A guy was saying, 'You know, I'm watching the game now and I feel like I have to have a rule book,'" Vincent said. "I parked. I paused and wanted to listen further. I'm [thinking], if he feels that way, and [his team] won, then imagine how other people feel across the country. [They're like], 'I used to know the rules. Football used to be so simple. You run. You throw. You tackle.' When you hear those things around the country, and you read different comments, you say, 'This is something we have to think about. How do we get a culture where there is clarity and consistency for all?'"

What Vincent heard and articulated was a sense that the NFL neared a tipping point with its most loyal fans during the 2014 season. These are the people who look past the league's off-field stumbles, who can stomach concerns about the long-term health of players, and just want to consume football. Even that group has been confused and at times outraged by a labyrinth of NFL rules, exceptions and points of emphasis that impacted games throughout the season.

Among Vincent's duties, one is quite basic: He must ensure that football makes sense and agrees with the average consumer, a task hardened by decades of unintended consequences from rule changes designed to correct a specific flaw. And yet, even when one of its executives recognizes the situation, the NFL is pursuing another set of inorganic changes that would further complicate the game.

The league appears obsessed at its highest levels with changing the near-automatic extra point, as evidenced by commissioner Roger Goodell's prominent mention during his annual news conference last month. It's true that place-kickers have been converting extra points at a rate above 99 percent for five consecutive years, as the chart shows. But two possible changes, expected to be on the competition committee's agenda this week, appear flawed as well.

The possibilities stem from a pair of experiments conducted in the past six months. In the first two weeks of the 2014 preseason, extra points were placed at the 15-yard line and thus became 33-yard kicks. The conversion rate dropped to 94.3 percent for the resulting 141 attempts. Then, in the Pro Bowl last month, the league narrowed the uprights by four feet -- from 18 feet, 6 inches to 14 feet, 6 inches -- and watched as place-kicker Adam Vinatieri uncharacteristically missed a field goal and two extra-point attempts.

"When you adjust it down, it's not automatic," Vincent said. "... I think that will be something that will be discussed, absolutely, just seeing what we saw in the Pro Bowl. I think it was good."

There is no debating that a 33-yard extra point and/or narrower goalposts would make kicks more difficult. But would it make sense within the context of the game? And would it really be more entertaining?

I spoke with both Super Bowl kickers last month about the possible changes. Neither the Seattle Seahawks' Steven Hauschka nor the New England Patriots' Stephen Gostkowski were enthused, and not simply because it would make their jobs more difficult.

"They just want more entertainment," Hauschka said. "If that's what they think is entertainment, then go for it. I think it will affect the games in more ways than they think."

Consider a late-season game at Chicago's Soldier Field. Each team scores three touchdowns but the game is decided by a missed extra point. Would that process and result be more entertaining? Or just annoying?

Meanwhile, Hauschka theorized that conversion rates on field goals would drop from their current spot (84 percent in 2014) to the 70s or lower with narrower goalposts. Gostkowski wondered whether decision-makers understand how often kicking technique requires use of the uprights' periphery.

"When you play in a place like New England or Buffalo or anywhere in the Northeast, there is a lot of wind," Gostkowski said. "You don't always aim down the middle. You have to play the wind. It's a guessing game with the wind, and given a couple of feet less on each side, it becomes [an] extremely, extremely more difficult task at hand."

The chart suggests the sharp rise of field goal accuracy might have leveled off. And an argument could be made that long-distance field goals actually increase scoring and entertainment. "If a team decides to go for a 55-yard field goal and has a good kicker and he makes it," Hauschka said, "I think they should be rewarded for it. You won't see those kinds of attempts anymore if they narrow the goalposts."

The NFL hasn't changed the width of the uprights since it began recording field dimensions prior to the 1920s, according to a league spokesman. The upright is as much a part of the game as a 100-yard field. And if the league moves the spot on extra points, it would introduce an inorganic scenario in which a 19-yard field goal could count for three points while a 33-yard extra point would count for one.

So for what it's worth, I'll return to a suggestion a number of coaches made last summer.

Instead of changing the uprights or moving the spot of the extra point in the name of entertainment, why not give teams an incentive to go for two points after a touchdown? Simply shifting the line of scrimmage from the 2-yard line to the 1 is probably enough. Multiple coaches said they would be more likely to go for two from the 1-yard line, given its reduced difficulty and increased play-calling possibilities.

Since 2001, which is as far as ESPN Stats & Information's records go, the conversion rate for two-point plays from the 1-yard line (after a penalty) is 69.7 percent. By definition, that makes it a substantially more difficult -- and genuinely entertaining -- play without disrupting an efficiency in the kicking game that the league should be trying to preserve.

Would the NFL consider it? I haven't detected any substantive discussion. But if Vincent is hearing about frustration over complex rules, and he knows they originate from attempts to straighten out specific objections, you would hope there is a chance.
Julian EdelmanMike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJulian Edelman's 3-yard touchdown gave the Patriots the lead late in the fourth quarter.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Julian Edelman scored the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX. In light of the NFL's current climate, however, it's fair to wonder if he should have been on the field for the 3-yard score that accounted for the final margin in the New England Patriots' 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

This night will be forever remembered, of course, for an interception that stymied the Seahawks at the goal line with 20 seconds remaining. But earlier in the fourth quarter, Edelman had been staggered by a crushing hit from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. He appeared unsteady on multiple occasions, crawling after one tackle and slow to rise after another. Was he tested for a concussion? Was he simply responding to an aggravated hip injury? No one from the Patriots would say.

The NFL announced last week that diagnosed concussions dropped 25 percent during the 2014 regular season, but the sight of a player stumbling around after a big hit lit up social media and called into question why he wasn't removed for a comprehensive concussion test.

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsJulian Edelman bounced back from a big hit by safety Kam Chancellor to score the game-winning TD.
Players suspected of having suffered concussions are prohibited from speaking to the media, but Edelman answered questions for more than 20 minutes Sunday night. He also performed the “I’m going to Disneyland” postgame commercial and is scheduled to appear there Tuesday. Asked whether he was woozy or had submitted to a concussion test on the sideline, Edelman twice invoked the Patriots’ steely in-house rules.

"We're not allowed to speak about injuries right now," he said.

One reporter asked Edelman if he remembered the remainder of the possession after the Chancellor hit.

"Yes, I do," he said with a smile. "I remember that we scored."

Coach Bill Belichick, speaking at roughly the same time in a different room, was not asked about the hit on Edelman, based on interview transcripts. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said he saw Edelman take a "big hit" but "didn't have any sense" that he was impaired or otherwise not at full strength.

"I was just calling the game," McDaniels said, "and until they tell me that somebody is out, I don't really change my thought process."

The question is whether someone should have told McDaniels just that. With 10 minutes, 58 seconds remaining in the game, Edelman cut across the middle of the field and caught a pass from Tom Brady. Chancellor's hit connected with Edelman's upper body -- and possibly his helmet -- and knocked him back at an awkward angle. He staggered to his feet and ran another 12 yards before falling on his own. (Referee Bill Vinovich ruled Edelman was down by contact at the 49-yard line after a 21-yard gain on third-and-14.)

Three plays later, Edelman caught another 21-yard pass before going down at the 4-yard line. He crawled on the ground for several seconds before teammates helped him up. On the next play, Edelman was slow to rise after he hit his head on the ground following an unsuccessful attempt to make a catch in the end zone.

The NFL's concussion protocol lists these symptoms, among others, as "potential concussion signs" that should be evaluated:

  • Slow to get up following a hit to the head ("hit to the head" may include secondary contact with the playing surface);
  • Motor coordination/balance problems (stumbles, trips/falls, slow/labored movement)

Those symptoms don't mean a player has suffered a concussion, but the NFL encourages further investigation upon observing them. If a team's medical staff doesn't notice them, the league has an independent medical official in the press box who can alert the sideline. That person twice radioed the Patriots' sideline to warn of Edelman's symptoms, according to a Detroit Free Press reporter who was sitting in the press box and could hear the conversation.

To be clear, we don't know for sure Edelman wasn't checked. We also shouldn't be so na´ve as to assume a competitive player would volunteer concussion symptoms in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. But we know he didn't miss any snaps during that period. Meanwhile, there wasn't much time to conduct a full test with medical personnel during the Seahawks' ensuing possession, which lasted 1:02.

Edelman caught three passes for 33 yards and the touchdown after the Chancellor hit. Overall, he caught nine passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. Speaking with reporters afterward, he acknowledged he was "exhausted like everyone else" and at one point referred to "Seattle" as "St. Louis" before correcting himself. Tears formed in his eyes when he was asked about his father, whom he said "has always had my back."

There were no doctors in the audience, and concussions are far from an exact science. Symptoms can ebb and flow and present themselves days after the hit. What looks like a concussion can, in fact, be a reaction to pain in another part of the body. (Edelman dealt with a hip injury this season.)

But we know this: A wild NFL season concluded with a key player lurching around the field after taking a big hit. Stay tuned on this one.

PHOENIX -- Moments after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell completed his annual Super Bowl press conference, ESPN analyst Bill Polian cut to a crucial flaw in the presentation.

"Everyone wanted to hear about domestic violence," Polian said. "Everyone wanted to hear about Deflategate. Everyone wanted to hear about the major issues that have affected the league outside of the normal realm of the game. And he led off with the extra point!"

Indeed, Goodell mentioned the ongoing discussion about the length and difficulty of extra points before referencing any specifics about an ongoing investigation into the integrity of the AFC Championship Game. We have plenty of coverage on what Goodell did say about the New England Patriots' deflation issue, so let's consider his ill-placed but still notable remarks on other issues -- starting with the basic definition of a "conflict of interest."

1. Perception vs. reality

Goodell bristled at two questions in particular.

[+] EnlargeRoger Goodell
Cliff Hawkins/Getty ImagesRoger Goodell hit on many key points during his press conference on Friday, but the timing of some of them was a bit curious.
One referenced the league's hiring of outside attorneys it pays to provide independent investigations. (Former FBI director Robert Mueller, who investigated the league's response to the Ray Rice domestic violence matter, worked at the same law firm as Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass.) The other question referred to his attendance at a party hosted by Patriots owner Robert Kraft the night before the AFC Championship Game shenanigans.

Goodell's response was, in essence, that no conflict of interest existed because the people involved all have "uncompromising integrity." That might be true, but that isn't the full point of a conflict of interest. It's not simply whether impropriety occurred as a result of an interconnected relationship. It's whether the relationship creates the perception that an impropriety could occur.

Did Mueller take it easy on the NFL given his firm's relationship with Cass? Will investigator Ted Wells exonerate the Patriots because Goodell partied with Kraft a couple weeks ago? Unlikely. Is it possible to conceive? Of course.

No matter what might or might not have happened, Goodell would be well served to step away from anything that could provide even the appearance of a conflict. His defiance remains a hurdle in publicly moving past the issues of this season.

2. That troublesome extra point

Goodell: "Fans want every play to have suspense. But the extra point has become virtually automatic. We have experimented with alternatives to make it a more competitive play and we expect to advance these ideas through the competition committee this offseason."

Seifert: NFL place-kickers converted 99.3 percent of their extra-point attempts in 2014 (1,222 of 1,230), a year after hitting 99.6 percent. The league experimented by moving the kick back to 33 yards during the preseason and then narrowed the goal posts for the Pro Bowl. It seems likely the league will push some form of a change through its competition committee in the coming months.

3. Expanded playoffs

Goodell: "The possibility of expanding the playoffs has also been a topic of discussion for a number of years. There are positives to it, but there are concerns as well, among them being the risk of diluting the regular season and conflicting with college football in January."

Seifert: This change has seemed certain for the better part of a year, and Goodell said recently he expected a vote during the league's owners meeting in March. The "concerns" Goodell mentioned Friday represented at least a tapping of the brakes. A cynic would say Goodell was acknowledging objections simply to placate outnumbered opponents.

4. Officiating changes

Goodell: "We are looking at other ways to advance replay and officiating. That includes potentially expanding replay to penalties if it can be done without more disruption to the face of the game. We are discussing rotating members of the officiating crews during the season as a way to improve consistency throughout our regular season and benefit our crews in the postseason."

Seifert: Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said Thursday that multiple teams have already submitted proposals to expand replay in various ways. It seems unlikely the league will allow all plays to be reviewed, as the Patriots proposed last year, but a slower expansion is a realistic possibility.

Rotating officials, meanwhile, might help dissipate the penalty disparities among crews that we have documented for the past two seasons. It would also devalue the chemistry and familiarity that season-long crews develop.

5. Over-the-top telecast

Goodell: "We are aggressively pursuing the streaming of a regular-season game with our first over-the-top telecast. It would be carried on broadcast stations in both team markets, but also reach a worldwide audience, including millions of homes that don't have traditional television service."

Seifert: At the moment, this is a win-win for everyone. All games would remain available over-the-air while the NFL and its chosen partner experiment with streaming. Some day, of course, the NFL could offer some games exclusively via streaming, most likely at a cost to consumers.

PHOENIX -- In this most unusual and largely condemned season, the NFL took a radical step this week during the runup to Super Bowl XLIX -- at least by its standards. The league publicly introduced a referee for the first time, an effort to humanize its besieged officials and remind fans that the men wearing stripes are people with families, mortgages and health battles as well.

A cynic might consider it a dark day when publicizing a referee trumps organic conversation. The NFL's investigation into underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game has dominated discussion during the past two weeks. But in the meantime, a man who was near death eight years ago was quietly preparing for the assignment of his life.

Referee Bill Vinovich has quite a story, for this moment or any other. Here it is, supplemented by an interview Thursday at the Phoenix Convention Center.

Vinovich, a CPA in his day job, began his NFL career in 2001 as a side judge and was promoted to referee in 2004. In the spring of 2007, he was at home with his wife in their Lake Forest, California, home. As he was working out on the bench press -- lifting 225 pounds, he recalled -- Vinovich was stricken by pain he had never felt. "Felt like double knives in the back," he said.

[+] EnlargeBill Vinovich
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesIn 2007, Bill Vinovich suffered an aortic aneurysm. The NFL cleared him to return as a referee in 2012, and Sunday he will referee Super Bowl XLIX.
At first he believed he was having intense back spasms. His wife convinced him to go to the hospital, where an initial assessment found his blood pressure at 220/180. A CAT scan revealed a stunning diagnosis -- an aortic aneurysm had caused a dissection of his descending aorta -- and doctors told him they weren't sure if he would survive the next 48 hours.

A similar malady, which can strike healthy people without warning or hereditary clues, had killed actor John Ritter four years earlier. Ritter's family formed a foundation that triggered better awareness of the symptoms Vinovich was displaying. Still, he was given low chances of survival.

"I was just really lucky," he said. "That's all it was."

In recovery, doctors ruled out a return to on-field officiating. He was barred from strenuous activity, and he didn't feel well enough to engage in it, anyway. The NFL assigned him to its replay team, where he sat in press boxes on game days to review challenges.

Over the next three years, however, he began feeling better. His doctors theorized that the heavy weightlifting had spiked his blood pressure to 300/200, causing the dissection, and approved a return to conditioning provided he lift no more than half his body weight.

Vinovich felt well enough to begin officiating college basketball, but the NFL's cardiologist consultant refused to clear him to return to the football field. The league sent him to Dr. John Elefteriades, whose cardiology department at Yale was a leading research center on aortic dissections.

Elefteriades recommended surgery in 2010, and the NFL cleared Vinovich to return as a referee in 2012. He was a "swing" official that year who filled in when others had a week off, and he was awarded his own crew in 2013.

"I guess I just knew my body," Vinovich said. "The first couple years, it was strenuous to do exercise, so I was careful. Once I started doing college basketball, I realized I was fine. I wanted to get back into this. It was in my blood. That first game back [in Philadelphia, in 2012], there were tears in my eyes. I couldn't believe it."

Those tears returned a few weeks ago when he received a call from Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, to inform he had been selected to work the Super Bowl. Vinovich knew his high regular-season grades had put him in contention for the honor, but so did those of about five other referees, he said.

"Three years ago," he said, "this was the furthest thing from my mind, and I'm extremely humble about it."

Officiating requires mute submission to public criticism and an acceptance that praise arrives only through private channels. Officials are denounced for perceived mistakes while their accomplishments are overlooked or missed altogether. An example: Vinovich's successful navigation of the New England Patriots' surprise scheme in the AFC divisional playoffs.

Just after halftime in that game, you might recall, the Patriots removed an offensive lineman and had skill-position players with an eligible number report as their fifth ineligible player. Vinovich reacted smoothly, making the required announcement and even telling the Baltimore Ravens not to cover the ineligible player.

His reaction has been explained away by the assumption that the Patriots provided him advance warning during his standard pregame meeting with them. Here's what Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said when I asked him about it this week: "We were very open I believe with the officials and all that before the game. They always ask you, 'Do you have anything that's unique or different or whatever?' I wasn't at the meeting, but I'm sure it was communicated with them."

Except for one thing: It was not, Vinovich said this week. The scheme was as much a surprise to him as everyone else.

No one expects Bill Vinovich to be a star. Kids aren't going to start hanging posters of him on their bedroom walls. But everyone in Super Bowl XLIX has a story. Even the referee. And now you know it.

video
PHOENIX -- Super Bowl XLIX will conclude the NFL's second year with Dean Blandino as its vice president of officiating, a tenure that sparked an excellent ESPN.com profile by ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill. For our purposes, let's take this opportunity to chronicle the league's on-field transition to a younger generation of officiating leadership.

Because everyone loves a list, here are five ways Blandino has either impacted the NFL's on-field product or facilitated a change:

1. Instant replay

Replay is Blandino's area of expertise; he was an instant replay official from 1999-2003 and the NFL's top replay manager from 2004-09. For three years, he operated an independent company that trained and evaluated replay officials. So it's no surprise to see his most significant impact in this area.

Last offseason, Blandino successfully lobbied the competition committee to create a replay headquarters within the league's New York office to consult in real time with referees during every challenge in games. The move provided another set of eyes to the ultimate decision, but without question allowed Blandino to impose a new standard for overturning calls as well.

As the chart shows, reversals on coaches' challenges dropped sharply from 2013. Blandino freely acknowledged the higher bar now in place.

"The call on the field is correct unless we have indisputable visual evidence to the contrary, and then we can overturn it, and we are really trying to stick to that standard," he said during the season. "You will see that reversals are down this year because we are not going to try to reofficiate the play in the booth. We have a ruling on the field. If it's not clear and obvious that that ruling on the field is incorrect, the call will not be overturned, and that's the standard that we're trying to stick to."

A secondary impact here was efficiency. Often, Blandino and his staff could begin analyzing a play before the game referee reached the sideline replay machine. The arrangement will receive at least some credit for the NFL's nearly two-minute reduction in average game time this season.

2. Technology

For more than a decade, the NFL's old guard executives have trusted Blandino with the conception and implementation of technology in officiating. As replay manager, he orchestrated a shift to HD monitors in 2007. This season, he outfitted officials with wireless microphones to facilitate better communication on the field amid the chaos -- and noise -- of live action.

Meanwhile, during the Pro Bowl last Sunday, officials experimented with sideline tablets to view replays.

3. Personnel overhaul

Blandino was promoted in February 2013, and it's worth noting what happened after a year of observation. During the 2014 offseason, the NFL replaced 13 officials -- including three new referees, one of whom (Brad Allen) was hired straight from the college ranks. It was the league's largest personnel turnover among officials in more than a decade, according to the website FootballZebras.com.

The Super Bowl XLIX referee is Bill Vinovich, who been with the NFL in various capacities since 2001 but has never worked a Super Bowl.

4. Executing requests

The competition committee has authority over rule changes and points of emphasis. It's Blandino's job to implement its direction and to authorize any changes of fundamentals that could impact the way calls are made.

The chart, compiled courtesy of Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, compares the total number of key penalty categories during Blandino's tenure to the two full seasons prior to his promotion. (We omitted 2012 because replacement officials worked the first three weeks of games during a labor lockout.)

Predictably, you'll see that penalties on pass defenders have risen significantly. Blandino has overseen a continuation of the NFL's broader vision to facilitate big passing numbers, as most players and coaches see it.

"It's a fantasy football league," Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett said this week. "It's all about offense. You see the quarterbacks being paid more, the receivers being paid more. The fans love fantasy football. They love seeing guys catch touchdowns. Nobody wants to see a game that's 14-0 or 6-7. They want to see a game that is 41-38 and say, 'Damn, that was a shootout,' instead of the way they used to play it. That's just how it is now. Fantasy football rules the world."

It's also worth noting that some pre-snap penalties and intentional grounding calls have fallen. There are several explanations for that drop, including better execution by teams, but it's also an area that can be impacted by subtle changes in technique or fundamentals.

5. Telegenics and transparency

At least some of the criticism of NFL officiating comes, frankly, from people who don't fully know or understand the rules. The league's rulebook is the most complex and least intuitive among American professional sports, and Blandino has taken to traditional and social media to explain calls and provide transparency where possible.

Like predecessor Mike Pereira, Blandino is telegenic and once acknowledged a career ambition to work in television. In addition to regular appearances on the NFL Network and numerous national radio shows this season, Blandino also began tweeting (@DeanBlandino) about particularly notable calls in real time.
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- So I was stumbling through the final few minutes of Super Bowl XLIX media day when I ran into Heath Farwell, a 33-year-old linebacker who by all rights should have been watching from home. It's not often, after all, that the Seattle Seahawks -- or any other NFL team -- stash a well-paid veteran to prevent him from leaving the franchise.

Farwell
In Week 3 of the preseason, Farwell tore a groin muscle and suffered a sports hernia while in pass defense. Doctors pegged his recovery time at between eight and 10 weeks, and Farwell knew what was next. Despite his value as a special-teams ace, Farwell figured the Seahawks wouldn't want any part of paying his $1.5 million base salary while he missed at least half the season.

"I talked to my agent, and we were preparing to be released with an injury settlement," Farwell said. "That's how things go in this league. And then Pete came and talked to me."

Indeed, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had a different idea. An injury settlement effectively would have ended Farwell's association with the team; NFL rules prevent a player from returning until six weeks past the expiration of an injury settlement. Instead, Carroll proposed a trip to injured reserve and a new role as a quasi-coach. The arrangement allowed Farwell to earn his full salary, rehabilitate his injury and receive an invaluable glimpse into the future he thought was still a few years away.

Farwell's primary responsibility was to mentor rookie linebackers Brock Coyle and Kevin Pierre-Louis, but he also absorbed the full weekly structure of coaches -- dawn-to-midnight hours, staff meetings and everything in between.

"I couldn't believe how much time goes into creating a 20-minute presentation for players in meetings," Farwell said. "It's unbelievable. That's why this was a no-brainer. I can learn, see what my future holds and still be around the team. It was an inside glimpse of what most players don't get to see."

Farwell said he wants to play in 2015, but rare is the NFL team that wants to pay market value for a special-teams player in his mid-30s. The Seahawks seem likely to have at least one opening on their defensive staff if, as expected, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn departs next week to be the Atlanta Falcons' head coach and the Seahawks promote one of their position coaches into the role.

"Coach Carroll never mentioned what's going to happen going forward," said Farwell, who started his NFL career as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings. "I think there will be an opportunity to play at some point, but honestly I believe Coach Carroll will hopefully have an opportunity for me to join the staff, whether it's next year or in two years or this year."

This is how NFL franchises can differentiate themselves. Every offseason, teams search the coaching landscape for help. They'll sift through the veteran names, consider suggestions from prominent agents and more often than not hire someone from another organization.

Why? Isn't a stable franchise best served by promoting those already familiar with its program? Farwell's 2014 season was his fourth with Carroll and the Seahawks. If and when he joins the staff full-time, he'll be ready.

Inside Slant: Super Bowl QB Report

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
10:15
AM ET

PHOENIX -- What follows is an extra-special, super-duper postseason edition of our Quarterback Report, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information and reporting done here on site. What does ESPN's trove of advanced quarterback analytics say about the Super Bowl XLIX matchup? Let's take a closer look. (Follow this link for ESPN's Total Quarterback Rating page.)

Tom Brady
New England Patriots
NEXT: Super Bowl XLIX vs. SEA
'14 SEASON
CMP: 373
ATT: 582
YDS: 4,109
PCT: 64.1
TD: 33
INT: 9
WHAT YOU MISSED

Brady was one of the NFL's least accurate deep passers during the regular season, continuing a three-year trend. Brady's completion percentage on throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air was 28.3 percent this season (ranking 28 of 33 qualified quarterbacks) and has been 29.9 percent over the past three years. The only quarterbacks with lower such percentages over that longer period are Carson Palmer and Brandon Weeden. ... This season, at least, it wasn't for lack of trying. Brady attempted 60 passes of at least 20 yards downfield, tied for No. 14 in the league. But in a twisted way, this deficiency probably means less against the Seahawks than other teams. The Seahawks shut down long passes in 2014, allowing just 17 completions of at least 20 yards (No. 6 in the NFL). ... Where Brady has excelled is in the red zone; he has thrown 30 touchdowns and two interceptions, including in the playoffs, on such throws. His QBR in the red zone is 86.5, fourth best in the NFL. The Patriots should have an advantage here -- the Seahawks' defense allowed an NFL-high 67.3 completion percentage in the red zone. ... Brady rarely holds onto the ball and attempted 20 passes from outside the pocket this season, tied for the fewest among qualified quarterbacks. His average time in the pocket this season was 2.22 seconds, third fastest in the league. ... Thanks mostly to All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, Brady threw 17 touchdown passes to tight ends this season, tied for the NFL lead. The Seahawks allowed 11 touchdown passes to tight ends, third most in the NFL.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Brady's success in the red zone and the Gronkowski threat is a formidable matchup for the Seahawks' defense based on the numbers. It's fair to wonder if Brady would have better deep success if the Patriots had a more established deep threat at receiver, but regardless, there is no reason for them to challenge the Seahawks there Sunday. The Seahawks should expect power running and a quick passing game from the Patriots.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks
NEXT: Super Bowl XLIX vs. NE
'14 SEASON
CMP: 285
ATT: 452
YDS: 3,475
PCT: 63.1
TD: 20
INT: 7
WHAT YOU MISSED

It has been 25 years since a quarterback not named Michael Vick has rushed for as many yards as Wilson (849) did in 2014. Of his total, 500 came on designed runs and 349 were the results of scrambles. His style will be a change for the Patriots, who defended only three zone-read carries by quarterbacks all season. (Wilson ran on 35 of them, most in the NFL, and gained 268 yards.) The Patriots were one of eight teams not to allow a quarterback to score a rushing touchdown; Wilson scored six, all on designed rushes. ... Given that workload, it's worth noting that Wilson has fumbled 13 times, including the postseason, but somehow hasn't lost any. The Patriots forced 19 fumbles total in the regular season, No. 21 in the NFL. ... Wilson threw an NFL-high 112 passes out of the pocket during the regular season, leading to 917 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. The Patriots defended only 41 pass attempts from outside the pocket, fourth fewest in the NFL, and allowed a completion percentage of 43.9 on those throws. (League average: 49.8.) ... Given his mobility and time outside the pocket, it's no surprise that Wilson took an average of 2.89 seconds before passing, the most in the league. Opponents got an average of 2.74 seconds per throw from the Patriots' defense, the highest figure in the league. ... It is a challenge for the Seahawks' offensive line at times, and Wilson was put under pressure this season on a league-high 39.9 percent of his dropbacks. "His ability to extend plays is huge," center Max Unger said. "It's part of the success. It makes our job a little tough, but at the same time, you stay on your blocks and do the best you can. We've done it for three years and it's just part of the deal."

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Patriots would be smart to keep Wilson in the pocket, a strategy the Green Bay Packers used effectively with a modified pass rush for most of the NFC Championship Game. Wilson eventually beat it with two deep throws in overtime, but the blueprint remains. Otherwise, Wilson could help the Seahawks' offense control the game if he can consistently get on the edge.


The news broke as Sunday bled into Monday: The NFL is investigating whether the New England Patriots had intentionally underinflated the footballs used during their 45-7 victory against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. So what's really going on here? Let's take a closer look, with updates associated with the news that the NFL found 11 of the Patriots' 12 footballs in the game to be underinflated by about 2 pounds apiece, as well as comments Thursday from coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

What happened?

Newsday reported the following chain of events: Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the second quarter and brought the ball to the sideline. Jackson handed it to a Colts equipment manager, who noticed the ball seemed underinflated. Coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson were informed, and Grigson notified NFL director of football operations Mike Kensil on site.

According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, the NFL tested the balls at halftime and found the discrepancy.

What's wrong with that?

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Matt SlocumAfter the Patriots burst Indy's bubble, they're being investigated for letting the air out of the football.
The NFL rulebook has precise stipulations for the inflation and weight of all game balls. They must be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch and weigh between 14 and 15 ounces.

Why would a team want to use underinflated balls?

Basic physics. A less-inflated ball is more easily manipulated by a quarterback's hands, allowing him to squeeze and secure it better. This ability could be especially advantageous in the kind of wet and windy weather in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where the AFC Championship Game was played.

How would one let the air out of a ball during a game?

Game officials inspect and approve all game balls 2 hours, 15 minutes before the start of the game, placing a unique mark on each to signify compliance with weight and inflation requirements. A ball attendant takes them to the field, where they are kept by ball boys on the sideline. Presumably, someone on the sideline could reduce inflation after the initial inspection.

Who are the ball boys?

In most cases, they are game-day employees identified and vetted by teams but paid by the NFL. In some cases, they can be sons or daughters of prominent team employees, but in recent years, teams have been moving away from using teenage staff. Ball boys work both home and road games, often doubling as assistants to the equipment staff.

Is there any oversight during the game?

The referee can swap out a ball at any point for any reason, including concern about inflation. Referee Walt Anderson did that at least once Sunday night, on the first play of the third quarter. It was not entirely clear why. Mortensen reported Anderson called for a new ball more than once during the game.

What will the NFL investigate?

Even after finding the weight discrepancy, the league will have to find proof of an intentional act to deflate balls used in the game. Its game operations manual states in part: "Once the balls have left the locker room, no one, including players, equipment managers, ball boys, and coaches, is allowed to alter the footballs in any way."

If found guilty, how will the league punish the Patriots?

Again, from the game manual: "If any individual alters the footballs, or if a non-approved ball is used in the game, the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000."

Is that all?

The key question, of course, is how commissioner Roger Goodell would view the Patriots -- and coach Bill Belichick in particular -- if the investigation continues in this direction. Belichick, of course, was fined $500,000 after the Patriots were found to have spied illegally on opponents in 2007. The team was fined $250,000, and it surrendered a first-round draft choice.

Goodell's letter to Belichick at the time referenced a "calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field." If Goodell views Belichick as a repeat offender to the general act of, well, cheating, then the penalties for this episode could be considerably higher.

Could Goodell reverse the outcome of the AFC Championship Game?

Technically, yes, but it almost certainly won't happen.

Rule 17, Section 2 of the NFL rule book gives Goodell "the sole authority to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary and/or corrective measures if any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity occurs in an NFL game which he deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game."

The bar is high for reversing the outcome. According to the rule, it must be an act or incident that Goodell "deems so extraordinary or unfair that the result of the game in question would be inequitable to one of the participating teams." Would the Colts have won if the footballs were inflated properly? That argument is hard to make.

What are the Patriots saying about this?

In unusually direct terms, Belichick said Thursday morning that he was "shocked" and had "no explanation for what happened." In an eight-minute statement, Belichick said he has never thought of the ramifications of various inflation levels of a football. He also said that in the future, the Patriots would inflate every football beyond the minimum of 12.5 psi to ensure compliance with NFL rules.

Brady's afternoon news conference was far less convincing. He repeatedly denied altering footballs, but acknowledged that a ball at 12.5 psi is "perfect" to him. On several occasions, however, Brady said he wouldn't notice if a ball's inflation changed between his pregame selection and after kickoff. If he knows that 12.5 psi is "perfect," then how would he not notice a two-pound difference?

Will the NFL change any of its ball inflation policies for the Super Bowl in response to this issue?

Actually, the NFL's current policy already takes ball preparation and inflation out of the hands of the teams involved in the game. This year, Chicago Bears equipment manager Tony Medlin will supply balls to the game attendants, who were hired before the NFC and AFC Championship Games. A league spokesman said the league's Competition Committee is expected to review all of these policies during the offseason.

Is this really a big deal?

In itself, no. There is no chance that underinflated balls impacted the outcome of the AFC Championship Game. For the NFL, as with most things, it's about perception. Rules and policies are in place not only to ensure fair play, but to maintain trust. Fans must believe what they're seeing is honest and forthright competition, as removed as possible from subversive acts that would imply nonorganic winners and losers.

Are the Patriots being unfairly targeted?

Quite frankly, the league's 31 other teams do not give the Patriots much benefit of the doubt after the 2007 spying incident. These feelings could be based on jealousy, or simply an unwillingness to accept the Patriots' sustained success on its face. Others might follow the belief of the scorned wife: Once a cheater, always a cheater.

In the end, however, the Patriots will always generate higher levels of suspicion.
The law of averages took over for the NFL's championship weekend, ensuring that the NFC and AFC titles were determined by the performance of players and coaches rather than officials. Unlike the previous two weeks, no game-changing calls impacted the Seattle Seahawks' 28-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers or the New England Patriots' 45-7 win against the Indianapolis Colts.

There is one initial tidbit to consider in advance of a Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl, which will be refereed by Bill Vinovich. (That's according to multiple reports, including one from ESPN rules analyst Jim Daopoulos.) Since Vinovich returned to the referee role in 2012 after recovering from heart problems, he has been assigned five Seahawks games. Seattle is 5-0 in those games, including three victories by at least 20 points.

For the penultimate time in the 2014 season, let's run through a handful of calls that expose and explore the gray area in NFL officiating.

[+] EnlargeJerrell Freeman and Tom Brady
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesColts linebacker Jerrell Freeman was called for roughing the passer on this hit on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter.
Play: Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman called for roughing the passer
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: With 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining in the first half, Freeman rushed as a free blitzer and knocked down Patriots quarterback Tom Brady just after he released the ball. The pass was incomplete, but Anderson penalized Freeman for roughing the passer.

On replay, you see Freeman make contact with his helmet on Brady's chest near his right shoulder. No helmet-to-helmet contact occurred and there didn't appear to be contact with the neck, either.

So what did Anderson see? It's possible he assumed helmet-to-helmet contact because Brady's head snapped back on impact. It's also not out of the question that he believed Freeman's facemask slid up Brady's chest to the neck area, which would have violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b-1) prohibiting contact between a defender's helmet with the head or neck area of a defenseless player "even if the initial contact is lower than the player's neck."

Most likely, however, Anderson would cite Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b-2), which prohibits defenders from "making forcible contact with the top/crown of the forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player's body." Such contact wasn't conclusive in the replay, but it's the closet thing we can get to explaining this penalty. I certainly would have supported a no-call in this instance.

Play: Seahawks offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy penalized for unnecessary roughness in live action
Referee: Tony Corrente
Analysis: With 8:02 remaining in the third quarter, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews sacked Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for a 15-yard loss. Matthews landed on top of Wilson during the play, at which point Sweezy dove into Matthews' back to peel him off the pile.

Corrente's crew correctly penalized Sweezy, but the Packers declined to enforce. Why? Because Corrente did not rule it a "dead ball foul," which would have tacked the 15-yard penalty on top of the 15-yard sack and led to a second-and-45 situation. Instead, he apparently believed Sweezy hit Matthews before Wilson was down.

Viewed on replay, it's clear Wilson's knee had touched the ground before Sweezy hit Matthews. Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 directs officials to call the ball dead and the down complete "when a runner is contacted by an opponent and touches the ground with any body part other than his hands or feet. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground."

The Packers should not have been in position to choose between declining the penalty or giving the Seahawks another first-and-15. It's fair to note, of course, that the Packers could have made the call moot had they stopped the Seahawks on an ensuing third-and-19 two plays later.

Play: Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril penalized for illegal use of hands
Referee: Corrente
Analysis: Avril had already been called once for illegal use of hands when this play took place with 11:58 remaining in the second quarter. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers' pass had fallen incomplete on third down, but the penalty on Avril gave them an automatic first down.

Illegal use of hands was a point of emphasis in 2014 and was called 242 times during the regular season. Rule 12, Section 1, Article 7 penalizes a defensive player who "thrusts his hands forward above the frame of an opponent to contact him on the neck, face or head."

When you watch the replay, you see Avril actually turn his left arm parallel to the ground and push it toward the neck of Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Avril was livid with the call, but if Corrente didn't tag him for illegal use of hands, he could have used Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12. That rule prohibits a player from "Striking, swinging at, or clubbing the neck, head or face of an opponent wit the wrist(s), arm(s), elbow(s) or hand(s)."
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If it were possible, NFL officiating proved a bigger story during the divisional round of playoff games than it did in the wild-card bracket. I've already unpacked the well-handled debut of the New England Patriots' four-man offensive line, and we've also passed along some initial thoughts on the game-changing reversal of Dez Bryant's late-game reception in Green Bay.

Now let's take a closer look at the Bryant play, the biggest decision in the Packers' 26- 21 victory Sunday over the Dallas Cowboys.

There were surely some groans in the NFL office when Bryant momentarily lost control of the ball near the Packers' goal line with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining. The applicable rule -- known either as the "process rule" or the "Calvin Johnson rule," depending on how your team was affected -- almost always generates exasperation from players, coaches and fans. Quite simply, what appears to pass the "eye test" of a catch is superseded by a rule designed to provide officials with clarity in determining possession in such cases.

Here's how Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 reads:

"If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete."

When you review what happened on the fateful play at Lambeau Field, you see that Bryant leaped over Packers cornerback Sam Shields to grab a 31-yard pass from quarterback Tony Romo. Bryant took two steps toward the goal line as he stumbled to the ground.

After he landed on the ground at the Packers' 1-yard line, the ball moved as it contacted the ground. Bryant rolled over, regained control after it had touched the ground and stood up. As referee Gene Steratore saw during the ensuing challenge, the play precisely mirrored the rule. By definition, the ball touched the ground before Bryant regained control. With depressing clarity, the pass was incomplete by NFL rules.

Some would argue that Bryant satisfied the league's definition of a catch based on Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the rule book. According to the wording of that Article, a catch occurs when a player has secured control of the ball in his hands, he is inbounds and he has maintained "control of the ball long enough … to enable him to perform any act common to the game."

In this case, Bryant took two steps and lunged toward the goal line. Why was this not an "act common to the game"? Because, by NFL rules, Bryant did it while going to the ground. He never established himself as "upright." Steratore, in Sunday's official pool report, said: "In our judgment, [Bryant] … continued to fall and never had another act common to the game."

If this sounds unnecessarily complicated, you're both right and wrong. It's complicated because it doesn't make intuitive sense. Anyone who saw Johnson grab the ball in 2010, put two feet on the ground, and simply leave the ball on the ground to celebrate a touchdown knows that. But the rule is in place, according to people who would know, to provide a standard and simple way for officials to rule on possession when players are going to the ground.

The league's competition committee considered alternatives to the "process rule" during the spring of 2011 but ultimately recommended no changes. Why?

"It makes it easier to officiate," New York Giants owner John Mara, a member of the committee, said in 2011. "It's a bright line that you can draw."

Presumably, the rule allows officials to use the same standard for every possession call when a player is going to the ground. The alternative, I suppose, is to ask an official to see accurately and consistently whether a player has full possession before he reaches the ground. Given how complicated and thick the NFL rule book already is, perhaps adding another layer of judgment for officials isn't ideal.

I contacted ESPN rules analyst Jim Daopoulos, a former NFL referee, to see if this intent made sense to him.

"I honestly can't give you a reason for why the rule is the way it is," he said. "I would guess the NFL is trying to simplify the situation as much as possible. Rather than trying to say, did this happen first or did that happen first, or did he get his foot down before the ball got loose, or whatever, they just wanted to take all of those fundamentals out of it and make a blanket statement: If he's going to the ground, you've got to keep the ball all the way through the process. I guess they think if you start looking at all those other parts, it's going to be very difficult for the guys on the field to make the call."

Update: Speaking Sunday night on the NFL Network, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino echoed that explanation.

"I think it's about consistency," he said, "and it's about, 'OK, if we make that a catch, then we've got to look at all these other plays where receivers go the ground, and where do we draw the line?' Currently we have a line where it's control with both feet and then do something with it. If we make this a catch, then where do we draw the line with a lot of other plays where it's clearly incomplete by rule. It can be become even more inconsistent."

Now that the play has impacted a highly competitive playoff game -- and foisted a loss on one of the league's marquee franchises, let's not forget -- I imagine we will hear more about this rule in the offseason. I don't have any answers today, but we'll let Daopoulos have the near-final word on the problem the league is facing here.

"I could go into a bar right now and ask 50 drunks whether it was a catch or not," he said. "And those 50 drunks, whether they like Dez Bryant or they hate him, and no matter if they know the rules, will all say it should be a catch."

Few of us know every NFL rule. Most of us, however, have a picture in our mind of how the game should be played and adjudicated. If a rule runs contrary to a mainstream of judgment, you would hope there is a way to bring it back in line. Stay tuned.

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