Times have never been better for referee bashers, or worse for referees.
Critics of ugly officiating and connoisseurs of the blown call have more resources at their disposal than ever. Mike Pereira leads a cabal of on-air rule experts, and several other ex-officials offer their Sunday opinions on Twitter. Websites like Footballzebras.com focus exclusively on the art and science of NFL rulebook interpretation. The GIF allows instant dissemination of damning evidence whenever a referee misses a bobble or ignores a hold. Even the NFL has gotten into the act, as new officiating VP Dean Blandino has declared Glasnost: The league admits to bad calls and even provides media training videos to help us separate the best from the worst.
This is the Golden Age of collating, examining, analyzing, and grousing about iffy officiating. But does that make it a Golden Age for fans? This season brought as much multi-media howling after strange calls as cheering after touchdowns, and not all of the complaints came from New England. The following rundown of suspect officiating decisions includes correct and erroneous penalties, smart rulings and judgment lapses, technically-correct calls at inexplicable times and baffling mistakes that should not be made on a sandlot. Upon further review, this really wasn't The Year of the Bad Call, but a bunch of high-profile mistakes made it feel that way.
10. We're Gonna Need a Few More Calvin Johnson Rules (Week 1).
Half of our adult lives have been spent learning new reasons to nullify Calvin Johnson touchdowns. The Calvin Johnson Rule is rapidly growing into a Calvin Johnson Concordance, a series of statutes that define the limits of Johnson's capabilities, lest he become too powerful. So when Johnson's amazing snatch of a Matthew Stafford laser early in the season opener against the Vikings was overturned, it was just a case of the NFL setting a tone for the year: never get too excited about the exciting feats of (arguably) the league's most exciting player.
The Johnson call turned out to be correct: hi-def slow-motion footage reveals a bobble before Megatron hits the turf that no unaided human eye could have captured. Blandino now publishes weekly media training tapes on rule interpretations, so most of us know we must look for a) control of the ball, b) two feet on the ground, and c) a full completion of the catch, all the way to the ground. Johnson failed statute c) by one slightly wobbly pigskin nose.
So later the same day, when Victor Cruz snagged a pass on the two-yard line, never quite got his second foot down, lunged with the ball across the goal line, and fumbled it to the end zone turf, it was clearly a... touchdown? Well, the lunge is apparently a "football move," and once the ball crosses the plane it's a touchdown, even if the catch isn't technically complete, because both feet never touched the ground, et cetera, habeas corpus, post ipso facto, e pluribus unum.
Reviews and super slow motion create a world where naked eye touchdowns are incomplete and naked-eye non-touchdowns get interpreted into the end zone by magical legalese incantations. While many of these calls turn out technically correct, we watch football to see thrills, not technical corrections, so a little "it walked like a duck" horse sense would be welcome at the goal line. No sport can maintain its appeal when a team of attorneys must be called in to determine if someone scored.
9. Olivier's Arm-Bat is On Its Way (Week 8)
Patriots officiating controversies are not like other officiating controversies. That's mostly because Patriots fans, supported by the New England-based sports media military-industrial complex, demand Congressional intervention whenever a tacky call goes against them, yet have mass-amnesia about any-and-all officiating breaks. Perhaps a decade of Tuck Rule taunts turned everyone east of I-91 into chapter-and-verse rulebook fundamentalists, or maybe it's the sense of entitlement that comes from experiencing about ten defeats per presidential administration, but Patriots Nation insists on thrusting any strange calls in team losses to the top of the sports-talk agenda. Strange calls in close wins? Winners win, pal.
Tom Brady fumbled in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins with the Patriots nursing a three-point lead. Defender Olivier Vernon flailed at the ball, knocking it 15 yards backwards, where Patriots lineman Nate Solder fell on it. After several seconds of milling about, a flag materialized, and Vernon was penalized for an "illegal bat." Instead of 2nd-and-forever from the 48-yard line, the Patriots were handed 1st-and-10 on the Dolphins 13, making it easy to score the touchdown that put the game out of reach.
The illegal bat foul dates back to Ken Stabler's Holy Roller, and it is part of a small bundle of penalties designed to avoid shenanigans that involve fumbling on purpose. It is rarely called outside of onside kick situations, where some desperate ball-swatting is understandable. The Football Outsiders database shows just four illegal bat penalties from scrimmage formations from 2010-12, all of them against the offense. Offensive players are more inclined to swat a ball to avoid a turnover; defensive players, like Vernon, are almost always trying to grab the ball and cause the turnover, so an illegal defensive bat is pretty weird.
Depending on your geographic location and team alliance, Vernon was either clumsily trying to grab the football or DELIBERATELY PUNCHING THE FOOTBALL AWAY TO DENY TOM BRADY ANOTHER GLORIOUS VICTORY. By technical interpretation of the rules, the call is justifiable, and the Patriots won a game with the help of a late-applied, oddly-interpreted application of an obscure rule. Why didn't we spend the next two days parsing it? Winners win, pal.
8. Watching Drew Brees' Every Flinch (Week 8)
Some officiating crews have their own "house style," and expert referee analysts can predict which games will have more penalties, less penalties, uncalled holds, overzealous pass interference enforcement and other trends just by reading the name of the crew chief.
Terry McAulay and his staff like to call false starts against the quarterback. The rules governing quarterback false starts are designed to prevent cheap first downs by signal callers engaging in herky-jerky hard counts on 3rd-and-inches. It's a rare foul: Quarterbacks committed just 11 false starts in 2012, four of which were called by McAulay's alert crew, which seems particularly dedicated to protecting poor defenders from those mean-old hut-HUT-huts.
Drew Brees rushed to the line of scrimmage at the end of the first quarter against the Bills and performed a little Peyton Manning pantomime, gesturing wildly and turning toward his receivers to bark orders. McAulay's crew flagged Brees for a false start after he stepped away from the center. Granted, Brees moved with a quick jerk, and all the method acting may have been an effort to draw an offsides penalty. The first quarter ended, and Brees calmly lined up in shotgun to start the second quarter, but the officials called a second consecutive false start when he raised his hands too abruptly to call for a make-believe snap. Lesson learned: Brees was a living statue before the snap from that point on.
Through Week 13, five quarterback false starts were called in the NFL: Two against Brees on back-to-back plays, one each against Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin, and zero against everyone, from jitterbugging Peyton to all the fresh-from-waivers quarterbacks thrust onto the field and likely to do something silly. That means 42.8% of the quarterback false starts in the last two seasons were called by a single officiating team. McAulay may have gotten a memo after this false-start flurry: His crew has not flagged a quarterback false start since. Imagine a crew getting a wild hare about too-sudden gestures in a Broncos playoff game, and you can see how important it is to reign in wild hare tendencies like these.
The funniest thing about Brees' two false starts: no Bills defender even twitched on either play. Only the officials sensed that something was amiss.
7. WHO DARES CHALLENGE? Oh, you're allowed, never mind (Week 3 and others)
Something about that little replay booth turns the NFL Competition Committee into the Klingon High Council, overeager to apply vindictive penalties for infractions which exist only in their devious imaginations. Coaches might use challenge flags to grandstand or scam extra timeouts, so if they use one at the wrong time, it's a 15 yard penalty, all reviews are voided, and... 20 innocent people go to prison.
The NFL softened its illegal challenge rule last year after hammering Jim Schwartz; the rulebook starts with humiliation of the Lions and works backward toward fairness. Coaches who try to review the unreviewable (or automatically reviewable) are now charged a timeout, then flagged 15 yards if they are out of timeouts, and the booth can still elect to look at the play; coaches' first-born are finally safe.
It's a great rule change, except when officials forget the rule was changed. Browns returner Travis Benjamin wobble-bobbled a second quarter punt against the Vikings, a Minnesota player scooped the ball and apparently scored, and Leslie Frazier -- the fiend -- dared to ask the officials to determine whether the play was an unreturnable muff (as ruled on the field) or a returnable fumble (a possibility, since Benjamin retrieved the bobbled punt, then lost it again when tackled). Referee Bill Leavy flagged Frazier for unsportsmanlike conduct and looked like he was foaming at the mouth over the temerity of the challenge when he announced the penalty. The only problem was that angry, vein-popping Leavy was totally wrong, and Frazier should only have forfeited a timeout.
One major problem with replay challenges is that no one knows when they can be applied, including referees and coaches. The Jaguars were granted a challenge on a muffed punt against the Cardinals in Week 11: neither Gus Bradley nor referee Jeff Triplette was aware that one asked for, and the other granted, a favor expressly (and by the standards of the NFL rulebook, clearly) prohibited. "They told me that would be a tough one, but we could challenge it since it wasn't a turnover," Bradley said. A year ago, Triplette could have demanded Bradley's head on the end of a spear as punishment for such impudence.
Speaking of Triplette...
6. The Two-Tenths of a Second I Watched Were Indisputable (Week 14)
Late in the second quarter of the Colts-Bengals game, BenJarvis Green-Ellis took a goal-line handoff, got tripped by penetrating Colts lineman Josh Chapman, stumbled to the ground with his ball-arm bouncing at about the two-foot line, and slid into the end zone. The line judge ruled Green-Ellis down at the one-yard line: no touchdown. With less than two minutes to play, the crew reviewed the play, and CBS television went to commercial. "It's not even close," Dan Dierdorf scoffed before the break, and he was right.
Then, Jeff Triplette donned his Drunk Driving Simulator goggles and made the loopiest touchdown ruling of the year. In the Tripletteverse, Green-Ellis was not down by contact. Therefore, he was granted forward progress for his little slide. Therefore, Bengals touchdown! That's right: Chapman never touched Green-Ellis, according to Triplette's interpretation of events. Chapman swatted near the runner's ankle, Green-Ellis stumbled as if something had struck his ankle, but the swat never happened. "What did he think he tripped on back there?" Greg Gumbel asked.
The answer came out during Triplette's brief post-game pool report interview: he did not look at what took place in the backfield, just the action right at the goal line. "There was nobody that touched him at the goal line... We looked at the goal line... We reviewed the goal line," Triplette said, denying Chapman's existence three times like Saint Peter. No, chief, no Colts player touched Green-Ellis at the goal line. Because he was so obviously, clearly down to everyone who witnessed the play. Except you, who somehow missed all but the final frames.
Triplette, as mentioned earlier, follows his own muse when interpreting the NFL rulebook. As more independent sources collect data on officials and grade their performances, it will be harder for the NFL to shuffle weak crews from game to game and year to year without significant retraining or other corrective measures. Bad calls will never go away, but bad habits do, and Triplette's habitual howlers need to be eradicated before one of them ruins a crucial game.
5. A Patriots Game is Close. Let's Impact It! (Weeks 6, 11, 14)
Tom Brady throwing into the end zone in the final seconds of a close game is like Ted Williams taking a pitch with a 3-2 count. Baseball umpires didn't like calling strike three on Williams: if he didn't swing at it, it must have been a ball. And if Brady throws an incomplete pass into the end zone late in a close game, there has to be pass interference, because Brady doesn't miss receivers in those situations.
So the flag gets thrown. But sometimes (Panthers game), the referees notice that the ball was several yards short of the intended target, and therefore uncatchable. The flag gets picked up, the Patriots lose, and a government shutdown becomes the second-biggest controversy in America for a day or two. At other times (Browns game), an official turns some incidental contact five yards from the end zone into pass interference in the end zone, and the Patriots win. It's make-up call justice, unless you are a Browns fan, or you realize that officials are not thinking about events from a month ago when watching last-second plays in the end zone.
And sometimes, Brady completes the touchdown pass, so everyone politely ignores the fact that Nate Solder is practically strangling his defender:
The sheer number of times the Patriots appear on this list reminds us that they have transcended sports into the Fox News/MSNBC zone: Half the world will support everything the Patriots do, half will condemn them no matter what, and any fact that is open to interpretation will be tortured.
As writers and fans, we can play this harmless game. Referees cannot. If the fact of Tom Brady throwing crunch time passes makes them swallow their whistles, forget the rules, become indecisive about borderline calls or out-and-out hallucinate, then no one will want to watch Brady engineer a fourth-quarter drive anymore. (Even Patriots fans, who will brace for a dumb call on one hand and accusations of star treatment on the other.) Fourth-quarter Brady drives make football great, but only if the outcome is decided by Brady and the other players, not mass officiating neurosis. The world is watching, the stakes are high, and opinions are strong. Call these plays right.
4. Shanny Greensleeves: What Down is This? (Week 13)
When Mike Shanahan and Jeff Triplette share the same field, something hysterical is bound to happen. And what could be funny than the Holy Hand Grenade sketch from Monty Python's The Holy Grail?
The Redskins executed a 4.9-yard play on 2nd-and-5 during a last-minute hurry-up drive, but when Shanahan asked for a measurement, one of the officials told him it was not necessary because the Redskins converted the first down. (Keep in mind that this is Shanahan's version of the conversation. If Shanahan announces at a press conference that his neighbor's dog told him to bench Robert Griffin, it would not be surprising at this point). Triplette, on the other hand, saw neither a first down nor a measurement situation. "Three shall be the down and the down shall be three," he announced. The Redskins ran what they (and the chain gang, and the broadcasters) thought was a first down play, but it was actually a third down play. Once everything was straightened out, the Redskins faced 4th-and-1, and they promptly fumbled. At least fifth down was right out.
Give Triplette a break on this one. He signaled third down, then hurried to correct his chain gang's error. Calling an official timeout in a hurry-up situation would have had an impact on the game, and it was Shanahan's job to confirm downs with the referee, not the sideline officials. As teams try to get snaps off within 20 seconds, we are bound to see more confusion, though it was alarming to see sideline officials blithely ignore their crew chief and declare their own first downs, even if it was Triplette.
3. Brees' Cappa Nearly Gets De-tated. (Week 11)
Whenever a roughing the passer penalty occurs that does not involve a chainsaw, you can count on an immediate polarization of opinion. Half the sports bar/Twitter feed/living room will shout "the defender should be indicted for that!" The other half will shout "They might as well put tutus on the quarterbacks!" Roughing the passer penalties are guaranteed to be interpreted as miscarriages of justice by 50% of the football population; a borderline roughing call on Tom Brady could cause a preemptive nuclear strike.
49ers fans howled, and Saints fans nodded with approval, when an apparent Drew Brees fumble-sack in the fourth quarter of a close game became a 15-yard penalty because of this:
Yeah, they might as well put a flag and a skirt on that quarterback if they aren't going to let defenders clothesline them at neck level!
If you get granular with freeze-frame images, you can argue that Ahmad Brooks' shoulder struck Brees' shoulder, that some helmet contact on the quarterback is unavoidable under the circumstances since anatomy dictates that the helmet will always be close to the shoulder, and so on. But roughing the passer penalties are not assigned in super slow-motion, but in real time. In real time, the hit was too high, and gruesome.
We can long for more innocent times when we would cheer for hits like that one. We can also wish real humans had Wolverine's healing factor, could absorb massive impact, and experience zero health consequences five minutes later. Officials will, and should, err on the side of a flag on head-high hits. Wishing Hacksaw Reynolds still played and making tutu jokes won't change anything. Protecting the health and safety of players like Brees (and Brooks, and everyone else) are part of an official's job. In fact, it may be the most important part.
2. Pushgate Jones and the Rulebook Truthers (Week 8)
Rules about pushing, grabbing, and climbing onto the arms of teammates date back to the dawn of football. Teddy Roosevelt-era players would grab their ball-carrying teammate on either side and drag him forward while defenders tried to shove him backward; the lucky ballcarrier might emerge with five yards and six broken bones.
Such tactics went the way of the flying wedge on ordinary downs, but officials remained on the lookout for kick-blocking shenanigans for decades. Why not have J.J. Watt leap from the back of a squatting Antonio Smith's back to block a 50-yarder? Because it is dangerous and kinda stupid, and therefore illegal.
Offensive linemen noted a rise in defenders shoving other defenders during field goal attempts in recent years. Shoving a teammate on a field goal attempt has been illegal forever, but the competition committee clarified and emphasized the rule in the offseason. A big enough deal was made about it that articles were written on NFL.com and elsewhere. Being a minor change to a tiny corner of the rulebook about special teams, there was some garbling of the message by both media members and Blandino, and a few folks mistakenly thought the push rule only applied to "second level" pushes (defenders coming from behind to shove teammates).
What happened on the afternoon of October 20th belongs in a sociological treatise like Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, not a football article. Chris Jones of the Patriots shoved a teammate during an overtime field goal attempt by the Jets. The penalty turned a miss into an easy make. Patriots fans and media -- who, if you are reading carefully, handle close losses a bit poorly -- scrambled to the Internet and discovered that the NFL.com article explaining the push rule had been changed to remove the "second level" language. A large cabal of New Englanders -- and I am not just talking about cranky fans here, but friends and colleagues whose team loyalty still leaks through now and then -- went momentarily insane with the theory that the NFL changed the rulebook after the fact to justify hurting the Patriots. Because, you know, paper copies of the thing (which never mentions "second level" pushes) don't exist by the thousands.
The Jets explained that they had reviewed the rule several times during the year and knew the Patriots liked to skirt it, though investigations (amateur sleuths by the dozens pored over the game film, many of them watching coaches film of field goal attempts for the first time in their lives) revealed that the Jets liked to skirt it, too. Bill Belichick claimed that he was confused by the "second level" rule, too, though the claim that Belichick gets his football information from blogs sounds a little fishy. As cooler heads in the New England media calmed the conspiracy theorists and more information about the rule and its recent history came to light, Oliver Stone stopped pre-production on his Chris Jones movie. The call turned out to be 100% correct.
The problem is that overtime of a bitter rivalry game is a bad time to be right for the very first time. Teams had been poking at the re-adjusted push rule all year and getting away with it: not just the Patriots and Jets, but the Ravens and others, as film-scourers discovered. A point-of-emphasis, safety-related rule should have been enforced heavily in the first two weeks of the season. If they had done that, Patriots players would not have been pushing each other in overtime.
Pushgate underscores the seedy, politicized side of officiating. If Rex Ryan can gain an overtime edge by lobbying for stricter enforcement of an on-the-books rule, what are more organized, respected coaches getting away with? No one wants football to become basketball, with ref baiting and coach grandstanding overshadowing the action. And any "points of emphasis" should be emphasized in the preseason or the first quarter of Week 1, not after one or another coach asks for it.
1. Personal Foul Language. (Week 11)
The Redskins have had a rough, contentious year, and Trent Williams had a bad game against the Eagles. Williams spent much of the afternoon of November 17th watching Trent Cole and other pass rushers knifing past him to do things to Robert Griffin that Mike Shanahan not-so-secretly longs to do himself. But Williams' day was made worse when umpire Roy Ellison allegedly called him a "garbage ass disrespectful mother****er" just as the Redskins were about to run the play. Ellison, through representatives at NFLRA and other outlets, revealed that he was responding to Trent Williams alledgedly calling him an "ungrateful n*****"
Oh no: he pulled the n-trigger. Between Riley Cooper and Richie Incognito, the NFL does not need any more racial slurs or harassed left tackles. If Williams really escalated the argument with racial slurs, Ellison should have remembered that he possessed a tiny yellow flag that can instantly be turned into a 15 yard penalty against Williams: foul language toward an official is unsportsmanlike conduct, folks. Both Williams and Ellison have an obvious knack for peppering their obscenities with angry-granny adjectives (ungrateful, disrespectful... unmannerly was next), so Ellison opted for one-upmanship instead of doing his job.
Thanks once again to the many sources who collate information about officials, we learned that Ellison has a reputation for a potty mouth and quick temper, just as McAulay loves false starts and Triplette sometimes uses the replay booth to watch other games. Increased information has torn away the anonymous, professional veneer of NFL officiating. These individuals have an incredibly difficult (part-time) job: they enforce a hyper-complex rulebook under split-second conditions in hostile environments under worldwide scrutiny. They do an excellent job most of the time. But they are human, and they can go rogue in both predictable and unpredictable ways. And a few are just as likely to blow their stacks as blow a game.
Ellison earned a one-week suspension. Poor Williams had to continue his season-long sentence with the Redskins.