Welcome to the first edition of our expanded, much-improved and totally awesome Officiating Review. On a weekly (or so) basis, this post will explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games and provide a platform for tracking some of the league's rule-related trends. Which brings us immediately to ...
The new PAT rule has teeth
NFL place-kickers already have missed four extra points at the new 33-yard distance, and we still have two games remaining in Week 1 thanks to ESPN's Monday Night Football doubleheader. In other words, we're already halfway to the total number of PAT misses (eight) for the entire 2014 season
No results were directly affected -- you know you were thinking it, though, as the Dallas Cowboys lined up Sunday night for a go-ahead PAT with seven seconds remaining -- but that might be only a matter of time. Sunday's games featured misses by the Houston Texans (Randy Bullock) and Jacksonville Jaguars (Jason Myers) from 33 yards. San Diego Chargers place-kicker Josh Lambo missed (after a penalty) from 38 yards and the Cincinnati Bengals' Mike Nugent had one blocked.
At the moment, the NFL's PAT conversion rate is 94.1 percent (64-for-68). If you're scoring, or weeping, at home, the league did not see its fourth missed extra point last season until Week 8, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's a significant-enough reduction from last season's 99.3 percent to make the kick something less than automatic, but not enough (yet) for coaches to turn more frequently to the two-point play.
Teams attempted six two-point conversions in Week 1 this year, converting four, after trying seven in the first week of the 2014 season. It's worth noting that the Chargers abandoned plans for a two-point conversion Sunday after a delay-of-game penalty, choosing their unsuccessful 38-yard extra-point attempt over a seven-yard two-point conversion.
The most significant takeaway from these numbers is that they occurred in the relatively ideal environment of Week 1. The working theory has been that the new rule would be more relevant once the weather turned, when kicking is traditionally more difficult. We shall see if the 94.1 percent rate holds or falls further than originally expected, but it seems a certainty that the outcome of a game is going to be affected by a missed PAT late, a blue-moon occurrence under the old rules.
A fair catch isn't fair when …
The NFL's thick set of rules provides weekly opportunities for chaos, and that's what we had for a few moments at the start of overtime Sunday in St. Louis. In the end, referee Jeff Triplette corrected an inaccurate call but left unaddressed what could have been a penalty for another infraction.
Here's what happened: Seattle Seahawks place-kicker Steven Hauschka mishit the kickoff, sending it only 14 yards in what looked like an onside kick. The St. Louis Rams' Bradley Marquez recovered via fair catch at the Seahawks' 49-yard line, setting off a celebration at the Edward Jones Dome after what seemed an unexpected gift.
That's where things started falling off the rails. Triplette called a five-yard penalty for an invalid fair catch signal and announced the Seahawks would re-kick. Triplette struggled through the explanation, but essentially what he said was that Hauschka's kick had bounced off the turf and therefore nullified the opportunity for a fair catch.
Indeed, the NFL rule book allows fair catches only on an "airborne scrimmage kick," per Rule 10, Section 2, Article 1. "Airborne" in this case means that the ball can't touch the ground first.
After further discussion, Triplette acknowledged that the kick never touched the ground, making Marquez's fair-catch signal valid and preserving the Rams' excellent field position. What Triplette didn't cover, however, was why two Seahawks went unpenalized for diving into Marquez after the catch.
Rule 10, Section 2, Article 3(c) of the rule book states: "If a receiver has made a fair catch, an opponent is prohibited from blocking or tackling him, or causing a passive player of either team to contact him. Incidental contact is not a foul."
Technically, neither Seahawks player blocked or tackled Marquez, but their contact was forceful. The second part of the rule gives Triplette some discretion, and the only explanation is that he deemed the contact incidental in the context of the unique nature of the play. Marquez made the signal just before the contact occurred.
Unsportsmanlike conduct remains subjective
As we noted last month, one of the NFL's points of emphasis in 2015 was to eliminate players pulling opponents off piles that form over a loose football. That mandate, instituted to prevent the sparks of a fight, is no joke -- as we saw in the first quarter Sunday night in Dallas.
As a half-dozen players struggled to recover a fumble by the Giants' Rashad Jennings, Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr approached. With fairly mild force, Carr dragged Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. out of the pile and left him lying on his back.
Back judge Jim Quirk immediately threw his flag and referee Bill Vinovich made the announcement: Carr's action now merits a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.
The mark-off was significant, as it moved the ball from the Cowboys' 49-yard line to their 34. The Giants' offense managed only two more yards but were still in position for a 50-yard Josh Brown field goal.
Of course, it's worth juxtaposing that sequence with the ruling on an altercation between Bengals cornerback Adam Jones and Raiders receiver Amari Cooper. At one point, Jones slapped Cooper's helmet hard enough to remove it and then slammed Cooper's head into it once.
The players earned offsetting penalties, but a case could be made to have ejected Jones, considering that fighting is a 2015 point of emphasis. At this point, we have to assume referee Brad Allen's crew simply didn't see all of what Jones did.
If you recall, Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. and Washington Redskins cornerback Chris Culliver were ejected from a preseason game for a mild altercation in which no punches were thrown, a decision that likely previewed what will happen during the regular season -- when the officials see what happens.