Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.
Referee: Bill Leavy
Analysis: Midway through the third quarter Sunday night, Browner hit San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green as Green bobbled a pass near midfield. The ball popped in the air, was intercepted by Patriots safety Devin McCourty and returned 56 yards for a touchdown.
Leavy, however, announced a penalty on Browner: personal foul for what he announced was a "helmet-to-helmet" hit. In live action, the call seemed appropriate, given the violent snap of Green's head. But a closer, slow-motion review revealed contact we unfortunately have seen penalized so often in recent years. The scenario begs for the NFL to add it to the list of reviewable infractions.
Let's unpack the play. At the top, we should note that Green qualified for defenseless player protection under NFL rules because he was "a receiver attempting to catch a pass." (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7a-2).
With the aid of slow motion, you see Browner slide his head to the left, lead with his right shoulder and initiate contact to Green's right shoulder and chest area. Browner's shoulder glanced off Green's face mask, but there was minimal helmet-to-helmet contact. It's true that defenders can be penalized even if there is no hit to the head -- Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7b prohibits them from "forcibly" hitting a defenseless player's "head or neck area" with their "helmet, face mask, forearm or shoulder" -- but it's debatable whether Browner's contact met that standard.
Regardless, it was nearly impossible for an official to decipher and break down the contact accurately in real time. So here's the guidance provided by the NFL rule book for all unnecessary roughness penalties: "When in question about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official(s) should always call unnecessary roughness." In other words, err on the side of a penalty.
What could Browner have done differently? Theoretically, he could have gotten lower and contacted Green's torso rather than his shoulder -- a difficult task considering Browner's unusual 6-foot-4 frame. It also can't be overlooked that Browner entered the game tied for the third-most penalties among NFL players (10), despite playing in only six games. (He reached 12 by the end of Sunday night's game.)
Browner said via Twitter:
It's a violent game we play! In a critical point in the game. My intentions was to knock the ball loose, nothing more nothing less— Brandon Browner (@bbrowner27) December 8, 2014
... I say that to say I strike with my shoulder all the time, to avoid being concussed myself. It's a fine line we walk.— Brandon Browner (@bbrowner27) December 8, 2014
In this case and many others, the NFL's understandable desire to limit head collisions puts officials at a disadvantage. They're doing what they've been told -- calling an illegal hit even if they have any doubt -- and it's difficult to expect them to do anything other than use those cues. Replay reviews might be the only long-term answer.
Referee: Craig Wrolstad
Analysis: In the fourth quarter Sunday, Kelce caught a 19-yard pass and was tackled by Arizona Cardinals safety Deone Bucannon. The ball bounced away and was recovered immediately by the Cardinals' Justin Bethel. Wrolstad's crew, however, ruled Kelce had been down by contact before the ball squirted away.
The Cardinals challenged and replays showed Kelce losing control before his knees hit the ground. What made the play unique was that Kelce regained control upon landing on his back. Only then, as he and Bucannon rolled over, did the ball come loose again.
Intuition suggests the play should be dead the moment Kelce's knee hit the ground with the ball in his possession. But that's not how the NFL sees it. Here is part of what Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7, Note 1 reads:
"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by an opponent) 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, there is no possession."
Based on this wording, Wrolstad made the correct -- if counterintuitive -- decision to reverse the call. Kelce did not maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground; it came loose as he rolled over.
Two former officials who are now TV analysts, Mike Perreira and Mike Carey, ultimately agreed with the reversal. And as we discussed last week, the NFL has been exceptionally cautious about reversing calls this season, requiring the highest standard of evidence. It might not make intuitive sense based on what we all saw, but the ruling reflects the rule book's standards.
Referee: John Parry
Analysis: In the fourth quarter Sunday, Flacco was attempting to throw against a heavy pass rush from Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake and safety Louis Delmas. Wake grabbed Flacco's right arm, redirecting the ball about 2 yards in front of him. Dolphins defensive tackle Earl Mitchell fell on it, and Parry ruled the play a fumble.
Reviewed in slow motion, however, it became clear that Flacco began the throwing motion prior to contact from Wake. Even if the "Tuck Rule" still existed, allowing a quarterback to maintain possession if he tried to pull the ball back and lost it, it wouldn't have applied here because Flacco never attempted to pull back the throw.
The ball left his hand sideways, and traveled only 2 yards, because Wake's contact prevented Flacco from following through. But his arm was going forward when the ball left.
Replay official Bob McGrath initiated a review that recognized the mistake and Parry reversed the call. This was a case where replay demonstrated definitively an action that we could only guess about when watching live.