A regular analysis of strategy, decisions and calls that impacted the week of NFL play -- with help from ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke, among other resources.
In a span of hours Sunday, three of the NFL's most prominent players voiced biting criticism of specific game officials and/or their calls. A week ago, a coach who sits on the competition committee said he expected a "bulls---" response from NFL senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino to concerns he planned to express.
The protests have been raw, emotional and understandable. Together, they paint a picture of significant unrest with the way games have been administered. They also reinforce the notion that many of the league's employees have lost respect for the league's central authority and are increasingly unconcerned about expressing it.
All of which brings up a fair question: Doesn't the NFL prohibit such criticism and enforce those rules with fines? In college football, of course, we hear regularly about coaches facing huge NCAA fines for postgame criticism of officiating. It erodes public confidence in the product, for one, and in some cases it's simply an inaccurate assessment based on emotion rather than a close inspection of video or detailed analysis of the rules.
The technical answer is yes. The NFL policy manual, distributed annually around the league, states: "Please note that public criticism by players or club employees of game officials or officiating is prohibited and is subject to fines and/or suspensions."
But in reality, this policy is separate from the rigid and collectively bargained fine schedule for violations such as taunting, hits to the head and throwing a football into the stands. Discipline in verbal cases is more malleable and -- dare I say -- reasonable. There are certainly documented instances of NFL players or coaches paying fines for public criticism, but the league considers the circumstances of the offense and typically works on a timetable that is longer than the one-week response it gives to other postgame fines.
Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman kicked off the assault Sunday in London, hammering field judge Brad Freeman after his team was called for 15 penalties in a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals. Freeman "sucked," said Norman, who was called for five penalties himself. (One was declined.)
Norman called on Freeman to be "reprimanded" by the NFL and suggested the Redskins were subject to stricter interpretations of rules because the game was played overseas.
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, meanwhile, said that referee Ed Hochuli's failure to call more than two penalties on the New Orleans Saints was "egregious." The Saints had entered the game averaging 7.5 accepted penalties per game and Sherman was particularly upset about what he considered missed calls for offensive pass interference and a false start.
And finally, the NFL's reigning MVP -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton -- said he doesn't always feel safe in the pocket because officials are failing to call penalties designed to protect him. "It's really taken the fun out of the game for me."
When you consider their comments with those of Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who was fuming about calls after his team's Week 7 tie with the Seahawks, you see a significant trend of NFL superstars speaking out. But I can't say for sure that any of them will be disciplined or when a decision might be made.
There have been a handful of notable fines in recent history. Former Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress was fined $35,000 in 2010. Then-Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, at the time a member of the competition committee, was fined $12,500 in 2006.
In Childress' case, part of the discipline was for disclosing information he received during a private conversation with the NFL officiating department. Generally speaking, the league grants leeway to those who pop off in the heat of a postgame moment. If the comments come in ensuing days, as Childress' did, they are more likely to be punished.
Norman, Sherman and Newton are earning a combined $55 million this season and are less likely to be deterred by fines anyway. So what's the solution here? As I've written before, the current state of antagonism between players and the NFL is bad for business. Constructive dialogue, inclusion and a sense of ownership in the process would be a far more effective deterrent to criticism than fines.
Further explaining Earl Thomas penalty
The NFL rulebook calls for an ejection whenever there is a penalty for contact with an official and Thomas remained in the game. The league policy manual, however, provides players additional guidance in such situations.
It reads: "Offenses against game officials include: (1) physical contact with officials including, but not limited to, punching, pushing, shoving, grabbing, or other intimidating or interfering contact; and (2) verbal or other non-physical abuse of officials, such as profanity and other abusive language or gestures. Offenses against game officials are strictly prohibited and will result in disqualifications, fines, and possibly suspensions or banishment."
The NFL's minimum fine for physical contact with an official is $30,387 for a first offense. If the NFL deems this to be a mere instance of unsportsmanlike conduct, the fine will be lower -- probably $12,154. Thomas, however, could avoid a fine altogether if the NFL determines the penalty was unwarranted. Stay tuned.
Jim Caldwell's odd call for onside kick
Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell called for an onside kick Sunday much earlier than you would expect as his team fought back from a deficit against the Houston Texans. Did Caldwell make the right call? The numbers do not support his decision, although the full answer is a bit more complicated.
To review: Caldwell ordered the kick after the Lions pulled within 20-13 with 2 minutes, 57 seconds left. Caldwell had all three timeouts remaining, plus the two-minute warning, so the Lions could have gotten the ball back with some time left even if they had allowed the Texans a first down after a conventional kickoff.
According to Burke, the current success rate for expected NFL onside kicks is 18 percent. Statistically, the Lions had a better chance to win by kicking off and playing defense up until about 1:40 remained on the clock. At that point or later, an onside kick would have made more sense.
Caldwell, however, can't operate simply by the numbers. He must also gauge the state of his team and his sense of how matchups had developed. Concern about his defense, which entered the game ranked No. 25 in yards allowed this season, was real. It had just allowed the Texans 47 rushing yards on five carries in a nearly seven-minute possession, and as it turned out, it gave up 25 rushing yards on the first four plays after failing to recover the onside kick.
In the end, Caldwell's decision was an indictment of his coaching performance no matter how you look at it. Either he misjudged the odds of recovering an onside kick or he in essence acknowledged that his defense couldn't win against an offense that is hardly one of the NFL's best.
Enough with the overtime field goals!
Teams cannot win on a field goal on the first possession of overtime, reducing the risk of going for it on fourth down in those situations. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett did just that, sending Dak Prescott on a successful quarterback sneak to convert fourth-and-1 at the Philadelphia Eagles' 28-yard line. That was clearly a better choice than attempting a 45-yard field goal that, in a best-case scenario, would still give the Eagles a chance to win on the ensuing possession.
Five plays after Prescott's conversion, the Cowboys won the game on Prescott's 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten. The Eagles never had a possession. That's how to maximize your chances of winning the NFL's version of overtime.