Reaction to Monday night's game-ending call has ranged from the ultra-emotional to the uber-analytical.
New England Patriots fans are livid that a flag for pass interference against the Carolina Panthers was picked up, giving the Panthers a 24-20 victory. Meanwhile, football wonks and officiating gurus are scouring the NFL rule book for precise wording on when contact is allowed and what exceptions must be made.
I suggest we all take a deep breath and reach for a third option: common sense.
When you boil it down, here's what happened on the play: The intended receiver was bear-hugged while the ball approached. As a result, another defender had a clear path to step in for a game-ending interception.
That sequence doesn't pass the smell test -- a basic expectation for officiating. We are now in a position where the complexity of the NFL rule book has bogged us down and clouded the bigger picture, reducing us to seek tortured and technical explanations when even an amateur set of eyes can tell us all we need to know.
Speaking to a pool reporter late Monday night, referee Clete Blakeman confirmed that back judge Terrence Miles initially called pass interference on Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had his arms all over tight end Rob Gronkowski, the intended target of Tom Brady's pass into the end zone on the final play. Umpire Garth DeFelice and side judge Greg Meyer joined the discussion. Ultimately, the crew ruled that Brady's pass to Gronkowski (which was picked off by Panthers safety Robert Lester) was uncatchable -- negating the possibility of pass interference.
Indeed, Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2 of the NFL rule book lists five exceptions to what would otherwise be pass interference. Among them: "Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players, except as specified in 8-3-2 and 8-5-4 pertaining to blocking downfield by the offense."
Yes, there is an exception to the exception. But let's forget that bit of dark humor for a moment and consider the question of whether Brady's pass was "clearly uncatchable."
There is no arguing that the ball was picked off about 5 yards in front of Gronkowski and Kuechly. It was far enough away that Gronkowski hardly made a move for it. But to me, this is an example of a rule exception seeping into an area it wasn't intended for.
Use common sense and apply the smell test. When we imagine the intent of the "uncatchable" exception, we think of a ball that sails 10 feet over a receiver's head on the sideline. Or perhaps it drops 15 yards downfield on a go route. Do we really want to judge whether a pass that is 5 yards short couldn't be completed by a 6-foot-6 tight end who has long arms, excellent hands and isn't running away from the ball?
Blakeman's crew might have made a decision that was technically defensible via the rule book. But as originally conceived, the ruling doesn't seem to have been intended to apply in Monday night's case. This is what happens, as we discussed earlier this season, when rules and exceptions are piled on top of each other in such a way that officials can't possibly keep it all straight.
Many of you were wondering why Blakeman didn't call illegal contact on Kuechly considering Gronkowski was well beyond 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. The answer is classic, per former NFL referee Jim Daopoulos. Because illegal contact only applies before the ball is thrown. Pass interference takes precedence after the quarterback throws the ball. Exceptions on top of exceptions.
There are no easy answers here, but Monday night, common sense got trumped by thick prose and too-nuanced attempts to legislate every possibility in a football game. Rules are intended to allow players to compete fairly to win the game. If we're going to allow a receiver to get bear hugged in the end zone as the ball falls in the area, then why have a rule book at all?