Commentary

Belichick gives lesson in film class

Message from questionable calls late in games: Don't leave it up to the refs

Updated: November 21, 2013, 2:00 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When New England Patriots players gathered for their first team meeting of the week Wednesday, the message from coach Bill Belichick was that it was time to turn their focus to the next opponent, the Denver Broncos.

But before doing so, Belichick wanted to show his team something to perhaps help provide closure from Monday night's controversial 24-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

It was film of a 2009 game between the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions.

[+] EnlargeLions-Browns
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIn 2009, the Lions celebrated a last-play win over the Browns after drawing a pass interference call in the end zone as time ran out, the opposite of what happened to the Patriots against Carolina.

Some players might have been puzzled at first. What type of relevance could a Browns-Lions game from four seasons ago have on the 2013 Patriots? Both teams were 1-8 at the time, which made it arguably the most meaningless Week 11 game of that season.

Then, once the second-to-last play at Detroit's Ford Field started to play on the screen, it all became clear.

In need of a touchdown to win the game, and with only one play to make it happen because eight seconds remained in regulation, scrambling Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a 40-plus-yard pass into the end zone that was intercepted.

Game over.

But wait … a penalty flag was thrown by the back judge. Hold everything.

Pass interference.

Browns defensive back Hank Poteat had his back to the play and was making contact with receiver Bryant Johnson as he was pushing him toward the back of the end zone, about 5  yards away from where the ball was ultimately intercepted. No matter that the ball could have easily been deemed uncatchable. There still was restriction by Poteat.

Thus, the Lions had one final untimed play from the 1-yard line, and they scored a touchdown. The drama was that much greater because Stafford -- who wore a microphone on his jersey for NFL Films that produced unforgettable on-field sound -- had badly injured his left -- nonthrowing -- shoulder on the previous Hail Mary play. The extra point gave Detroit, playing at home, a thrilling 38-37 victory.

It wasn't necessarily a carbon copy of what happened Monday night in Charlotte, but it was about as close as it gets, with a significantly different outcome. In each case, the home team got the call.

So now let's ask the question: Why would Belichick show his 2013 team that play?

We have a few theories.

First, to share with them his belief (we presume) that the Patriots got jobbed. While Belichick has repeated to media members the past two days that any officiating inquiries should be directed to the league office, it makes sense to think he'd strike a different tone with his own players, letting them know he believes in them and that they deserved better.

But then one considers that Belichick is seldom, if ever, one to use injuries or officiating as an excuse.

So maybe, in addition to expressing belief in his players, he wanted to reinforce how these are the things that can happen if business isn't taken care of earlier in a game. Leave it in the hands of officials, and it's a roll of the dice, so don't let it get to that point.

Current Patriots assistant coach Brian Daboll is the only player or coach with New England who was part of that 2009 Browns-Lions game, serving as Cleveland's offensive coordinator that season under Eric Mangini. Perhaps he planted the seed for Belichick's film class, which seemed to fire up some players.

Looking back on the media accounts of that 2009 Browns-Lions game, the reaction to the call was as expected. Naturally, Mangini was steamed with the penalty on Poteat (the referee that day was Terry McAulay) and argued passionately. Lions coach Jim Schwartz thought it was an obvious call.

"When the ball's in the air, you can't make contact with the receiver. That's clear," Schwartz said at the time. "When you're making contact and you're not playing the ball, and the ball's in the air, that's pass interference. That's as clear a case of pass interference."

It was called that way against Poteat and the Browns on Nov. 22, 2009, but it went the other way Nov. 18, 2013, when Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was essentially doing the same thing to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Belichick highlighted the difference to his players on Wednesday.

And now they move on.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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