NFL Nation: Jerome Boger
In examining the issue this week, ESPN's NFL Nation learned that the league will analyze and possibly streamline a set of rules that has grown unwieldy with exceptions, specific scenarios and archaic applications. Indeed, even some of the league's most experienced officials have tripped this season in applying rules.
The issue should come as no surprise, according to former NFL referee Gerry Austin, now an ESPN analyst. A decade's worth of adding nuances to prevent specific instances, not to mention the expansion of instant replay, have taken its toll.
"Over the last 10 or 12 years there have been some changes in rules and interpretations," Austin said. "Up until that point, there were some truly basic guidelines that an official on the field could follow and apply in application of the rules. Now, one overriding factor is that every rule has numerous exceptions. Those all came about when an instance would occur and decision would be made to incorporate it into the rulebook. Now the NFL rulebook has such a large number of exceptions and that adds to the complexity of things. We always had a hard-core basic set of application guidelines and process, and I think that maybe over the past 12 years those got messed with some."
According to Austin, there is hope that NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino will conduct "an in-depth analysis and see where they can bring some of those changes back to the center, so you can get back to a core application of the rules instead of saying, 'This rule applies except "
In a statement, NFL spokesman Michael Signora said the league is "constantly studying ways we can improve all facets of our game, including officiating. That includes a rigorous review of the rules, which we analyze each season to identify areas for improvement. The goal of our officiating department is the consistent application of the rules across the board. If there are aspects of the rules we can simplify to aid in that effort, we will work with the Competition Committee to recommend those changes."
The complexities have at least contributed to a series of incorrect decisions, several of which occurred last weekend. Among the examples:
- Referee Bill Leavy misapplied a dead-ball foul in Week 1, resulting in the San Francisco 49ers playing the wrong down. In Week 3, Leavy administered the wrong enforcement of a penalty against Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier for challenging an automatically reviewed play.
- A Week 7 discussion between Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz and a member of referee Scott Green's crew ended with the agreement that an apparent forward pass after a blocked kick was not reviewable. In a statement released after the game, the NFL confirmed it was.
- In Sunday night's game at Lucas Oil Stadium, referee Carl Cheffers lost track of an exception to the rule that gives a defense time to match an offense's substitutions. The rule doesn't apply in the final two minutes of a half, and it cost the Denver Broncos about 10 seconds as their comeback attempt fell short.
- Referee Jerome Boger correctly penalized the New England Patriots for a never-before called infraction on a field-goal attempt. After the game and the following morning, Patriots coach Bill Belichick revealed he hadn't fully understood the intricacies of the rule himself.
None of these mistakes were issues of judgment. Coaches and officials weren't arguing whether a receiver was interfered with, or if an offensive lineman was holding or whether a running back got the ball past the first-down marker. They were a simple confusion of facts by officials who take weekly rule tests and discuss the answers in pregame meetings.
Technically, there are 17 rules listed in the 2013 NFL rulebook. Those 17 rules, however, are spread out in tiny type over a 121-page document in PDF form. That should give you some idea of the nuance now inherent in playing, administering and managing an NFL game. Is it reasonable to expect officials, let alone coaches and players, to have it all on quick mental recall during a game? ESPN's NFL Nation questioned a cross-section of the league to find out:
-- Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, as told to ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer
-- Panthers coach Ron Rivera, as told to ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton
-- Bills center Eric Wood, as told to ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak
-- Broncos coach John Fox, as told to ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold
-- Raiders coach Dennis Allen, as told to ESPN Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez
-- Steelers safety Ryan Clark, as told to ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown
-- Bengals WR Marvin Jones, as told to ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey
-- Saints guard Jahri Evans, as told to ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett
-- Lions guard Rob Sims, as told To ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein
-- Packers DT Ryan Pickett, as told to ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky.
Despite complaints from San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Boger and his crew members got high marks from the website for their handling of the game.
Footballzebras.com founder Ben Austro's only significant complaint was for failing to limit post-play antics. Austro thought the Ravens' Cary Williams should have been ejected for shoving an official. But the interference and holding penalties Harbaugh wanted called against Baltimore during the game's frantic final moments did not represent errors in officiating, according to the website.
"When a receiver runs a route right at a defensive back and bumps him, there is an acceptable amount of holding that does happen, because the receiver initiated the holding," Austro wrote. "In this case, there was mutual pushing, so it all waves off. There needed to be a more egregious restriction of the receiver in order to draw a foul."
Former NFL officiating boss Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, also supported the non-call in that situation. My own view was that throwing a flag would have been worse than not throwing one. The play was still frustrating from a 49ers standpoint. Anyone in Harbaugh's situation would have wanted a call as well.
"Together, it was an even-called game," Austro wrote. "The points of disagreement were true judgment calls; there wasn’t anything that really moved out of a gray area throughout the game."
Don't yawn just yet.
The NFL's handling of the assignment, while already under unprecedented scrutiny, will become a much bigger story if an officiating miscue influences the outcome between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.
Boger's assignment to the game has generated controversy amid accusations the NFL reversed eight negative marks from his report card.
The implication, spelled out by the officiating website footballzebras.com, is that the NFL went out of its way to assign Boger to the game in the interests of promoting racial diversity. The NFL has denied this happened.
Footballzebras.com has taken officiating coverage to new levels in a short period of time. We're left wondering to what degree the Boger report reflects legitimate concerns or sour grapes from anonymously quoted officials feeling jilted over their own standing within the officiating hierarchy.
Whatever the case, Boger finds himself under unusual pregame scrutiny through no fault of his own. He worked the 49ers' divisional-round victory over Green Bay without incident. He previously worked three other divisional-round games. He has never worked a conference championship game or Super Bowl.
As we noted back in October, Boger's crews have called a league-high number of holding penalties against interior defensive linemen. That was notable at the time because New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had recently suggested 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith "gets away with murder" by holding opponents to free up outside linebacker Aldon Smith for sacks.
Boger's crew has called a league-high 18 holding penalties against defensive linemen since 2008. That is about triple the average and six more than runner-up Ed Hocholi's crew. Boger's crew called zero such penalties this season, however. Crew tendencies can be difficult to discern because officals work a relatively small number of games. Also, regular-season trends might not hold up because the NFL shifts to all-star crews for the playoffs.
The first chart shows where Boger's crew has ranked in number of penalties called over the past three seasons. The NFL has maintained 17 crews. I've singled out a few choice penalties for display in the chart. The row showing personal fouls reflects calls labeled as unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness and general personal fouls. Other 15-yard penalties are not included.
Boger's crew members called many of the penalties listed in the chart, of course. Referees are primarily responsible for roughing-the-passer and some holding calls. The NFL spells out each official's responsibilities on its website.
Boger is working with an all-star crew, customary for the playoffs. Regular-season crew tendencies might not apply as much.
With an assist from ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together a chart showing 49ers games Boger has worked over the years.
Boger worked the 49ers' memorable 27-24 defeat at Minnesota in 2009. Brett Favre's late touchdown pass, not the officiating, made that one memorable.
Last season, Boger's crew negated a Michael Crabtree touchdown at Cincinnati, ruling that the receiver had stepped out of bounds. The call was questionable, in my view, and former officiating director Mike Pereira agreed. Also in that game, Boger called a false-start penalty against "the entire offensive line" of the 49ers.
More recently, Boger was the ref for the 49ers' 45-3 victory against Buffalo.
Was Giants receiver Victor Cruz really down when he lost the football late in the game? A fumble in that situation likely would have killed the Giants' chances for a comeback.
Who knows, an Arizona victory might have changed the course of NFL history given that the Giants later sneaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record, then won a Super Bowl title.
Would they have been a postseason team at all without that victory? Tough to tell, and irrelevant now.
Those points, distributed during the recently concluded NFL owners meetings in West Palm Beach, Fla, covered blows to the head, horse-collar tackles, sportsmanship/taunting, pre-snap movement, player alignment, runners declaring themselves down and deceptive substitutions.
I'll single out a few of them in relation to memorable plays from games involving NFC West teams.
Runners declaring themselves down
Memorable plays: Victor Cruz's non-fumble at Arizona after referee Jerome Boger determined Cruz had given himself up, ending the play. Later in the season, the Seattle Seahawks' Adrian Moten and Michael Robinson sandwiched San Francisco 49ers returner Kyle Williams after Williams went to the ground untouched, then popped up. The league later fined Moten for a late hit. Referee Ron Winter penalized Robinson for a helmet-to-helmet hit, but the absence of an accompanying fine indicated the NFL did not fault Robinson for his behavior on the play.
The issue: Were Cruz and Williams down? When is a runner down, anyway? And if they're obviously down, shouldn't officials blow their whistles?
Point of emphasis, from the NFL: "Rule 7, Section 1, Article 1 states that the ball is dead and the down ended if, among other items, a runner 'declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance.' This sometimes leads to confusion when a runner goes to the ground and is slow to rise to his feet. Has he 'declared himself down,' in which case the covering official should blow his whistle and further defensive contact is prohibited? Or is he merely slow to get to his feet, for whatever reason, in which case a defender needs to touch him to end the down?
"The Committee does not believe that there should be any change in the rule itself, but believes that education of players, coaches, and officials should eliminate any ambiguity. The proper application of the rule, that a runner who goes to the ground untouched will be considered to have declared himself down if he does not make an immediate attempt to advance, will be emphasized to officials prior to the 2012 season."
Memorable plays: Referee Gene Steratore and crew flagged 49ers tight end Justin Peelle for a false start on a fourth-and-1 play against the Washington Redskins. Coach Jim Harbaugh disputed the call. The 49ers periodically used sudden movement by their tight ends, ostensibly to reset the formation. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton called the tactics "cute" (see final note here) after the 49ers drew the New York Giants offside.
The issue: Were the 49ers simulating a snap or making a legitimate adjustment to their formations?
Point of emphasis, from the NFL: The Committee reviewed video of pre-snap movement by offensive players and agreed that special emphasis should be devoted to acts that are clearly in violation of the existing rule for false starts. Prior to a snap, any quick, abrupt movement by an offensive player, or several offensive players in unison, which simulates the start of a play, is a foul.
"These acts include (a) a quarterback in shotgun formation thrusting his hands forward in an exaggerated manner when there is not a simultaneous snap, (b) abrupt movement of the ball by the center, (c) abrupt movement of the center’s head or other body part, and (d) a quick abrupt shift by two or more players in unison. Non-abrupt movement that is part of normal pre-snap action will not be prohibited, including pointing and signaling among offensive players."
Memorable plays: The 49ers tricked the St. Louis Rams with a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on a fake field-goal attempt. Crabtree went toward the sideline as if leaving the field, but he stayed on the field and was uncovered near the sideline. The play was deemed legal.
The issue: Undetermined. I do not know whether the following point of emphasis applies to how the 49ers used Crabtree in this example. This one requires more investigation. I'll include the point of emphasis here, then follow up when I have more information. League officials are returning from the meetings Wednesday.
Point of emphasis, from the NFL: "The Committee addressed the concern that some teams are abusing established substitution rules in a deliberate attempt to confuse opponents. Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(k) of the Playing Rules clearly states that 'using entering substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players to confuse opponents' is unsportsmanlike conduct. The Committee reminds clubs that this practice has no part in our game, and officials will be instructed to closely watch for violations of the rule.
"The Committee also reviewed the procedures for an offensive player who comes into the game wearing a number that does not qualify him for the position he takes. These players must report to the Referee, prior to entering the huddle. The Referee and Umpire will then report the same to the defensive team. This rule prevails whether a player is already in the game or is an entering substitute and whether it is a play from scrimmage, an attempted field goal, or a try after a touchdown. If a player fails to report his change in eligibility, it will result in a five-yard penalty for illegal substitution."
"In Sunday’s game between the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals, the Giants faced a 1st-and-10 from the Arizona 48 with 3:10 remaining in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Eli Manning connected with wide receiver Victor Cruz for a 19-yard gain.
"Referee Jerome Boger announced the following: 'The ruling on the previous play was that the receiver gave himself up by going to the ground. That cannot be challenged. So there is no challenge allowed by Arizona. It is first down, New York.'
"The applicable rule in the 2011 NFL Rule Book is found on page 35.
"Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 states that 'An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended: (e): when a runner is out of bounds, or declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance.' "
This is a judgment call, in other words. There is no specific set of requirements a runner must satisfy when declaring himself down. That means a runner can be declared down even if he slips to the ground, provided the referee thinks the runner meant to declare himself down on the play.
Cue the video to see the play.
The Arizona Cardinals had not touched Cruz following his fourth-quarter reception during the Giants' go-ahead drive. Cruz went down, then flipped the ball forward as if the play had ended. A turnover in that situation might have proved pivotal to the outcome, but Boger ruled Cruz down and said the play could not be challenged.
The 2011 NFL rulebook outlines several conditions for a dead ball, including:
- "When a runner declares himself down by sliding feet first on the ground. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground with anything other than his hands or his feet; or ... when a runner is out of bounds, or declares himself down by falling to the ground, or kneeling, and making no effort to advance."
Cruz did seem to be declaring himself down when he flipped the ball forward, but he did not slide feet first to the ground, and there was some question as to whether he had satisfied all conditions for declaring himself down or had simply stumbled on the play.
Fox analyst Mike Pereira, former NFL officiating director, said he thought the play should have been ruled a fumble because Cruz had stumbled.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said his team's 31-27 defeat never should have come down to such a play. He also wasn't certain how the rule should have been applied to that situation. Cruz gained 19 yards on the play. The Giants took the lead with a 29-yard touchdown pass on the next play.
The Arizona Cardinals could use that type of production from a tight end. After drafting Rob Housler and signing Jeff King from Carolina in free agency, the team added to its growing stockpile by reaching a contract agreement with Heap, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported. The team also announced the agreement.
Cardinals fans should remember Arizona's 2007 trip to Baltimore featuring Adrian Wilson's huge hit on Heap during the game's pivotal moments. Officials flagged Wilson for unnecessary roughness, helping the Ravens move into position for the winning field goal. Replays showed the hit to be legal. The NFL levied no fine against Wilson.
"We had an airborne receiver hit by a defender, who we called launched into him, and he had a blow above the shoulders into the head area," referee Jerome Boger said at the time.
The Ravens released Heap and other veteran players in moves that cleared room under the salary cap. Instead of re-signing at a lower price, Heap is heading home. Having Heap, King and Housler in combination gives the Cardinals fresh potential at a position the team has not emphasized in recent seasons.
But with receiver Steve Breaston departing in free agency and the team adding second-round draft choice Ryan Williams to a crowded backfield, Arizona might be less inclined to feature four-receiver personnel groupings as frequently. At the very least, the potential is there for diversification.
The second chart breaks down defensive pass-interference numbers by crew for the last three seasons.
The next chart breaks down offensive pass interference by crew for the 2010 season only.
Note that Coleman's crew has called only one such penalty this season, second-fewest in the league behind Seattle favorite Bill Leavy.
The next chart breaks down the offensive pass-interference calls by crew for the last three seasons.
The final chart shows three-year totals for roughing the passer, by crew.
Seattle fans might remember the controversial roughing penalty against Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock during the team's defeat at New Orleans in Week 11.
The pivotal play did not draw a fine, tacit admission that referee Mike Carey's crew erred on the call.
Coleman's crews have only four roughing calls over the last three seasons, fewest in the league among referees working continuously since 2008.
Note: All info from ESPN Stats & Information and includes declined penalties.
What was referee Jerome Boger thinking when he determined Larry Fitzgerald did not catch that pass near the 49ers' goal line? Sure looked like a 45-yard reception or a 46-yard touchdown, although I could not see every aspect of the play. It's nice when referees explain things. Boger is having a rough night so far.
Have the 49ers discovered how to work Frank Gore into their new-look offense? It's looking that way. Gore has run effective from base personnel. The 49ers have gone away from their base personnel in recent weeks. It's back with in a big way so far in this game.
Mike Sando: I have personally tracked assessed penalties and replay challenges since Mike Holmgren complained about officiating in Super Bowl XL. I also went back through records to include data since 2001. ESPN Stats & Information also tracks this information. My replay information is more detailed because it counts booth challenges, but its referee information is superior because it counts declined penalties, not just accepted ones. Its information also breaks down penalty types by crew.
Based on my records, Ron Winter's crews have assessed more penalties per game since 2003 than those headed by any of the 16 other current referees. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Winter's crew is calling more total penalties per game -- accepted plus declined -- than any other crew in 2009.
Scott Green is working the 49ers-Packers game in Week 11. Ed Hochuli is working the Seahawks-Vikings game. I'll check on the Cardinals-Rams referee once I get to the Edward Jones Dome a little later.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Based on Jim Mora's general postgame comportment Sunday, the Seahawks' coach is probably fortunate no one asked what role officiating played in the game.
Referee Don Carey, who accounted for five of 19 replay reversals through Week 2, made his league-leading sixth reversal a memorable one when he returned possession to the Bears following Matt Forte's fumble at the Seattle 1-yard line. Linebacker David Hawthorne had recovered for the Seahawks, who held a 13-0 lead at the time.
"A decision will be reversed only when the referee has indisputable visual evidence available to him," the rule book states.
This one appeared inconclusive at best.
Mora's postgame rant against kicker Olindo Mare might have read differently had anyone pressed for his thoughts on Carey's reversal. I doubt he would have the ruling, uh, acceptable.
"If you’re a kicker in the National Football League you should make those kicks -- bottom line," Mora said of Mare. "End of story. Period. No excuses. No wind, doesn’t matter. You’ve gotta makes those kicks. Especially in a game like this, where you’re kicking and fighting and scratching your tail off and you miss those kicks, it’s not acceptable. Not acceptable. Absolutely not acceptable."
Carey suffered two reversals -- and Mike Singletary's ire -- while working the 49ers-Cardinals game in Week 1. He suffered three more reversals in Week 2. The NFL's 17 referees have suffered 26 replay reversals in 48 games this season. More than a third involved calls made by Carey, a rookie referee, and second-year ref Al Riveron.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Replay officials have challenged rulings more frequently since the last time we pointed out wide disparities in replay rates during the final 2 minutes of halves.
Four referees hadn't faced a single booth-initiated challenge through Week 13. Those four referees have faced five such challenges in the last two weeks.
The challenge Walt Coleman faced in Baltimore was only the third raised against him this season in the final 2 minutes of a half, according to information I have tracked since 2003. Referees Gene Steratore, Ron Winter, Tony Corrente and Ed Hochuli have faced a combined 40 such challenges.
The NFL assigns the same replay officials to the same referees as part of an overall effort to foster continuity among crews.If replay officials applied the same standards each game, we might expect referees to face a similar number of booth-initiated challenges over time.
That was not the case in past seasons and it isn't the case in 2008. The inconsistent numbers raise the possibility of inconsistent standards for challenges.
The chart shows booth-initiated challenges by referee. NFL games featured 33 total challenges in Week 15, a season high even without the Monday night game. Total challenges have risen each week since Week 12 (from 19 to 25 to 27 to 33).
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Scott Green's crew assessed zero penalties against the Patriots. Al Riveron's crew assessed one penalty against the Browns.Those figures helped bring down the overall numbers for Week 8, despite the Rams' protests.
The chart breaks down crews by referee, penalties assessed per game, replay challenges and replay reversals.The number of replay challenges per game increased every season from 2003 to 2007, but the numbers are down to their lowest levels since 2004 this season. Fewer challenges mean fewer interruptions, generally a good thing in my view.
John Parry and Jerome Boger remained the only referees without a replay reversal this season. Peter Morelli joined Green with a league-high five reversals after initially disallowing a Chiefs touchdown pass against the Jets.
Available for download: full crew-by-crew breakdowns for penalties and replay.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
NFL officiating crews have assessed between 9.3 and 16.2 penalties per game this season. The range was between 8.9 and 14.3 last season.
The chart breaks down crews by referee, penalties assessed per game, replay challenges and replay reversals.
John Parry and Jerome Boger remained the only referees without a replay reversal this season. Parry shot down Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, who had been 4-0 in challenges this season.
Ron Winter, working the Colts-Packers game, became the fifth referee to suffer two reversals in a game this season. He reversed Indy touchdowns on consecutive plays, but the Colts scored on the third try.
Scott Green, working the Seahawks-Bucs game, suffered his league-high fifth reversal of the season when Mike Holmgren challenged Ike Hilliard's fumble.
Assessed penalties have climbed over the last three weeks. The crews of Walt Anderson (49ers-Giants), Boger (Jets-Raiders) and Winter (Colts-Packers) each assessed more than 20 penalties during Week 7, the first time this season three crews have reached that total.
1:00 PM ET San Diego Buffalo 1:00 PM ET Dallas St. Louis 1:00 PM ET Washington Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Houston New York 1:00 PM ET Minnesota New Orleans 1:00 PM ET Tennessee Cincinnati 1:00 PM ET Baltimore Cleveland 1:00 PM ET Green Bay Detroit 1:00 PM ET Indianapolis Jacksonville 1:00 PM ET Oakland New England 4:05 PM ET San Francisco Arizona 4:25 PM ET Denver Seattle 4:25 PM ET Kansas City Miami 8:30 PM ET Pittsburgh Carolina