National Football League
Refs did right thing in early going
National Football League

Refs did right thing in early going

Published Jan. 14, 2012 12:00 a.m. ET

The 49ers-Saints Divisional playoff game played in San Francisco Saturday will go down as one for the ages.

Yes, the Vernon Davis catch from Alex Smith with nine seconds remaining in the game to give San Francisco a 36-32 victory was very exciting. Some are calling it "The Catch 2," in honor of the Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark catch in the NFC Championship Game 30 years ago.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.

The New Orleans Saints committed five turnovers … and they committed no (accepted) penalties. As in none. That’s just amazing. In fact, there were only three penalties enforced in the entire game.


You want some more amazing?

When Drew Brees hit Jimmy Graham for a touchdown with 1:37 left in the game and a two-point conversion put the Saints up 32-29, had New Orleans held on, there would have been a nearly 30-year anniversary celebration of a different kind. Not since the 1982-83 New York Jets defeated the Raiders had a team turned the ball over five times in a playoff game and won.

However, the Saints may look back to their very first turnover as the one that proved to be the most costly. Yes, they rallied after being down 17-0, but I think that first New Orleans turnover changed the momentum — and the complexion — of the game.

Here was the situation:

It was the opening drive of the game and the Saints had driven from their own 20-yard line down to the San Francisco 7 and eaten up more than six minutes in the process. On third-and-6, Brees completed a 5-yard pass to Pierre Thomas to the San Francisco 2-yard line. Thomas was hit hard and tackled by Donte Whitner, fumbled the ball and it was recovered by the 49ers’ Patrick Willis.

I think this was a great job by referee John Parry and his crew in overruling the field judge’s initial signal that indicated that Thomas’ forward progress stopped before the ball came loose.

Clearly that was not the case as the ball came loose as soon as the contact was made.

Even if the signal of forward progress came while the ball was loose, here is what rule 7, section 2, article 3 of the rule book states: "The ball is not dead because of a signal by an official other than a whistle."

It was obvious that another official had the better look of the ball coming loose and he overruled the field judge.

I had plenty of my Twitter followers question the helmet-to-helmet contact by Whitner on Thomas. But it was not a foul. Why? Because Thomas was not a defenseless player. He had already completed the process of the catch and therefore had become a runner. It is legal to attempt to tackle the runner helmet-to-helmet.

It was an incredible game by the two teams that played in it … and by the one that officiated it.

Let’s take a look at two other interesting plays from Saturday.

THE GAME: New Orleans at San Francisco.

THE SITUATION: New Orleans had the ball, first-and-10 from the San Francisco 44-yard line with 12:33 left in the second quarter. San Francisco led 17-0.

THE PLAY: New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees completed a 3-yard pass to Darren Sproles, who was hit and tackled by Whitner. Sproles fumbled the ball when he hit the ground and it was recovered by Whitner. New Orleans challenged the fumble ruling and the play was reversed.

MY TAKE: When is 60 seconds not 60 seconds? Parry was clearly under the hood for longer than a minute, and when you see that, you can almost always assume the call on the field is going to be reversed. Replay rules state that the referee has 60 seconds in which to make a decision, to stay with the ruling on the field or to reverse it. If he chooses to stay with the ruling, the video is then cut off and he looks at no further video. If he makes the decision within the 60-second period to reverse the call on the field, he’s allowed to continue to look at the video to determine where to reset the ball and if the clock needs to be adjusted. On this play, Parry had two things to review: The first was whether or not it was a catch by Sproles as it was ruled on the field, and the second was if it was a catch, whether the runner was down before the ball got stripped. Sproles controlled the football, got two feet down and performed an act common to the game by turning up the field to advance. That confirmed the catch. Video did, however, show that Sproles’ knee was down before the ball got stripped out and therefore, the ruling was correctly reversed to a catch and down by contact.

THE GAME: Denver at New England

THE SITUATION: New England had the ball, second-and-3 at the Denver 10-yard line with 7:17 left in the first quarter. New England led 7-0.

THE PLAY: New England quarterback Tom Brady threw a 10-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown. The replay official initiated the review and the play was upheld.

MY TAKE: Gronkowski got control of the ball just before the ball hit the ground and it appeared to me that he maintained control. On a play like this, you could make a case both ways. One might think Gronkowski never really did have total control before the ball hit the ground. I think referee Gene Steratore did the right thing when he announced that the ruling on the field would stand. Essentially that means there wasn’t clear-cut video evidence to reverse the ruling of a touchdown, but at the same time, there wasn’t enough to confirm the call as being correct. That means no matter which way it was called originally, the call on the field would have stood. That’s how close some of these plays really are. Even in slow motion, it’s sometimes hard to determine whether a call is right or wrong. Imagine being an official and having to make the call in real time.


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