Try as they might, NFL referees sometimes make very controversial decisions that change the course of the ballgame. This week, two such games were impacted by a penalty flag, or lack thereof.
When a controversial decision like this occurs, many fans and writers(like myself) go on social media and throw in their two cents. While this is standard procedure in today’s day and age, going on Twitter or Facebook in protest only satisfies the natural human need to release anger without using physical violence. In retrospect, the thing we should be doing as writers, analysts, and fans of the game is go to the official rule book. Did the officials get it right in New Orleans and Carolina? Let’s review.
In New Orleans on Sunday, the Saints defeated the San Francisco 49ers 23-20, but the result may have been different had a sack been a turnover. 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees with 3:12 left in the game, forcing a fumble and giving San Francisco the ball with a 20-17 lead at their 45. All the Niners would have to do was run some clock and put some more points on the board. However, after the hit, a flag flew into the air and uncertainty filled the Superdome. Lead official Tony Corrente announced that Brooks’ hit on Brees was an illegal blow to the head and neck area. A personal foul was assessed and the fumble was negated, giving the Saints another shot to come back. Like many times in the past, Brees took full advantage, leading New Orleans to a game-tying field goal by Garrett Hartley later on that drive and a game-winning drive that was capped off with a game-winner by Hartley as time expired.
Was Brooks’ hit worthy of a personal foul, negating a fumble recovery that may have won San Francisco the game? Here’s a GIF of the hit, courtesy of Deadspin:
NFL Rule 12, Article 13 (3): Referees will be alerted to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area
It’s pretty close, and extremely close for the referees without the benefit of replay. It doesn’t appear that Brooks hit Brees in the head, but he definitely made forcible contact with the neck area. While Brooks said he “bear-hugged” Brees, he bear-hugged his neck a little too tightly, and the officials were correct in calling the personal foul. Is it a rough way to lose if you’re the 49ers? Yes, but the only concern for the officials in that moment is following the rule as it is defined. If a defender hits a quarterback in the neck, it is going to be called, and it has been called time and time again this season. Correct call by the referees, and Tony Corrente and his crew should be applauded for vehemently defending their decision.
The officiating controversy didn’t end when the Superdome emptied and Sunday football came to a close, however. In Carolina, on Monday Night Football, the Tom Brady vs Cam Newton QB battle ended on a play in the end zone. After Newton led the Panthers on an 83-yard scoring drive to take a four-point lead over the Patriots, Tom Brady marched New England down the field to the Carolina 18, and fans everywhere prepared themselves for the final play, with three seconds on the clock. Brady had to throw the ball into the end zone and did, but was intercepted by Panthers safety Robert Lester. As Lester intercepted the pass, a flag was thrown in the back of the end zone for pass interference on Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had both arms around Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Before announcing the penalty, the referees huddled, discussing the call. Lead referee Clete Blakeman left the huddle and announced to the crowd that they had picked up the flag; there was no foul for pass interference on the play because the ball was deemed uncatchable. Game over, Panthers win. Pandemonium ensued, with Newton and the Panthers celebrating and Tom Brady cursing out Blakeman as he left the field.
Here’s the GIF, via @iamjoonlee:
NFL Rule 8, Section 5, Article 3 on Permissible Acts: “Acts that are permissible by a player include, but are not limited to: (c) Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players, except as specified in 8-3-2 and 8-5-4 pertaining to blocking downfield by the offense.”
The main question after reading the rule is obviously if this ball was catchable or uncatchable. If a person only saw Gronkowski and Kuechly in the back of the end zone while Lester (number 38) was intercepting the ball in the front of it, they would judge it to be an uncatchable ball since Gronkowski was nowhere near Lester. But look at where Kuechly starts holding Gronkowski, then look at where Lester picks off Brady’s throw; it’s at the exact same spot. Knowing this, it seems ludicrous to claim that Gronkowski had no chance of catching the ball for the game-winning touchdown. The ball arrived at the same spot he would have been if he had not been interfered with and he would have still had a chance to come back to the ball had Kuechly let him go. According to the rule, the pass has to be clearly uncatchable. The scenarios that were just brought forth show that this ball was not uncatchable by any stretch; the ball was live in the end zone. In this case, the initial decision the back judge made appears to have been the correct one, while the officials picking up the flag seems to be ill-advised second-guessing.
Two calls, two game-changing decisions. One was correct, one was incorrect, both could potentially change the directions and fortunes of the four teams involved going forward. When flags get involved, plenty of calls become up for debate.