John Feinstein Blog: NFL Officials Need To Improve Explanations

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(Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

(Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, the most difficult sport to officiate was basketball. The speed of the game, the size of the players, the fact that the court is such a contained space, made it almost impossible for officials to keep up with everything that was going on in front of them.

It certainly hasn’t gotten any easier, with the addition of the three-point line and changes in how to define what is a block versus what is a charge and the constant tinkering done with the hand-checking rule. But basketball is no longer the toughest game to adjudicate. Football — especially at the professional level — has become virtually impossible to get right.

I don’t say this to let NFL officials off the hook. There’s no excuse for the way the end of Monday night’s Carolina-New England game was handled. And officiating supervisor Dean Blandino’s mealy-mouthed, non-denial-denial on Tuesday only made things worse.

The initial call, made by back judge Terrence Miles, appeared to be correct. There’s no doubt that the Panthers Luke Kuechly had his arms wrapped around the Patriots Rob Gronkowski as the play unfolded. Tom Brady woefully underthrew the ball and it was intercepted by Robert Lester. The officials picked the flag up, ended the game and left the field without ever explaining WHY they had picked the flag up.

Whether the call was right or wrong, part of the officials’ job is to let the teams AND the fans know why a call was overturned. In this case, Miles’ call was overturned. Then, referee Cletel Blakeman told a pool reporter the flag was picked up because of ‘catchability,’ — which isn’t a word but implies that the ball was uncatchable because it was so badly underthrown. That’s a shaky explanation if only because there’s no way to know what kind of play Gronkowski might have been able to make — perhaps even to just tip the ball into the air — if he hadn’t been wrapped up by Kuechly.

That may explain why Blandino changed the story Tuesday saying the issue was whether the hit came with the ball in the air or after it got to Kuechly. Again, slow-motion replays show the ball still in the air while Kuechly has his arms around Gronkowski.

So, either way, the officials blew the call. Or, to be more exact, Miles got it right and those who overruled him or talked him out of his call, got it wrong. And, for the record, there’s no way of knowing if the Patriots would have won the game if the penalty had been called. With their running game, even from the one-yard line, one play to punch the ball in might not have been enough.

Officials make mistakes and, without question, the call was a difficult one. Blandino defending the call by saying, ‘they didn’t get it wrong,’ and then going into a long-winded explanation about how their ‘mechanics,’ were correct makes it look worse. Saying, ‘yeah, they should have gone with the initial call,’ would have been better. No one cares about mechanics — they care about getting the call right.

But that’s not what’s making life so difficult for officials in the NFL these days. Pass interference — or defensive holding — are calls you either get right or get wrong and, most of the time, the officials get them right.

But the new rules designed to protect players are virtually impossible to adjudicate. A helmet-to-helmet hit has to be called — even if the player who is hit changes direction at the last possible minute — because a tackler shouldn’t lead with his head. Period. The same is true if a player dives at another player’s knees.

The problem is with protecting the quarterback. The highest-paid players in the NFL are the quarterbacks and they are the biggest stars: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rogers, Eli Manning — take your pick. Throw in the young guys too: Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kapernick. All are franchise players and the NFL needs them on the field — and on TV screens.

Defenders know that almost any hit after a quarterback releases a ball, unless you can convince the referee that you tried to avoid the hit, is going to be flagged. They also know they can’t slam a quarterback with extra force or hit them a second time when they’re already going down.

Fine. All for it. But they have to be allowed to TACKLE the quarterback. That’s what the 49ers Ahmad Brooks did to Brees on Sunday in New Orleans. He didn’t hit him with a helmet; he didn’t hit him late; he didn’t horse-collar him or hit him on the head or the neck. He hit him NEAR the neck — as Brees was ducking to try to avoid being hit — and he hit him VERY hard. That’s why Brees fumbled — because he was hit VERY hard.

That’s called tackle football. Brees was injured by the hit, though no doubt he was sore the next morning.

Tony Corrente, the referee in the game, is very experienced and highly-thought of within the game. Clearly, he flagged Brooks — even though he did not have a good angle to see exactly where Brooks hit Brees — because the league’s edict to officials, especially where quarterbacks are involved is, ‘when in doubt throw the flag.’

Corrente threw the flag because he knew that he’d have LESS to explain to his bosses in New York if he threw it and got it wrong than if he didn’t throw it and got it wrong. Which explains why the league backed up the call.

Except they’re wrong. They’re wrong because a really hard hit shouldn’t be a penalty. They’re wrong because Brooks was close to Brees’s neck but didn’t hit him ON the neck. Close doesn’t count in football. If you are tackled on the one-foot line it isn’t a touchdown because you were close.

As with the Patriots-Panthers game, there’s no guarantee the 49ers would have won the game if the play — a fumble recovered by San Francisco — had stood. The way the 49ers offense was playing, the Saints might very well have gotten the ball back with time to at least drive into position to tie the game with a field goal. The point is, they SHOULD have had the ball.

The difference between the two missed calls is pretty simple: The crew got it wrong in the Patriots-Panthers game — even if the league won’t admit it. Corrente, on the other hand, was doing what he was told to do — the problem being his instructions aren’t correct.

The league can work with officials to help them do a better job of making calls — and explaining them. That’s not too difficult. What is virtually impossible is finding a way to tell officials that they must protect all the players on the field — but allow them to play football while they are doing so.

Maybe you can’t do both. For the NFL, that should be a scary thought.

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