Clearing up confusion over '4-yard' ruling

There has been a lot of confusion -- and criticism -- over arbitrator Stephen Burbank's use of the "4-yard benchmark" when determining that Jimmy Graham was officially lined up as a tight end for the majority of his snaps last year with the New Orleans Saints.

Burbank's ruling was widely interpreted as though he suggested that Graham was a tight end when he was within 4 yards of the nearest lineman and a wide receiver when he was further out.

The first interpretation is essentially true. The second one isn't: A league source confirmed Monday that Burbank did not actually rule that Graham -- or any player -- would be considered a wide receiver if he lined up more than 4 yards away.

Burbank specifically wrote that he didn't consider or make a ruling on any plays in which Graham was lined up further away because he didn't need to. The reason: Graham was lined up within 4 yards of an offensive lineman on the majority of his snaps -- 54.6 percent of them, to be exact.

"I need not decide whether Mr. Graham was a tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when he was in a wide-out alignment," Burbank wrote. "Stipulated evidence establishes that, at the snap, Mr. Graham was aligned (in relationship to the nearest offensive lineman) in the slot for 51.7% of the plays ... and within four yards for 54.6% of the plays. ... I will confine my analysis to those plays."

Immediately in the wake of Burbank's decision, some analysts and players widely criticized the seemingly arbitrary use of the 4-yard benchmark. Former Saints receiver Lance Moore tweeted:

"Four yard split from tackle = a TE huh? Well I guess @MarquesColston and myself played a lot of TE last yr too! The nfl wins again. Smh!!!"

And on Sunday, Pro Football Talk reported that even the Saints themselves weren't thrilled with the way Burbank reached his decision.

PFT cited a source as saying that the Saints disagree with the notion that the question of tight end versus receiver boils down to whether the player lines up within 4 yards of an offensive tackle. The Saints instead feel that a tight end is a tight end no matter where he lines up, since they like to shift their players around to gain information about defensive alignments.

According to PFT, "The Saints see three key factors for determining tight end status: (1) the player's size; (2) the player's position group for practice and meeting purposes; and (3) the manner in which the opponent defends him in man coverage."

When reading Burbank's 12-page decision, though, it seems apparent that he actually agreed with the Saints' logic on all three of those points.

Burbank repeatedly referenced Graham's physical dimensions in how he was evaluated by the Saints before being drafted and how he is used by the team. And the evidence that appeared to weigh most heavily into Burbank's decision was that Graham was often defended as a tight end even when he lined up in the slot (i.e., by a linebacker or a strong safety).

Wrote Burbank: "The evidence also supports findings that, like tight ends, wide receivers and running backs often line up in the slot ... and that the defense employed against any player so aligned turns on the player's position, not his alignment, because of the physical attributes and skill sets of the players in those positions."

Burbank then cited testimony from Saints coach Payton, who said, "When our receivers are lined up widest in formations, they are never covered by safeties or linebackers ever. ... Never ever ever ever ever does a linebacker match up with a wide receiver ever."

Burbank immediately followed with his concluding paragraph, which led to all the confusion:

"In sum, I conclude that Mr. Graham was at the position of tight end for purposes of Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) when, at the snap, he was aligned adjacent to or ‘arm's-length' from the nearest offensive lineman and also when he was aligned in the slot, at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of such lineman. ..."

There is no indication yet of whether Graham and the NFL Players Association plan to appeal Burbank's ruling, which much be done within 10 days.

However, it will almost certainly be too late to affect the long-term contract negotiations between Graham and the Saints. Franchise-tagged players have until July 15 to work out long-term contracts with their teams. After that date, they can only sign one-year deals.