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Return game is no picnic
After further review, a look at the NFL’s day games during Week 7 shows that points were taken off the board four different times because of penalties. Also, in the 11 day games, a total of 1,408 penalty yards of penalties were called.
That’s a lot, folks. NFL officials have a very tough job and they don’t get every call right. But after tracking their performance for 12 years as the league office’s supervisor, director and then vice president of officiating, I will tell you that they officiate 98 percent of all plays correctly.
If most people did their jobs that well, it would be considered a big success. Seemingly, that’s not the way it works for officials.
However, it comes with the territory and all the officials know it.
Let’s take a closer look at the four games in which points were taken off the board because of penalties, and I’m going to begin by taking a fun little poke at my FOX colleague, former coach Jim Mora, who was calling the Seattle-Cleveland game.
THE GAME: Seattle at Cleveland
THE SITUATION: Cleveland had the ball, fourth-and-16 at the Cleveland 30-yard line with 6:45 left in the third quarter. Cleveland led 3-0.
THE PLAY: Cleveland punter Brad Maynard punted the ball 51 yards to Leon Washington, who returned the ball 81 yards for a touchdown. The Seahawks' touchdown was nullified because of an illegal block penalty that was called on Kennard Cox.
MY TAKE: It’s amazing that in real time so many things appear to be a foul, but thanks to the luxury of slow-motion replays, what we see afterward often indicates otherwise.
Interesting how Mora, after viewing the play live, pointed out the block in the back and wondered on the air if the official was going to throw the flag. But what looked like a foul in real time to him — and, I’m sure, several others — turned into an "awful, phantom call,’" after Mora had the benefit of seeing the replay.
While the call was questionable and probably shouldn’t have been called, in my opinion, I don’t think it was a "phantom call," as my colleague suggested. Kickoffs and punts are two of the toughest plays to officiate. There are 22 players and a whole bunch of blocks, and sometimes illegal blocks go unseen.
The other thing that makes it difficult is the fact you're officiating on ground level and often looking through bodies. It’s so much easier when we see the game from television cameras at a higher vantage point.
On this play, you could see contact between Cleveland’s James Dockery and Cox, but Dockery was falling down, which made it appear like it was a block in the back. Maybe I’ll buy my buddy Mora a dictionary so he can look up the word “phantom.” Like I said, this wasn’t a "phantom call."
THE GAME: Atlanta at Detroit
THE SITUATION: Detroit was kicking off after making a field goal with 10:26 in the first quarter. Detroit led 3-0.
THE PLAY: Jason Hanson kicked the ball 69 yards and Atlanta’s Eric Weems returned the ball 104 yards for a touchdown. Atlanta’s Antone Smith was called for a block-in-the-back penalty and the touchdown was nullified.
MY TAKE: This was a clear block in the back and would seem to be an easy call. Just like I said in the play above, these are tough calls to make, but Smith definitely committed a foul, which was accurately called.
One of the key words that officials use is "chase." If the blocker is in a chase position, meaning he is trailing the defender, any contact on the back is deemed to be a foul. This was from a chase position, and the contact was clear.
THE GAME: Washington at Carolina
THE SITUATION: Carolina had the ball, fourth-and-11 at the Washington 12-yard line with 5:06 left in the second quarter. The score was tied 3-3.
THE PLAY: Carolina kicker Olindo Mare kicked a 30-yard field goal that was called good. The field goal was nullified because Carolina’s Ben Hartsock was called for holding.
MY TAKE: Hartsock reached out with his right arm and hooked the defender, who was rushing the edge. This is a common practice where blocking backs are taught to jab and push the defender as he attempts to get by. In this case, he grabbed the shoulder and twisted the defender to the ground.
This took the field goal off the board, and Mare actually ended up kicking the ball three times before his field goal was officially good. That’s because on the second play, a false start was called, so the play was nullified again.
THE GAME: San Diego at New York Jets
THE SITUATION: The Jets had the ball, first-and-10 at the San Diego 23-yard line with 4:21 left in the first quarter. San Diego led 7-3.
THE PLAY: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez completed a 23-yard pass to Santonio Holmes for a touchdown. However, Nick Mangold of the Jets was called for offensive holding and the touchdown was nullified.
MY TAKE: This started out as a double-team block, and holding is not called on double-teams, unless one of the two blockers takes the defender to the ground. That’s what happened here, when Mangold tackled the defender who had split the double-team.
Contrary to the popular myth, holding could not be called on every play. But this is one example that clearly was.
Here are a few more interesting plays from Sunday.
THE SITUATION: Tampa Bay had the ball, first-and-10 at the Chicago 14-yard line with 13:55 left in the fourth quarter. Chicago led 21-5.
THE PLAY: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman’s pass intended for Kellen Winslow was intercepted by Brian Urlacher, who returned it 9 yards. Urlacher then fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Bucs’ Arrelious Benn. Chicago challenged the fumble ruling, saying Urlacher’s knee was down before he fumbled. The play was reversed. However, a face mask penalty was called on Ted Larsen that also factored into the play.
MY TAKE: When I was saw this play, I was glad to be in the studio in Los Angeles rather than on the field in London. This play drove me to the rule book to figure out what the heck to do.
In the end, the best thing happened. Chicago coach Lovie Smith challenged the play and the call was reversed, putting Urlacher down before the fumble. The face mask penalty was then enforced from the dead-ball spot.
But what if Urlacher hadn't been down? Have you ever seen officials throw a bean bag, marking the spot of an interception? If you look closely, they do.
This is the only play I have ever seen where you would enforce the face mask penalty from the spot of the interception and the intercepting team would keep the ball. It took me 15 minutes to figure this out, and I think I’m right, which is why I was glad I wasn’t in London wearing a white hat. In the end, the play was correctly officiated through the use of replay.
THE GAME: Washington at Carolina
THE SITUATION: Washington had the ball, third-and-15 at the Carolina 45-yard line with 4:41 left in the first quarter. Carolina led 3-0.
THE PLAY: Washington quarterback John Beck was sacked and the ball was stripped by Carolina’s Antwan Applewhite. It was recovered by Terrell McClain at the Washington 48-yard line.
MY TAKE: The rule states that a forward pass starts when the hand of the passer starts forward with control of the ball. When the hand starts forward without control of the ball, it is called an empty hand. That was the case here.
The ball came loose as Beck’s arm was coming up and before his hand started forward. It’s also worth pointing out that recovering a fumble in the field of play is not reviewable.
It looked briefly like Washington might have recovered, but the officials ruled that the ball belonged to Carolina’s McClain. That aspect cannot be challenged. The only time you can challenge who recovers a loose ball is if it occurs in the end zone or at the sideline when there is question if the recovering player is out of bounds.