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 Vinovich
Analysis: The penalty nullified Graham's 47-yard touchdown reception on a Hail Mary play at the end of regulation, a rare but accurate call that forced the game into overtime and an eventual loss for the New Orleans Saints.
Replays show Graham putting both hands on the right shoulder of San Francisco 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox and pushing him at about the 5-yard line. Cox fell to the ground, opening space for Graham to make a leaping catch at about the goal line. Side judge Jimmy DeBell and back judge Jim Quirk immediately and simultaneously threw flags for OPI.
OPI is a 2014 point of emphasis for the NFL, and entering Week 10, officials had called almost as many of them (67) as they did in all 17 weeks of the 2013 season (74); Vinovich's crew had called one earlier in the game on 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin. Graham's play didn't mirror the specific technique the league is trying to curb -- pushing off at the top of the route, before the break -- but there is little doubt it violated Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(g) of the NFL rule book: "Initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass."
Graham suggested that Cox "flopped" to make the contact appear more severe than it was, but if anything, it simply drew attention to the contact. The real issue here is that pass interference is rarely called on either side during Hail Mary plays, where pushing and shoving are routine.
In 2012, in fact, an NFL replacement referee said publicly the league trained him not to call offensive pass interference in such instances because "there are a lot of bodies in there, you just let it go."
It's difficult to pinpoint the frequency of similar instances, but here is what ESPN Stats & Information came up with: Since the start of the 2001 season, there have been seven offensive pass interference calls in the final 10 seconds of either half when Hail Marys are likely to have occurred. That's in roughly 3,700 games.
The dispute here lies in the context rather than the merit, a losing battle. The contact was undeniable and it helped Graham make the catch.
Referee: Terry McAulay
Analysis: Vick scrambled 7 yards toward the right sideline before being tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. As Vick slid awkwardly and tried to extend the ball with his left hand for a first down, Harrison reached up from the ground and knocked it from his hands. Slowing down the replay frame-by-frame reveals Vick lost control an instant before his left shin hit the ground to mark him down.
Line judge Tom Stephan was on top of the play and immediately signaled that Vick was down while the ball rolled near his feet. It wasn't until Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward dove on top of the ball that he realized it was loose.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin challenged the ruling that Vick was down by contact. Former NFL referee Mike Carey, appearing on the CBS game broadcast, called the play one of the "most complicated" he had seen in a while. Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now a Fox broadcaster, tweeted that the fumble was "REALLY close." Carey suggested overturning the call, and Pereira said he agreed with upholding it.
The play was indeed close, and it shouldn't matter that Stephan blew his whistle before recovery. Instant replay provides technology that can make clear what is admittedly difficult to clarify in real time. Overturning a call requires indisputable evidence, which -- from my amateur view -- seems clear when freezing the moment Vick lost control of the ball. McAulay didn't explain the ruling in detail, but I would be curious to know what made him stop short of overturning.
Referee: Walt Coleman
Analysis: Coleman's crew initially ruled the pass complete, saying Walker had control of the ball before Baltimore Ravens safety Terrence Brooks dislodged it with a big hit, causing a fumble. Two questions emerged: Did Walker indeed have control? And did Brooks illegally make helmet-to-helmet contact?
The answers are tangled within each other. The NFL rule book bars "forcible" contact with the helmet of a defenseless player, and one of the definitions of a defenseless player (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7) is "a receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or clearly has not become a runner."
In this case, Walker is officially a defenseless receiver because on review, Coleman ruled that he had not completed the process before the hit. That decision appeared accurate; Walker bobbled the ball just before encountering Brooks.
Regardless, what's interesting is that that the hit was not illegal. Brooks used his right shoulder to initiate contact with Walker's left shoulder. In the follow-through, Brooks' helmet hit Walker's, but it wasn't "forcible" because most the initial and primary force of the hit that put Walker on his back came from the shoulder contact. (Pereira made a similar argument in this video.)
The NFL doesn't want helmet-to-helmet contact on any play, but this case in particular isn't covered in its current rules.