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: Jerome Boger
Analysis: This play capped an eventful day for Boger and his crew. Attempting to score the winning touchdown, Kaepernick bobbled the snap, regained control of the ball and dove over the goal line. At some point between regaining control and landing on the ground, Kaepernick fumbled again. St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis came out of the pile with the ball and was awarded possession.
The question is whether Kaepernick lost the ball before or after crossing the goal line. If it was after, the ruling is a touchdown. Anything that happens afterward is moot. If it happened before, then it is a fumble and a loss of possession.
Kaepernick told reporters he crossed the line first, but you wouldn't expect him to say anything different.
The replay demonstrates the officiating mechanics that led to the decision: Head linesman Tom Staible and line judge Ed Walker are aligned on the goal line to determine if the ball broke the plane before Kaepernick was down. Umpire Tony Michalek was standing about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and clearly sees the fumble. Michalek consulted with back judge Tony Steratore, whose responsibility is tracking loose balls, before signaling a touchdown.
There is no evidence that Michalek consulted with Staible or Walker, suggesting he saw Kaepernick lose possession before it was visible to television viewers. In this case, he apparently didn't need to confirm whether Kaepernick was in possession at the goal line. Given the tight formation at the snap, and the resulting crunch of bodies, no replay angle offered a conclusive view of when Kaepernick fumbled for the second time.
This call was one where either ruling was defensible, because in the end there is no visual evidence of what happened at the key moment.
Referee: Gene Steratore
Analysis: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III attempted to gain a first down by running around right end on what appeared to be a read-option play. Seeing Smith approaching him from the front, and defensive end Corey Wootton from the side, Griffin began sliding 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage near the right sideline.
Smith lowered his right shoulder to initiate contact, and Steratore penalized him for "a blow to a sliding quarterback's head," according to the post-play announcement.
There are several factors to unpack here; most obviously, a second look at the play revealed Smith at worst grazed Griffin's left shoulder. He did not appear to contact his head or neck. Steratore made a mistake of anticipation, one that isn't entirely surprising when you note that his crew entered Week 9 having called 17 unnecessary roughness or personal foul penalties, by far the highest among the NFL's 17 crews, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database. (The average was 6.7 per crew.)
But what interests me are two other questions: Was Griffin still considered a quarterback by rule at the end of the play? And what, if any, protection did the slide afford him?
First, the NFL confirmed last season that a quarterback running the read-option loses his "quarterback protection" and can be hit as if he were a running back. So it is difficult to understand why Steratore referred to a "sliding quarterback" when the league doesn't consider him one on that play.
Second, what you might not realize is that Griffin is still classified as a defenseless player -- whether or not he is a quarterback -- who had declared himself down and prompted an immediate dead ball.
"A player on the ground" is one of 10 definitions of a defenseless player, as listed in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a). And any player, not just a receiver, can declare himself down by sliding feet first. According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(d), "the ball is dead the instant he touches the ground with anything other than his hands or feet." The rule requires the player to start his slide "before contact by a defensive player is imminent," requiring officials to judge whether the defender had a reasonable chance to pull up.
Regardless, in this case the discussion is moot because Smith appeared to sail over Griffin with little to no contact. But had there been contact, to the helmet or anywhere else, Steratore's crew would have been justified in calling the penalty even though Griffin was by rule a runner and not a quarterback at the end of the play.
Play: Rams' Tavon Austin is ruled down in the field of play rather than in the end zone
Analysis: In addition to the Kaepernick fumble, Boger's ruling on a complicated play before halftime merits further inspection. Should the 49ers have been credited for a safety after Austin's poor return of a missed field goal attempt?
Austin had advanced the ball out of the end zone, just short of the 2-yard line, before making a hard cut to the right to avoid the 49ers' Derek Carrier. In an unsuccessful attempt to get around Carrier, Austin began moving back toward his goal line. Carrier's tackle brought him down in the end zone. Boger had to decide whether to call a safety or if Austin would be credited with forward progress at the 1- or 2-yard line. Boger chose the latter, a ruling upheld after an inconclusive replay review.
The NFL rule book defines forward progress as "the point at which [a runner's] advance toward his opponent's goal ends and is the spot at which the ball is declared dead by rule, irrespective of the runner or receiver being pushed or carried backward by an opponent."
Did Carrier push or carry Austin into the end zone? Or did Austin get there himself?
The key bit of information, as former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said on the Fox broadcast, was the location of the ball when Carrier first contacted Austin and thus stopped the advance. That is the spot of forward progress; if the ball had already broken back over the goal-line plane, it should be a safety.
In the end, Fox did not supply a replay that provided a direct goal-line angle to determine where the ball was on contact. Because Austin had the ball in his left arm as he turned right, meaning the ball was away from the end zone at the line of forward progress, my guess is that it had not broken the plane when Carrier first grabbed Austin's right knee.
Boger had no choice but to uphold the replay, but it was a reminder of how tricky a forward progress ruling can be.
Referee: Bill Vinovich
Analysis: In the third quarter Sunday night at Heinz Field, Flacco scrambled away from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and threw an incomplete pass while falling to the ground. The Steelers challenged the ruling, claiming Flacco was down before he threw the ball, and replay official Dale Hamer agreed. The call was changed to a sack.
This play highlighted common confusion about the definition of "down by contact." In this case, both of Flacco's knees and elbows were off the ground when he threw -- and Hamer was still correct when he made his ruling.
Why? According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(a) of the rule book, an official should declare the ball dead and the down ended when "a runner is contacted by an opponent and touches the ground with any part of his body other than his hands or feet." The definition is further explained as "any part of a runner's leg above the ankle or any part of his arm above the wrist."
While it's more common for a joint -- elbows and knees -- to touch the ground first, a shin or forearm is considered the same. So, to paraphrase John Madden, one knee equals one shin and one elbow equals one forearm.