NFL Nation: replacement refs

Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang started off the Twitter reaction to Monday night's debacle at CenturyLink Field, so we might as well let him wrap it up as well. Here was Lang's reaction Thursday morning to news that the NFL had ended the lockout of its regular officials:

(Yes, from what I'm told, Footlocker employees wear referee uniforms at work.)

Lang has become a Twitter star since firing off two profane tweets in the moments after the Packers' 14-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He has added more than 90,000 followers since then, and as of Thursday morning, the first tweet had been re-tweed nearly 70,000 times and the second was at about 98,000. The latter qualifies as an unofficial Twitter record, exceeding such B-list celebrities as Justin Bieber, Floyd Mayweather and one of the Kardashians.

So there's that.

Did Lang do anything more than draw attention to himself with these tweets. I'm not sure. I kind of agree with @achitko, who tweeted this my way: "I honestly think his tirade had a bigger impact than the play itself. The league knew player revolt was on horizon." If nothing else, Lang's initial tweet made clear just how aggrieved that Packers players -- and no doubt many other around the NFL -- had taken the situation.

NFL statement on MNF controversy

September, 25, 2012
The NFL has issued the following statement regarding Golden Tate's winning touchdown reception for Seattle against Green Bay on Monday night:
In Monday's game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, Seattle faced a 4th-and-10 from the Green Bay 24 with eight seconds remaining in the game.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass into the end zone. Several players, including Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings, jumped into the air in an attempt to catch the ball.

While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.

When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.

Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

The result of the game is final.

Applicable rules to the play are as follows:

A player (or players) jumping in the air has not legally gained possession of the ball until he satisfies the elements of a catch listed here.

Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL Rule Book defines a catch:

A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).

When a player (or players) is going to the ground in the attempt to catch a pass, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 states:

Player Going to the Ground. 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.

Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5 states:

Simultaneous Catch. If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.
More on this in a bit. Just wanted to get this posted.

Jerry Jones thinks you're stupid

September, 25, 2012
Jerry JonesRon Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Getty ImagesCowboys owner Jerry Jones says he didn't watch the end of the Packers-Seahawks game Monday.
Here it is, folks. Your NFL officials controversy in a nutshell. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, asked about the controversial ending to Monday Night's Packers-Seahawks game, said on the radio Tuesday morning that he didn't see it and hadn't heard about it. Per
"I didn't see that ending last night," Jones said on KRLD-FM. "I cut it off about halftime."

Jones said he hadn't received any phone calls about the controversy: "I just read a little note in the paper that the Seahawks pulled it out," he said, quickly switching the subject to praise Seattle's team.


Pressed further on the matter, Jones made his best sales pitch.

"We can have all kinds of what-ifs," Jones said. "We've played three games and we've got 16 to play. It's exciting. It gives us a lot to talk about on our shows that we have. But fundamentally, when I look at where the league is over the first three ballgames, it's great. Lot of competition."

That's it, right there. That's the NFL owners' stance. They don't care how ridiculous the proliferation their lockout of the officials makes them or their league look, because people are still talking about and watching the games. And that's why nothing that happens on the field with these replacement officials is going to change anything about the situation.

A couple of people have suggested that Jones' take on this might be different if it had been his team that had lost on the bad call. I do not believe it would. I think the owners have dug in on this, that they believe they are in the right and that what they are hoping to accomplish in terms of dictating and establishing work rules for their employees that are as beneficial as possible to their own bottom lines. I believe a conversation very much like this took place some months ago in a plush hotel banquet hall in Palm Beach, Fla.:

Hypothetical voice of reason (the commissioner, a fellow owner, a league PR rep, somebody): "OK, so another lockout. Second year in a row. This is what you guys want to do, right?"

NFL owners, including Jerry Jones: "You betcha!"

Hypothetical voice of reason: "OK, then. You know it's very likely that if we go ahead with these replacement officials, we're going to look really foolish, get ripped like crazy by media and our broadcast partners and a few of our teams are probably going to lose games we should have won. That's OK with you guys too?"

NFL owners, including Jerry Jones: "Well, is any of that going to affect TV ratings, attendance or advertising revenue?"

Hypothetical voice of reason: "Nope. Not one bit. We'll actually probably keep setting records for that stuff."

NFL owners, including Jerry Jones: "So, what was the problem again?"

Face it, the NFL's owners are fine with things the way they are and aren't about to change the way they're operating this situation. This is what they wanted, and they don't see anything wrong with the way it's working out. That's why Jones can come out and ask us to believe he didn't see the game and didn't get any calls about it. He and the rest of his fellow owners know you're going to keep buying their product no matter how they present it to you. So why should he act as though anything's wrong?
If you haven't heard by now, Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan lost his mind at the officials at the end of the Redskins' loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. There's video on the internet of Shanahan chasing the officials down the hallway after the game was over and cursing at them, even after he'd already been slapped with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that helped make Robert Griffin III's final-play Hail Mary impossible. It's ugly stuff, and it prompted Shanahan to release an official apology Monday:
"When I overheard the official tell the head coach that the game was over after the false start penalty, I tried to explain that the game was not over," Shanahan, the son of Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, said. "That is what resulted in the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. I tried to get an explanation of how I could get that penalty when half of the other team was on the field as well.

"I was frustrated, and in the process of trying to get some answers from the officials, I conducted myself in the wrong way."

[+] EnlargeReplacement officials
Joe Howell/AP PhotoThe NFL has requested team personnel embrace the replacement officials for now.
So the league is looking into this, as well as the incident in Baltimore where New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick grabbed one of the officials as he ran off the field following Sunday night's loss to the Ravens, and there would seem to be little doubt that the NFL must impose some sort of discipline on these guys -- most likely in the form of a fine.

But while Shanahan and Belichick are certainly grown men who need to control their tempers better and be responsible for their public actions, this is just the latest deepening of a stubborn, stupid hole the NFL has dug for itself as a result of its continued lockout of the real officials.

Last week, the league sent a letter to every team to remind players and coaches to show respect for the officials. Because, you see, the league's position is that they're not going to give in to the real officials' demands that they get to keep their pensions and they're prepared to move forward with the replacements as the new real officials. With that being the case, the NFL is telling its coaches and players, you're stuck with these guys, for now and possibly forever. And if the league's owners really are determined to carry this farce to that sort of unconscionable conclusion, they have no choice but to support the replacement refs by making it publicly clear that efforts by players and coaches to abuse and bully them will not be tolerated.

The shame of it is, this was all avoidable, and the fact it's just getting worse is the fault of the continued unbridled arrogance of a sports league that doesn't feel it ever has to give an inch because its customers refuse to hold it accountable. The on-field product is clearly suffering for this mess, but the owners don't care because the ratings continue to soar and the advertising dollars continue to pour in accordingly. So there's no tangible punishment for a cartel that's willing to create a miserable working environment for its most important employees in order to win a staring contest with a few other employees.

The league has created a perpetual situation, in every game, in which coaches and players are anticipating disaster and reacting accordingly when it happens. Belichick would never have believed a real NFL official could have blown a field goal call, and he never would have chased him down and grabbed him. But because these guys are expecting something to go wrong on any given play, the blowups are more frequent and more severe.

The classy thing for the NFL and its owners would be to admit they're beaten, give in on the pension issue and welcome the real officials back. Live to fight this battle another day. Ease the burgeoning tension amid coaches and players who push each other to be the best in the world at their jobs and can't understand why their games are being regulated by people who are not. An owner like Robert Kraft, Belichick's boss, actually has an opportunity here to look like a hero in the public eye by simply being the grown-up and ending this thing without caring who wins or who loses. But it's Kraft and his fellow owners who think it's a good idea to lock out a certain group of their employees every year now, so don't hold your breath.

Meantime, Kyle Shanahan and Bill Belichick can expect to have some pay docked this week, as the league continues to operate as though nothing's wrong until they say it is. Coaches have to be held accountable for their actions, even if those who impose the fines refuse to hold themselves to the same standard.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the NFL's replacement officials bumble through their now two-month stint, we often have discussed the difference between errors of judgment and errors of facts. All officials, replacement or permanent, make the former. The latter, borne of misunderstanding or misapplication of rules, is far less excusable and has generated a significant credibility question for the current system that no one seems to care about.

[+] EnlargeToby Gerhart
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireVikings running back Toby Gerhart gains no yards and fumbles the ball to the 49ers in the fourth quarter.
We saw yet another example of it Sunday in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings' 24-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. In essence, referee Ken Roan granted the 49ers a challenge at a time they were ineligible for one, ultimately leading to a change of possession on what Roan ruled a fumble by the Vikings' Toby Gerhart. Roan admitted the mistake in an interview with a pool reporter after the game, and fortunately for all involved, the decision did not impact the outcome.

The details: With three minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the game, Gerhart gained three yards on second-and-10 at the 49ers' 35-yard line. The 49ers called their final timeout in anticipation of a critical third-down play. But during the timeout, coach Jim Harbaugh threw his challenge flag after noticing on replays that Gerhart lost control of the ball. (The 49ers' Patrick Willis had fallen on the ball.)

A team must have at least one timeout available to mount a challenge, and technically, Harbaugh had just used his last one. Roan said Harbaugh called him to the sideline and said: "Hey, this is something that I want to challenge, but I just used my last timeout, can I challenge and get my timeout back? How does that work?'

"He asked the guys on the side and they came over and got me," Roan added. "What I told him was, 'Well you challenged it not knowing what the result of the play was going to be.' So I granted him the challenge and we went and looked at it. That was wrong. I should not have. In order to do that, he has to have two timeouts left."

Actually, he needs just one. But we'll let that one slide for the larger point. Roan is only partially at fault here. It's totally unreasonable for the NFL to have expected lower-level officials to master its thick and nuanced rule book in time to make a credible showing this offseason. They are particularly vulnerable to suggestion in that area, and I wonder if Harbaugh really needed to ask, "how does that work?" Obviously we can't prove it, but you wonder if Harbaugh didn't try to capitalize -- smartly, I might add -- on the uncertainty to gain a competitive advantage.

Gerhart did in fact lose control of the ball before he was down, even though it appeared that umpire Tim Morris was in the process of blowing the play dead (by raising his hand). Again, it's important to note the play didn't affect the game's outcome. Four players later, Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson intercepted quarterback Alex Smith to ice it. But the game was not over until Harbaugh used the timeout that Roan gave back to him to challenge another potential fumble two plays after Robinson's interception.

I know there were other erroneous calls in NFC North games Sunday, but this is the one I witnessed. This joke can't end soon enough.

Related: Roan's crew made an impossible call on the opening kickoff but quickly corrected it.

Illegal block on kicking team? Yeesh

September, 23, 2012
MINNEAPOLIS -- Here's how much of a joke the NFL's replacement official experiment is now: Replacement referee Ken Roan called an illegal block against the KICKING team a mere seconds into the Minnesota Vikings' game against the San Francisco 49ers.

The 49ers were the kicking team in question, and their sideline erupted in protest -- likely pointing out the slight contradiction in suggesting that a team kicking off would be blocking in the first place. Roan marked off the penalty against the 49ers before calling for a huddle among officials.

It's not clear if Roan meant to call the penalty on the Vikings, who as the RECEIVING team were no doubt doing their best to block, or if officials were confused during the play about who should be blocking and who should be getting off of blocks.

So Roan called it even, announcing that "by rule, there is no flag on the play."

No analysis is necessary here. After a weeks discussing the inadequacy of the NFL's contingency plan for an extended labor impasse, Roan's crew opened Week 3 with the most basic of mistakes. At least they corrected it, but still.

We've had plenty to say about the NFL's replacement officials over the past month. We've warned about the difference between questionable judgment calls and the not knowing the rules. We've noted that the league appears to have won the PR battle as a large swath of fans appear unmoved by the drop in competency. But I thought ESPN analyst Steve Young put it better than anyone after Monday night's game in Atlanta.

The NFL is "inelastic for demand," Young said, meaning that nothing -- including poor officiating -- can deter a significant percentage of fans and corporate sponsors away from the most popular game in the country. It's the primary reason the NFL has held steady in its labor impasse with regular officials: There is no sign that enough of the sporting public cares to make it a priority.

"There is nothing they can do to hurt the demand of the game," Young said in the video. "So the bottom line is they don't care. Player safety doesn't matter in this case. Bring Division III officials? Doesn't matter. Because in the end you're still going to watch the game."

To be clear, the NFL isn't solely to blame here. This is a labor impasse, and it takes two sides to tango. The NFL has failed, however, to advance a credible contingency plan. And to Young's point, the league hasn't provided any indication that it cares.
We anticipated Friday that the third week of preseason games would bring heightened criticism and concern about the NFL's replacement officials. Chicago Bears place-kicker Robbie Gould started the ball rolling by referring to them as "clueless," and late Friday, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe tweeted:

Two of the most egregious at the Metrodome were both judgment calls, as opposed to misunderstandings of the rule. They were glaring nonetheless. As Mark Craig of the Star Tribune noted, Chargers coach Norv Turner was forced to challenge two obvious mistakes: That Vikings running back Lex Hilliard had in fact fumbled in the second quarter and that De'Andre Presley had corralled an interception a few minutes later.

Meanwhile, there was some confusion as to whether officials in the Chicago Bears' game against the New York Giants had erred by giving the Giants an untimed down at the end of the first quarter. The play came after Bears cornerback Charles Tillman was called for pass interference on what would have been the final play of the first quarter.

Typically you see untimed downs only at the end of the first half or game. I'm awaiting further explanation, but my reading of the NFL rule book suggests it's possible the decision was within the realm of NFL rules. The team that was penalized against has the option of accepting an untimed down at the end of the first or third quarter as well. It could be an advantage, say, when the team is about to lose a wind advantage on a stormy day.

NFL rule 4, section 8 reads in part: "At the election of the opponent, a period may be extended for one untimed down, if any of the following occurs during a down during which time in the period expires: (a) If there is a foul by the defensive team that is accepted, the offensive team may choose to extend the period by an untimed down after enforcement of the penalty. If the first or third period is not so extended, any accepted penalty is enforced before the start of the succeeding period."

The question is if Giants coach Tom Coughlin asked for the first quarter to be extended. I've not yet seen confirmation of that, but I'm not ready to slam the officials in this instance yet, either.

As we discussed Friday, you hate to see officials miss obvious judgment calls. But worse, to me, is when they misapply the rules. You hope it didn't happen during this Bears-Giants game, but it's fair to wonder why Coughlin would want to extend the first quarter of a preseason game. Regardless, the episode reminds us how deep the NFL rulebook is and how much information an official must process in a short time.

In the end, this is a labor dispute that you would imagine will soon come to a head. Locked-out officials are banking on the assumption that the NFL won't want to open the season with the potential embarrassment of replacements, while the league knows that officials don't want to miss weekly game checks by continuing to reject its contract proposals. Something's got to give, and usually in these situations, it does.
On the same night when an NFL executive said he sees progress from the replacement officials, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis would disagree with one call.

In Thursday night's game against Green Bay, Bengals safety Taylor Mays was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver when replays clearly showed it was not a helmet-to-helmet hit. “It was shoulder-to-shoulder. It was exactly shoulder-to-shoulder," Lewis said in quotes distributed by the team after the game. "Unfortunately, the guy that made the call’s explanation was not correct."

Lewis should know the rules. He is part of the NFL's competition committee. But, like most coaches who don't want to receive a call from the league office, Lewis wasn't too harsh on referee Paul Layne and the crew of replacement officials.

“They are getting better,” Lewis said. “Hopefully, it will get closer and closer to what we need. His understanding was that the player was a defenseless receiver. He was, but you are allowed to hit a defenseless receiver shoulder-to-shoulder. There is no such thing as a defenseless player unless he is hit in the head with your head. It was a misinterpretation of the rule. I know they are working hard. The league is working hard to get this stuff corrected. They are working overtime on it actually. It’ll get better and better.”

It appears that everyone on the field, except the officials, believe the flag shouldn't have been thrown. Mays, who has been working to avoid hits to the head after sustaining a concussion two weeks ago, said he thought it was a clean hit. Even Packers tight end Tom Crabtree, who was hit by Mays, agreed that it was the wrong call.

In another AFC North city Thursday night, NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson said he's noticed improvement from the replacement officials. He was attending the Jaguars-Ravens game in Baltimore.

"We expected going in, just like the players going through the preseason, that every week they would get better," Anderson told the Baltimore Sun. "The first week, we had some rough spots and we got better from the first week to the second week and we expect to get better this week, too, and on and on. This is the third week and it seems to me they've had a pretty solid first half. Uneventful, that's exactly what you want. That's the improvement we expect."
For a number of reasons, but mostly because of the sheer volume of news during training camps, the state of NFL officiating hasn't spurred widespread alarm. I imagine that will change as soon as we're done with this third week of the preseason, after which teams usually look beyond the fourth and final week and set their focus squarely on the regular season.

As you know, replacements have been working preseason games because the NFL has locked out its permanent officials in a labor dispute. Major mistakes have occurred weekly, and both games Thursday night featured fundamental problems with rule interpretation.

[+] EnlargeReplacement officials
Joe Howell/AP PhotoSubstitute officials Robert Dalton (22) and Anthony Stroman confer in the fourth quarter of Thursday's Cardinals-Titans preseason game.
At least one NFC North player began speaking out as a result. After watching the Arizona Cardinals-Tennessee Titans game on ESPN, Chicago Bears place-kicker Robbie Gould -- who is also the team's player representative -- tweeted: "Watching the coaches get upset on @espn because the refs [are] clueless @nfl when did you stop caring about the integrity of the game. …I understand there is a fine line in negotiations To get the refs back on the field. But I hope both sides can reach a deal soon."

Among the calls Gould was referring to: Referees mistakenly believed that a holding penalty against the Cardinals should offset a penalty for 12 men on the field against the Titans. According to NFL rules, the 12-man penalty should override a holding penalty, meaning only the Titans should have been penalized on the play. Afterwards, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt ranted on the sideline to whomever would listen.

In addition, Titans coach Mike Munchak said after the game that there had been "some confusion" on timeouts before halftime. According to my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray walked away from an argument with replacement officials and called them "The Three Stooges" on the field.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said replacement officials didn't fully understand the rule protecting defenseless receivers when they called safety Taylor Mays for a 15-yard penalty after hitting Green Bay Packers tight end Tom Crabtree.

Here's what Lewis told reporters: "It was exactly shoulder-to-shoulder. Unfortunately, the guy that made the call’s explanation was not correct. It's one of those things. They are getting better. Hopefully, it will get closer and closer to what we need. His understanding was that the player was a defenseless receiver. He was, but you are allowed to hit a defenseless receiver shoulder-to-shoulder. There is no such thing as a defenseless player unless he is hit in the head with your head. It was a misinterpretation of the rule. I know they are working hard. The league is working hard to get this stuff corrected. They are working overtime on it actually. It'll get better and better."

The concern, however, is that these officials don't have much time to improve before the start of the regular season. Most of us have assumed that the NFL and its permanent officials will, under the pressure of the regular-season deadline, come to an agreement soon. If not, however, there is a strong likelihood that a regular-season game in Week 1 will be impacted not by a judgment call -- which happens every week of every season -- but by an official who either doesn't know all of the NFL's rules or misapplies them.

We have come to accept debatable calls for, say, pass interference or whether a player had two feet in bounds after making a catch. But losing track of timeouts? Not knowing how to apply the 12-men-on-the-field rule? Not demonstrating full knowledge of what constitutes a defenseless receiver? That's scary.
My recent call for restraint in ripping the NFL's replacement officials took a hit when the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh all but mocked officials during a recent preseason game.

OK, so the replacements aren't exactly inspiring confidence these days. It would help, I contend, if they would sound a little more sure of themselves while announcing their calls. Another suggestion: limiting the time spent deliberating among themselves during the pre-announcement phase. The league could suffer from a confidence crisis more than an officiating crisis at the current rate.

This was among the subjects Dan Graziano, Ashley Fox and I discussed during the latest NFL Huddle episode, available in the video above. We also discussed coaches potentially on the hot seat (one NFC West mention), the quarterback situation in Seattle and T-shirts like the one visible in the video thumbnail.


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