NFL Nation: Inside Slant
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.
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.
"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.
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.)
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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)."
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.
A few quick thoughts on the controversial replay reversal that powered the Green Bay Packers to a 26-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys:
The play: On fourth down with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining in the game, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo floated a 31-yard pass down the left sideline. Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant leaped over Packers cornerback Sam Shields and grabbed the ball with both hands. Bryant took two steps as he stumbled to the ground. As he landed just before the Packers' goal line, the ball squirted loose. It made contact with the ground. Bryant then rolled over, grabbed the ball and stood up.
The initial ruling: Referee Gene Steratore's crew initially ruled a catch and placed the ball at the Packers' 1-yard line. Packers coach Mike McCarthy challenged the play.
The rule: The oft-cited "process rule" of the NFL rulebook has surfaced many times, most famously to deny an apparent touchdown catch by the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson in 2010. Here is what 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."
The review: Watched in slow motion, Bryant's action fits the description of the rule. He lost the ball as he stumbled to the ground. The ball touched the ground before Bryant regained control. Steratore, who was also the referee in the 2010 game involving Johnson and the Lions, reversed the initial ruling.
The explanation: NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tweeted shortly after the game: "Bryant going to the ground. By rule he must hold onto it throughout entire process of contacting the ground. He didn't so it is incomplete."
Quick thought: This play was a reminder that the eye test and the "process rule" are often in opposition. The NFL has tried before to rectify this discrepancy via offseason rule changes, and it's fair to assume there will be another effort this spring.
For the second consecutive weekend, a question of NFL rules -- and rule interpretation -- has produced a dominant postgame storyline. On Saturday night, the New England Patriots introduced an unprecedented scheme to create mismatches for their pass-catchers.
Five key questions arose the day after their 35-31 victory over the Baltimore Ravens:
- Was the scheme -- four offensive linemen, with an otherwise eligible receiver reporting as the fifth ineligible player -- legal?
- Did it violate the spirit of NFL rules, if not a precise rule specifically?
- Did referee Bill Vinovich handle the surprise appropriately?
- Were the Ravens' objections justified?
- Will anything change next season as a result?
The short answer, from this vantage point less than 24 hours after the episode:
The Patriots' scheme was legal, even if it pushed the envelope on the NFL's attempt to legislate substitution deception out of the game. Vinovich followed protocol, which gives him discretion on how much time to allow a defense to react to substitutions. Ravens coach John Harbaugh erred by not calling a timeout to give his defensive players their assignments. Finally, it's likely that the NFL's competition committee will at least review the Patriots' formation this offseason to ensure it complied with the NFL's sportsmanship code.
Now let's take a step back and review what happened, with the help of the NFL rulebook and common sense.
On three plays in the second possession of the second half, the Patriots removed an offensive lineman and replaced him with a player who was wearing the number of an eligible receiver. On the first instance, for example, right guard Josh Kline left the field and running back Shane Vereen -- who wears No. 34 -- replaced him.
As required by rule Rule 5, Section 3, Article 1, Vereen reported himself ineligible to Vinovich and lined up in the slot to the right of the formation. The Patriots' line included only four offensive linemen, but it was a legal formation because it included five ineligible receivers. (The rule doesn't require Vereen to be tight to the line.)
Vinovich announced to the Ravens' defense that Vereen was ineligible, as required by the same rule. According to ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss, within the stadium Vinovich could even be heard to tell the Ravens defense not to cover him. At the snap, Vereen ran into the backfield as if he was going to catch a lateral pass; in truth, his "route" was a decoy.
Understandably confused, the Ravens still covered Vereen and left open tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who caught a 16-yard pass.
After the second such instance, Harbaugh ran onto the field and took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, he said later, so that he could implore Vinovich to provide the Ravens more time to adjust to the unconventional ineligible receiver. Harbaugh appeared to be referencing Rule 5, Section 2, Article 10, which begins:
"If a substitution is made by the offense, the offense shall not be permitted to snap the ball until the defense has been permitted to respond with its substitutions. While in the process of a substitution [or simulated substitution], the offense is prohibited from rushing quickly to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball in an obvious attempt to cause a defensive foul [i.e., too many men on the field]."
The rule further calls for the umpire to stand over the ball until the referee has determined "that the defense has had a reasonable time to complete its substitutions."
This rule originated from the NFL's disapproval of "deceptive" substitution patterns. It wants to avoid strategies that quickly assemble a formation via new players and snap the ball before the defense can match up appropriately.
Did Vinovich give the Ravens enough time to react to a formation that put an ineligible receiver in the slot? Via the TV copy of the game, I counted roughly 10 seconds between the time of the first substitute and the snap. Was that enough time? Should Vinovich have instructed the umpire to stand over the ball while the Ravens identified, adjusted and possibly substituted?
Former NFL referee Jim Daopoulos, speaking Sunday morning on "SportsCenter," said anything longer would have effectively worked as a disadvantage to the Patriots.
In the end, Harbaugh should have called a timeout to organize and adjust to the surprise. He could have used that time to speak with Vinovich rather than sacrificing 5 yards (half the distance to the goal line) to do so. According to Harbaugh, Vinovich eventually said he would provide appropriate time moving forward, but by then the Patriots had already cashed in with one touchdown drive and the surprise element was concluded.
One of the primary jobs of the NFL competition committee is to ensure that league rules can't be manipulated to one team's advantage. The NFL rulebook is the most complicated in sports in part due to exceptions and caveats that have been inserted in reaction to similar instances. I'm sure the committee will review the Patriots' strategy, but from this perspective, it seems the most we can expect is a reinforcement that referees must give defenses appropriate time to adjust to substitutions.
The Patriots' reputation as NFL rule-pushers, punctuated by their 2007 discipline for videotaping opponents illegally, surely has played a role in Sunday's swelling emotions. In the end, however, there isn't much to dispute here. Their scheme was legal and sound. Vinovich handled it as well as could have been expected. A creative innovation caught the Ravens by surprise, and they didn't adjust in time. So it goes.
Four teams will return this weekend after skipping the wild-card round under the NFL's bye system. For as much as their week off implies an advantage moving forward, the bottom line, based on recent history, is this: Teams with a bye are almost as likely to be one-and-done as they are to be propelled to the Super Bowl.
The chart accompanying this post tracks the postseason results of the past 20 teams to receive a bye, a period that spans five years. Here are the key takeaways, via research by John Parolin of ESPN Stats & Information:
At least one bye team, and a total of six, lost its first playoff game in each year of the time period.
At least one bye team, and a total of seven, reached the Super Bowl in each year of the same span.
The bye -- and the No. 1 seed, specifically -- worked perfectly for the 2013 Seattle Seahawks and the 2009 New Orleans Saints. Both teams capitalized on tremendous home-field advantages. The Seahawks went 9-1 at CenturyLink Field in 2013, including the playoffs, while the Saints were 8-2 at the Superdome.
For every 2013 Seahawks or 2009 Saints team, of course, there is a 2012 Denver Broncos or a 2011 Green Bay Packers. Both teams were top seeds that returned from a bye to an upset loss at home in the divisional round.
Everyone has a theory for why the bye hasn't provided a more certain advantage to No. 1 and/or No. 2 seeds in recent years. Some of those explanations are based on subjective and/or ethereal notions such as momentum or confidence. In some cases, formidable championship-quality teams didn't start executing until late in the season, putting them in lower seeds and proving difficult matchups for higher-seeded teams. The 2010 Packers, seeded sixth in the NFC, and the 2011 New York Giants, seeded No. 4, are prime examples.
From a larger viewpoint, there is something to be said about the general randomness of the NFL playoffs during the past decade or so. In this data-based analysis for Football Perspective, Neil Paine notes that around 2005, playoff outcomes turned significantly less predictable based on teams' total regular-season performance and thus their seeds. At the very least, I think, we can say that the strength of the opponent is far more important than the bye in determining playoff outcomes during the divisional weekend.
Perhaps the one objective advantage is injury recovery. The Packers' bye this season, for example, gave quarterback Aaron Rodgers an extra week to recover from a calf injury. The Cincinnati Bengals no doubt would have appreciated the extra time for receiver A.J. Green (concussion) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (back), both of whom missed last weekend's wild-card game, which the Bengals lost to the Indianapolis Colts. The same could be said for the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens came while running back Le'Veon Bell was sidelined by a knee injury.
If history is any guide, one of these four teams -- the Packers, Seahawks, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots -- is going to lose this weekend. And one will get to the Super Bowl. There's the value of your bye.
The idea here was to document and explain the usual smattering of ambiguous, controversial or otherwise debatable officiating calls from the NFL's wild-card weekend. What we got was a national outcry about one third-down play, featuring four potential penalties that all went uncalled by referee Pete Morelli and his crew in the Dallas Cowboys' 24-20 comeback victory over the Detroit Lions.
Let's break down that play from every angle, using the NFL rulebook and common sense -- gasp! -- as our guide. Then we'll hit a few additional calls from Sunday and from Saturday evening in Pittsburgh. (And if you missed it, here's the post on referee Ed Hochuli's magical Saturday afternoon in Charlotte, North Carolina).
Sunday's playoff-altering moment came with 8 minutes, 25 seconds remaining at AT&T Stadium. On third-down-and-1 from the Cowboys' 46-yard line, Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew was lined up as a receiver to the left of the formation. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was in coverage.
I know everyone is fired up about Morelli picking up a flag on what appeared to be a pass interference penalty on Hitchens -- later telling a pool reporter that the crew determined Hitchens was legally "face guarding" -- but let's look at this multilayered play in totality.
Pettigrew got a step on Hitchens, who grabbed the back of Pettigrew's jersey with his left hand in violation of the NFL's defensive holding rule. This was a point-of-emphasis penalty in 2014 and was called a league-record 347 times in the regular season. No penalty was called.
As the ball approached the 25-yard line, both Pettigrew and Hitchens initiated contact with each other. Pettigrew put his hands on Hitchens' face mask, which could (and should) have been a penalty for violating Rule 12, Section 2, Article 14 of the NFL rulebook. ("No player shall grasp and control, twist, turn push or pull the facemask of an opponent in any direction.")
Pettigrew wasn't penalized, but Hitchens was initially called for defensive pass interference. Specifically, Hitchens appeared to violate Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(a) of the NFL rulebook, which prohibits "contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent's ability to make the catch."
Hitchens never turned around, so by definition he was not playing the ball. Pettigrew slowed a bit in his attempt to make the catch. Hitchens collided with him, leading with his left arm, knocking Pettigrew on his back.
Dez Bryant ran onto the field to protest the call. He was not wearing a helmet. Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(j) prohibits "removal of a helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player."
After about a minute, Morelli announced there was no penalty for pass interference and picked up the flag. He is not required to provide further explanation, and did not until speaking with a pool reporter a few hours later.
According to Morelli, back judge Lee Dyer initially called for pass interference. Head linesman Jerry Bergman then convinced the group that the contact was "minimal" and "didn't warrant pass interference."
Instead, Morelli referred to it as "face guarding," which is playing pass defense with the back to the quarterback and blocking vision of the ball. It is legal in the NFL.
The key here is whether the contact was truly minimal. It seemed thorough enough to knock down Pettigrew, whom the Lions list at 275 pounds. In his interview, Morelli seemed less than 100 percent convinced, saying Bergman "thought" it was face guarding and refusing to offer his own opinion. It's worth noting here that the NFL scrambles officiating crews for the playoffs, assembling them based on grades rather than on whom they worked with in the regular season.
This sequence of events will push this game into the echelon of NFL history -- the "Phantom Flag Game" was an initial start on social media -- and the ensuing confusion was a bad look for the NFL. Is it the primary reason the Cowboys won and the Lions lost? No. The decision reduced the Lions' win probability at that point from 78 percent to a still-healthy 66 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It's also not uncommon for flags to be picked up. The delay between the call and the pickup likely can be attributed to the relative unfamiliarity between crew members.
Still, at a key moment in the game, the NFL fell far short of the competence and transparency it owes its players, coaches, executives and -- oh yeah -- fans. It must do better.
Play: Players contacted a punter twice in Dallas, but only one was called a penalty.
Analysis: The first instance came with 7:35 remaining in the first quarter. The Cowboys' Dakota Watson extended in an attempt to block Sam Martin's punt for the Lions. Martin got the punt away cleanly, and Watson hit the ground underneath him. Martin fell over the top of Watson.
Although there was minimal contact between the two, Watson still violated the rules for running into the kicker. Among the definitions provided in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 10, Item 2(b) is if the defender "slides under the kicker, preventing him from returning both feet the ground." Watson's movement was a clear example, and Morelli's crew got the call right.
Meanwhile, in the second quarter, the Lions' George Winn got past Cowboys blocker Gavin Escobar and contacted punter Chris Jones, who fell to the ground. Morelli's crew did not make a call. Had Escobar blocked Winn into Jones? Was the contact worth a penalty? Those are the two key questions.
Winn's momentum from beating Escobar carried him into Jones, but it would be tough to argue he was blocked into him. The aforementioned rule, however, includes this clause: "It is not a foul if the contact is not severe."
Although we have seen roughing the kicker called before in similar situations, the contact did not seem severe to me. Winn actually grabbed Jones' jersey with his left hand in an attempt to keep him upright. It was a defensible no-call.
Play: No call on deep pass to Cincinnati Bengals receiver Brandon Tate.
Referee: Carl Cheffers
Analysis: At the end of the third quarter Sunday, Tate ran a deep post pattern against two Indianapolis Colts defenders. He got a step on both, but cornerback Mike Adams was in pursuit.
After quarterback Andy Dalton released the ball, Adams used his right shoulder to bump into Tate's left shoulder. Tate fell down, and Adams then turned around to locate the ball, which hit the ground several yards from him.
Based on what the replay showed, this play should have been called defensive pass interference. It violated Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(e), which prohibits a defender from cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball." Adams did not turn to play the ball until after he collided with Tate.
Play: Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier drags Baltimore Ravens tailback Justin Forsett away from a loose ball.
Referee: Clete Blakeman
Analysis: With just under 12 minutes remaining in Saturday night's game, Forsett fumbled after colliding with Shazier and teammate Owen Daniels. Shazier saw the fumble immediately and grabbed Forsett's left arm, pulling him away from the ball. Eventually, Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt recovered.
NFL rules allow a player to "push or pull an opponent out of the way in a personal attempt to recover the ball." [Rule 12, Section 1, Article 2(b).] If the player who pushes or pulls -- in this case, Shazier -- is not trying to recover the ball, defensive holding can be called.
Did Shazier attempt to recover the ball? It did not appear that way, although pulling Forsett away put him in position to if Tuitt hadn't first fallen on it.
Ultimately, this instance is a unique judgment call. I reached out to ESPN rules analyst Jim Daopoulos, a former NFL official, who said he felt strongly that, in reality, no official would view Shazier's actions as defensive holding. So it goes.
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.
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see ESPN.com's QBR page.)
The Chargers fell behind the 49ers 28-7 while in their traditional short-passing offense. Rivers' average throw in the first half traveled 6.6 yards downfield, and he completed only two passes that went at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Rivers also attempted only three passes of at least 11 yards downfield. By necessity, the Chargers flipped that approach after halftime. Rivers' average throw traveled 9.9 yards past the line of scrimmage. He attempted 20 passes of at least 11 yards downfield, giving him 23 for the game and tying him for the second most for a quarterback this season. He also completed seven passes of at least 15 yards downfield after halftime, tying his season high. The 49ers came hard at Rivers during the comeback, blitzing him on 31 percent of his dropbacks and getting pressure on 21.4 percent of his dropbacks. But against the blitz, Rivers completed 9 of 13 post-halftime throws for 100 yards and a touchdown. The Chargers entered the game with the NFL's worst fourth-down conversion rate (1-for-5), but they hit all three of their attempts after halftime.
Teams often get more aggressive and apply more pressure with their passing games when trailing, but it rarely works as well as it did Saturday night for the Chargers. To perform so well when outside the comfort zone is a notable feat.
It has been a while since Brady and the Patriots kept their passing game so close to the line of scrimmage. His longest pass traveled 13 yards past the line of scrimmage, marking the first time Brady hasn't thrown at least one of 15 yards in a game since Week 4 of 2010. His average throw went a season-low 5.2 yards downfield, and he attempted a season-low four passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield. ESPN data on such throws goes back to 2006. The only game in that time period where Brady threw fewer downfield passes was the Week 1 game in 2008 in which he tore his ACL. The Jets' varied pass rush helped contribute to four sacks in 41 dropbacks, Brady's highest percentage since midway through 2013. The Jets sent three pass-rushers on 24 percent of his dropbacks, four pass-rushers on 56 percent and blitzed (five) on 20 percent. Brady threw seven passes under duress and completed only one, his lowest such percentage in a game this season.
The Jets gave the Patriots a tough time in both games this season, which were decided by a total of three points. Postseason opponents will be studying that tape extensively.
Flacco had one of his worst performances in years. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes for the first time since Week 4 of 2011. Of his attempts, 16 were judged to be over- or underthrown, the second-highest total of his career. The Houston Texans put him under pressure on 35.8 percent of his dropbacks, well above his season average of 23 percent, and he attempted 16 passes under duress -- his most in a game in more than five years. He completed only four of those 16 passes for 25 yards and two interceptions. Flacco struggled against the Texans' blitz, completing just 9 of 23 passes. But he wasn't much better against standard pressure, completing just 12 of 27 passes for 103 yards and taking both sacks in those situations. His 44.4 completion percentage was his worst against standard pressure in more than three years. The Texans totally took away Flacco's downfield game, limiting him to one completion on 11 attempts on passes of at least 15 yards downfield. He missed on all seven passes of at least 21 yards, the most such attempts in his career without a completion. Overall, he completed just 14 of 39 passes that traveled past the line of scrimmage.
This was a stunning combination of poor pass protection, uncharacteristic inaccuracy and an inability to adjust. The phrase "nothing went right" is often a self-loathing exaggeration in the NFL, but not in this case.
Lindley had one of the most inaccurate games for a passer in the NFL this season. His 40.9 completion percentage (on 44 attempts) was the eighth lowest through 16 weeks, and he had 18 passes judged to be over- or underthrown in an ESPN video review. Only one quarterback (Brady) in one game (Week 1) has had more off-target throws in a game this season. The Cardinals didn't make it easy on him, calling plays that led him to throw 23 passes of at least 10 yards downfield. That was the second-most such passes in any game this season for a quarterback. Lindley threw 18 passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, tied for the third most in a game this season. And of the 16 passes he threw at least 11 yards downfield, 12 were off-target. He completed 14 of 32 passes against standard pressure and 4 of 12 passes against the Seahawks' blitz.
We all know the Cardinals run a downfield passing offense under coach Bruce Arians, and we figured Arians wouldn't back away from the scheme he believes so much in. But it was clear from the outset that Lindley was either too rusty, or simply too inaccurate, to make it work against the Seahawks' defense. If there was an adjustment to be made, Arians didn't make it.
Ryan was accurate and aggressive against the Saints. He completed 75 percent of his passes, his second highest in a game this season, but did so while averaging 9.1 air yards per throw -- well above his season average of 7.85. Ryan completed 9 of 15 passes that traveled at least 11 yards and 7 of 12 that went at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. And on "easier" passes, traveling 10 or fewer yards downfield, Ryan was near perfect: 21 completions in 25 attempts. The Saints blitzed on 39 percent of his dropbacks, but the Falcons had a good strategy for defeating it. Ryan took an average of 2.28 seconds before throwing, his second-quickest time in a game this season and well below his average of 2.53 seconds. As a result, he didn't throw a single pass from outside the pocket for the first time this season. Finally, Ryan completed 81.8 percent of his third-down passes (9-for-11), his highest third-down completion percentage in a game this season.
The Falcons have won only six games this season, but they're in position to win the NFC South in large part because of Ryan's performances in two games against the Saints. Two of his three highest single-game QBR ratings came in Week 1 (91.9) and Week 16 (92.1) victories.
Plays: Replay upholds a fumble by New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and a non-touchdown by Minnesota Vikings tight end Chase Ford
Referees: John Parry and Tony Corrente
Analysis: These plays are grouped together because they hinge on the same concept, one we've discussed several times already this season. The NFL has raised its standard for overturning calls on replay reviews, using the "indisputable visual evidence" requirement more literally than ever.
We got a true goal-line angle on the replay, and it was reasonable to guess that, in the likeliest scenario, the ball crossed the plane in Graham's possession. But the ball was partially obscured by Graham's right arm, and by the right arm of Atlanta Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael as he began stripping it. We never got a 100 percent clear view -- "indisputable visual evidence" -- that a touchdown occurred.
In Miami, Ford caught a 22-yard pass down the right sideline and carried it into the end zone before he was tackled. Corrente's crew, which included field judge Gary Cavaletto at the pylon, ruled Ford's right foot had stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line, before the score. A close look at replay in slow motion revealed what appeared to be a strip of green between Ford's shoe and the sideline, suggesting he had remained in bounds.
The strip was thin, however. Did Ford step on a blade or two of white grass? Reasonable people could guess that he probably didn't, but that doesn't meet the replay standard the NFL is pursuing. Remember what vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said earlier this year: "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."
Per NFL statistics, successful coaches' challenges are down from 52.4 percent last season to 40.2 percent in 2014. Booth reviews are overturning 33.5 percent of calls, down from 37.1 last season. The reduction is by design.
Play: Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay penalized for taunting
Referee: Ronald Torbert
Analysis: This episode occurred after Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons tackled Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for a 2-yard gain on third down, presumably forcing a punt. Kelce got up and began walking back toward his sideline, while Timmons scrambled from a prone position near the Steelers' sideline.
Gay had arrived a moment before, stopping about 2 yards away from where the tackle occurred. About 7 yards away, side judge Scott Edwards was running toward the middle of the field with his hand up to signal the end of the play. Standing still and facing Timmons, Gay folded his arms in a standard -- and very old-school, I might add -- celebration aimed at his teammate. Kelce was moving in the opposite direction, and both he and Gay would have had to turn their heads 45 degrees to their left to see one another.
Replays show Edwards turning his head over his right shoulder as he continued running. He saw Gay's pose, stopped and threw the flag. It was only the second taunting penalty Torbert's crew had called this season.
It's possible Edwards heard penalty-prompting language from Gay. Otherwise, it would seem he mistook Gay's celebration -- directed at Timmons -- for a taunt aimed at Kelce. If you wonder how that could happen, take a quick jog, swing a glance to your right and then try to remember the details of what you saw.
The NFL instructed officials to pay special attention to taunting during games this season, but through Week 16, a modest 22 such penalties had been called. (Competition committee co-chair Jeff Fisher said in March: "We're going to clean the game up on the field between the players. The in-your-face taunting. The language.")
Did that instruction prompt Edwards' call? Perhaps. Either way, it appears to have been a major gaffe in a game with direct playoff implications. The Chiefs got renewed life on a fourth-quarter possession that resulted in a field goal that reduced their deficit to one score.
Play: Cleveland Browns defensive linemen Billy Winn is ruled to have given himself up after an interception
Referee: Ed Hochuli
Analysis: In the third quarter, Winn made a diving interception at the 44-yard line of an errant pass by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Winn rolled over on his back and handed the ball to teammate Jordan Poyer, who ran into the end zone.
Why wasn't this play a touchdown? After all, no Panthers player touched Winn before he handed off the ball. Hochuli announced that Winn was "ruled down, gave himself up on the ground."
Via Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(d), the NFL rulebook provides two ways for a player to declare himself down. One is to slide feet first. The other is by "falling to the ground, or kneeling, and clearly making no immediate effort to advance."
Winn didn't slide feet first. But did he fall to the ground and "clearly" make no "immediate effort to advance?" Common sense should prevail here.
Diving for the ball led Winn naturally to roll over. He didn't do it as smoothly as a wide receiver, but that might be because he is a 300-pound lineman. The moment he reached his back, he looked up and saw Poyer standing over him.
It's true that Winn didn't make "an immediate effort to advance," but that was because he was in the process of handing the ball to Poyer. During the transfer, Winn remained on his back. This interpretation suggests the only way Winn could have made the transfer was to do it while (or after) he got up off the ground. In this instance, a strict reading of the rulebook led to a counterintuitive ruling in reality.
During the season, I've tried to glean some key tendencies of NFL referee crews. We've looked several times at how they responded to the 2014 points of emphasis, while also noting the wide range of frequencies between crews on offensive holding and even pre-snap movement penalties.
This week, in response to demand and as my early holiday present to you, I deliver the 15-week breakdown of most major penalty categories. Many thanks to ESPN.com blog editor Jonathan Hudec for putting together this monstrosity Friday morning.
Below are a few thoughts from me on the numbers. Feel free to draw your own conclusions as well. Remember, frequency does not necessarily correlate with accuracy. It's just a reminder that -- much like umpires in baseball -- crews have their own ways of seeing the game.
- Aggressive defenses are best off with the crews of either Brad Allen or Walt Coleman, who have called a total of eight and 11 combined penalties for defensive holding or illegal contact, respectively. John Parry's crew (41) has been the most active here, followed by Terry McAulay (40).
- Offensive linemen likely prefer Bill Vinovich's crew, which has called holding 23 times. Ronald Torbert's crew (47) and Parry's (46) have called the most.
- You had better behave around Gene Steratore's crew, which has called an NFL-high 19 unnecessary roughness penalties. Clete Blakeman's crew has called five.
- Illegal use of hands, a less publicized point of emphasis this season, has been called 27 times by Walt Anderson's crew. The crews of Steratore, Torbert and Triplette have called it six times apiece.
- Though pre-snap penalties might seem straightforward, there are sizable gaps among the crews. For instance, Steratore's crew has called delay of game twice. Carl Cheffers' crew, which leads the league in overall penalty calls, as can be seen in the bar graph above, has called it 12 times. Coleman's crew has called 39 false start penalties. Jeff Triplette's has called less than half of that total (18).
Play: San Francisco 49ers linebacker Nick Moody penalized for roughing the passer after hitting Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Referee: Ed Hochuli
Analysis: Moody blitzed Wilson and hit him an instant after release of the ball on a key third-down play in the red zone. Slow-motion replays show Moody's helmet and face mask made contact with Wilson's chest at the level of his No. 3.
Most of us know that the NFL prohibits a defender from lowering his head and hitting a quarterback with the crown of his helmet. Moody avoided that type of contact as well. So what, if anything, did he do wrong? In speaking to a pool reporter afterward, Hochuli referenced contact by the "hairline" of Moody's helmet.
That explanation seemed to reference a lesser-known part of the NFL's rules for roughing the passer. Here's what Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) provides as one cause for penalty:
"A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture -- for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer's head or neck area with the helmet or face mask, even if the initial contact of the defender's helmet or face mask is lower than the passer's neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him; or (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the passer's body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer."
If you freeze the replay at the point of contact, you basically see Moody's face in Wilson's chest. Was the head lowered? No. But did the hairline make forcible contact, as Hochuli implied?
That would be an exceptionally difficult argument to make, one that and not even vice president of officiating Dean Blandino was willing to make. Speaking Monday morning on the NFL Network, Blandino said: "Moody's head is up, he hits with more of the side and the face mask to the body of the quarterback, and in our review, with the ability to look at it in slow motion, it's not a foul."
Entering Week 15, Hochuli's crew was tied for the second-fewest roughing the passer calls in the NFL. So it's not as if he has been trigger-happy on such calls this season. Did he truly see hairline contact by Moody during live action? Based on his positioning to the play, that seems unlikely. Or did he see it postgame via replay, prior to speaking to the pool reporter? I'll let you ruminate on that one.
Play: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is ruled to have fumbled at the goal line.
Referee: Jeff Triplette
Analysis: Griffin attempted to run for a touchdown near the right pylon just before halftime against the New York Giants. Holding the ball with his right hand at the 3-yard line, Griffin started to extend toward the goal line. He brought his left hand up to secure the ball but ended up losing possession for a moment.
Although Griffin regained control as he went airborne into the end zone, the ball again squirted loose when he landed. By the time he grabbed it for the final time, both Griffin and the ball were out of bounds.
The play happened fast, and Triplette's crew originally ruled it a touchdown. A replay review, however, provided a clear view of what happened. Once again, we're left to explain the NFL's quirky "process" rule that applies to possession of a ball when going to the ground.
We discussed this last week relative to a loose ball involving Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. As a reminder, here is part of what Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7, Note 1 reads:
"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball [with or without contact by an opponent] 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, there is no possession."
While Griffin did regain possession, his initial bobble made the play fundamentally different than a runner who crosses into the end zone without first fumbling. That instance is a touchdown, and anything that happens afterward is moot. Griffin, however, had the added requirement of maintaining possession through "the process of contacting the ground," and as counterintuitive as that might seem, he clearly did not hit that threshold. With a big assist from replay, Triplette landed on the right call according to the rulebook.
Play: The Buffalo Bills are awarded a safety late in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers.
Referee: Bill Leavy
Analysis: Bills defensive end Mario Williams knocked the ball away from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the 3-yard line. The ball bounced back into the end zone, where Packers running back Eddie Lacy picked it up and tried to run with it.
It's not clear if Lacy got the ball out of the end zone before he was tackled, but it was a moot point. The play was the first after the two-minute warning, which triggered an exception to the rules for advancing a fumble.
Rule 8, Section 7, Article 6 states that the offensive team can only advance a fumble after the two-minute warning if it's by the player who fumbled. Otherwise, the ball is dead at either the spot of the fumble or at the spot of the recovery, whichever is further back.
So in this case, Rodgers was the only player who could have advanced the ball out of the end zone and avoided a safety. Leavy was correct to whistle the play dead as soon as Lacy touched it.
The origin of this seemingly random exception is the 1978 "Holy Roller" play, when two Oakland Raiders teammates batted the ball some 24 yards into the end zone after a Kenny Stabler fumble. Raiders tight end Dave Casper fell on it for a touchdown. There was some controversy about whether the Raiders intentionally pushed the ball toward the end zone, but the NFL amended its rules the following year to eliminate the incentive to do so in a potential game-winning situation.