Commentary

Playoff officials staying in background

Non-calls have generated some heat, but "let them play" philosophy is welcome

Originally Published: January 18, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Officials took a lot of criticism during the divisional weekend for calls or non-calls, but one theme has resonated during the first eight games of the playoffs: The refs aren't standing in the way of games. They are letting them play.

Only 19 penalties were marched off in the four divisional games. In the eight playoffs games to date, an average of 7.25 penalties a game has been accepted. That's roughly half of what you see in the regular season.

The most noticeable change is the lack of holding penalties. Only seven were called in the eight games played, and five of those were against the Giants in their two games. Three have gone against Giants guard Chris Snee.

A couple of years ago, the league hoped officials weren't quick with flags on holding calls. The 10-yard loss on holding calls damages offensive drives and often leads to lower-scoring games. Over the past two seasons, though, holding calls increased because of an adjustment in the alignment of officials.

To spare the umpire from injuries near the line of scrimmage, the league moved umpires into the offensive backfield with the referee. With two officials looking for holding behind the line of scrimmage, holding calls increased from 1.84 a game in 2009 to 1.99 in 2010. This year, they went up to 2.09 a game.

But as the flags have stayed in the pockets, scoring has jumped to 50.6 a game, which is 6.2 points a game more than in the regular season.

No game is going to be officiated perfectly, but at least fans are being allowed to see the games decided on the field and not by the officials.

From the inbox

Q: What do you see happening with T.J. Yates? He poses no threat to Matt Schaub, but does he have the potential to reach Matt Flynn status in the eyes of other teams?

Kyle in Wisconsin

A: The best hope for Yates is to beat out Matt Leinart to be the backup. Schaub is the franchise quarter and will return as starter next year. Yates proved he was good enough as a fill-in quarterback to keep the Texans at a playoff level. That is why Gary Kubiak didn't flinch when Leinart went down and everyone was calling for the Texans to put a veteran quarterback ahead of him. I don't see any trade developing, but you're right that Yates is now on the map as a quarterback prospect who will be followed by other teams.

Q: I was wondering if it would be a good idea for the Seattle Seahawks to go after Jason Campbell. Would he be a better fit than going after Matt Flynn or would it cost Seattle too much to get Campbell from the Raiders?

Russell in Vashon, Wash.

A: Campbell could be a slight upgrade from Tarvaris Jackson, but the Seahawks won't make that move for two reasons. First, Campbell and Jackson are represented by the same agent. The agent won't sacrifice one for the other. Second, the Seahawks coaching staff likes Jackson. To replace him, they would seek a significant upgrade, which is something they need to study. Flynn might be too expensive. He put himself in position for a possible five-year, $60 million contract. The Seahawks should consider it if they can't draft a quarterback.

Q: What did Alex Smith show you with his performance on Saturday? To me, probably because of his years of failure, he seemed extremely tentative to take risks this year except when absolutely necessary. (Like the end of the Detroit game or against Philadelphia) The positive with this is few interceptions, but the negative is constantly settling for checkdowns and sometimes operating an offense that doesn't move the ball consistently. This year he hasn't needed to do that because of the defense, but I think he showed Saturday that when he needs to make throws in tight windows or take shots downfield, he can, and he can be more than a game manager. Contrary to many QBs, I think he needs to press. What do you think?

Mak in San Francisco

A: People in Denver are torn on Tim Tebow, but Tebow took the Broncos to the playoffs and deserves the chance to be the starter next year. Same thing for Smith in San Francisco. He has a chance to take the 49ers to the Super Bowl. It's hard to erase the six disappointing seasons in SF for Smith, but he does look different. He's never been the best at placing the ball in perfect spots for his pass-catchers. He does settle for checkdowns. Jim Harbaugh has made it easier for him with rollouts and simple throws. He's a free agent, but you have to think the 49ers will re-sign him.

Q: Why can teams interview coaches from playoff teams while their seasons are still going on? Isn't that the definition of tampering? If the Redskins can't wine and dine Drew Brees, why can the Raiders do the same with Packers assistant coaches? And if it's about giving those coaches an equal opportunity of landing head-coaching gigs, why doesn't the NFL make a rule that forbids teams from naming new head coaches until after the season is over?

Paul in Virginia Beach, Va.

A: Even though the playoffs continue for the 2011 season, 20 teams have to start planning for 2012 when the playoffs begin. They also have to start building interest for their fan bases. The NFL has a very strict system for setting up those interviews. Hiring teams have to travel to the city in which the playoff coach is located. It has to be done at a mutually agreeable time so it doesn't interfere with game prep. Forbidding hires during the playoffs would cost a month for a hiring team, which could keep them among the losers the next season. Losing teams have first the crack at hiring assistants. The extra month helps with scouting and preparing for free agency. Remember, the NFL is all about trying to help the teams out of the playoffs get into the playoffs. If there are problems with tampering, the league changes rules to fix it.

Q: Many analysts, coaches and players talk about teams "peaking" at the right time when entering the playoffs. Case in point: The Packers seem to have peaked earlier in the season, which led to their loss. Does it seem that the Pats and Giants are both peaking at the right time? Both offense and defense for these teams seem to have come together, have healed from injuries and are playing focused football. Is there a good chance we are going to see a rematch of the '07 Super Bowl? Are both teams peaking compared to 49ers and Ravens?

Daniel in Denver

A: I think you can make the argument that three teams are peaking. Don't underestimate the 49ers. They've played great on defense all season. But their offense did a great job last Saturday against the Saints. Sure, they settled for three field goals, but they actually got a few more touchdowns than expected. The Giants are healthy and are peaking. Their running game is finally hitting it. Michael Boley has played great down the stretch, and their secondary is doing well. As for the Patriots, it's hard to say where their defense is, but they looked great on offense Saturday.

Q: It's funny what a difference five months can make. All the experts seem to forget that the Rams were the consensus favorite to win the NFC West this year. It was a mixed bag, but the Rams were the most common selection to win the West. My question is: Can the Rams rebound enough with Jeff Fisher to win the West next year? I hoping Matt Kalil will solidify the OL at least.

Darrin in Granite Bay, Calif.

A: They can rebound, but there is no guarantee. They finished the season with only 10 drafted players on the 53-man roster. The rest were cut or were on injured reserve. Fisher has to rebuild the offensive line, the linebacking corps and the secondary. But at least he has a quarterback, Sam Bradford, and a top running back, Steven Jackson. It's not out of the question that they might see a five-game improvement with Fisher's guidance.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo and Miles Austin
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireWould the Cowboys trade Tony Romo? Probably not.
Q: I think the Jets need to go in a new direction at QB, and that the Cowboys have been stagnant with Tony Romo at the helm. What if they were to trade QBs, with the Jets throwing in some picks, and then the Cowboys flip those picks plus some other assets for Peyton Manning? The Cowboys would have a star QB for their star team, and Sanchez could sit and learn for a couple of years.

James in Wyckoff, N.J.

A: First, Tony Romo is too valuable to the Cowboys, and Jerry Jones won't let him go. Second, Rex Ryan believes in Mark Sanchez. Although several players in the locker room may not be on board with Rex, don't expect any change. On the Peyton Manning front, his contract can't be traded. He either has to be paid $28 million in an option bonus to stay or he is let go as a free agent. The Jets have invested three years in Sanchez, and he's won a lot of games. Unfortunately for him, he hasn't won a lot of respect.

Q: I have a question about the New Orleans Saints' defense. I'm a little confused why everyone is calling it "bad" -- specifically the pass D, because they are decent against the run. The Saints have played 6 games against top 10 passing teams, and 4 against top 5 passing teams. Of those 6, they won 4 by 14-plus -- and three of those games were three-possession blowouts. The only passing team they fell to was the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 after no offseason camp. I wouldn't say that the Saints have a great defense, and obviously they aren't capitalizing on turnovers, but I haven't seen anyone touch on these facts. I don't think you can call the Saints defense great, and sure it feeds off the offense, but I think they are better than at least 16 other defenses.

Claude in Chicago

A: I do think everyone overrated the talent on the defense, but it's not horrible. Of course, I say that after they gave up 36 points to the 49ers. A lot of those points were set up by five offensive turnovers. The disappointment for me is in the front seven. The Saints didn't get enough out of the defensive line. They need to re-evaluate where they are at linebacker. The biggest change will be not having Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator. Williams tried to establish an attitude, but the defense gave up too many big plays for that attitude to carry to the playoffs this year.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN

John Clayton

NFL senior writer