By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It just wouldn’t be a Patriots game without a little bit of “controversy.”
The quotation marks surround the word in this case because in Saturday night’s playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots, the “controversy” merely involved a matter of initial miscommunication among officials; ultimately, the officiating crew applied the rules correctly.
The play in question came with 6:32 left in the second quarter, and the Patriots leading 14-7. Punter Ryan Allen stood in his own end zone, awaiting the snap, when Geneo Grissom flinched. Umpire Bruce Stritesky — standing 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, near the punter — threw his flag and signaled a false start. Referee Ron Torbert strode forward and announced a false start penalty to the crowd.
However, line judge Mark Perlman — standing, as you might imagine, at the line of scrimmage — saw Brynden Trawick cross into the neutral zone, a move which prompted Grissom’s flinch. By rule, the penalty would then be a neutral zone infraction. Perlman called Torbert over and explained this detail, and Torbert quickly corrected the call.
Because the play was a fourth-and-5, the five-yard penalty on the Titans resulted in a Patriots first down. New England took full advantage, driving for 81 yards on 14 plays to score a touchdown and double their lead, leaving little time on the clock for a Titans response drive to boot.
Considering the way it played out, many fans watching at home and many Titans players and coaches at the game were unhappy with the call. It prompted Torbert to have to explain the process in a pool report after the game.
“The line judge saw a defensive lineman jump into the neutral zone, did not see the guard across from him move. The umpire saw the guard move and threw his flag for a false start, which is what we initially announced,” Torbert said. “When we got together and discussed it and pieced together that the defensive lineman across from the guard jumped in the neutral zone and caused the false start, that’s when we changed the ruling from a false start to a neutral zone infraction.”
The replay clearly showed that the call was correct. Here’s Trawick lined up near long snapper Joe Cardona:
When Cardona lifts his head before the snap, Trawick steps into the neutral zone, prompting the Grissom flinch:
You can see where the umpire was when he made the call, not in great position at all to see the defensive side of the line of scrimmage:
The replay angle showed Trawick clearly in the neutral zone:
Torbert was also asked about a penalty called by side judge Scott Edwards for offensive pass interference on Tennessee’s Eric Decker. It’s highly unusual for a referee to be asked a question about a subjective penalty call like pass interference, but considering the penalty negated a first-down pickup and led to a Titans punt (and a subsequent Patriots touchdown drive), Torbert was asked about that call as well.
“In the judgment of the covering official, No. 87 [Decker] pushed off and created an advantage for himself that allowed him to create space to make the play,” Torbert said.
Replay showed that with Butler applying press coverage to Decker at the line of scrimmage, the receiver knocked Butler off balance. As Butler tried to regain his footing, Decker made contact with Butler’s facemask before breaking outward toward the sideline:
It’s likely that Decker could have created his separation without contacting Butler at that point of the route, but a grab of the facemask was clear.
Contact such as thought does not always lead to a flag flying, but certainly, lesser contact has resulted in penalties being called as well. (Stephon Gilmore’s illegal hands to the face penalties against Carolina from Week 4 at Gillette comes immediately to mind.)
Incidentally, a play where the Titans could have a legitimate gripe has gotten the least attention, as Kyle Van Noy tugged Derrick Henry’s facemask on a fourth-down run late in the second quarter:
A 15-yard penalty there would have set up the Titans on the edge of field-goal territory, with a chance to cut the Patriots’ lead to 11 points before halftime.
In any event, Titans head coach Mike Mularkey was apoplectic about the penalty call on Decker.
“That one, I won’t even talk about,” Mularkey said. “That one goes down in history.”
(Of note: Last week, after referee Jeff Triplette inexplicably negated a Marcus Mariota fumble by calling forward progress, Mularkey praised the officiating crew. “I thought they did a good job of making the right calls,” Mularkey said last weekend in Kansas City. “I am critical of them a lot, but the times that there were critical calls, they got it right and I will give them credit for that.”
Mularkey suggested he was too frustrated to have even asked for an explanation on the changing of the false start penalty to a neutral zone infraction penalty.
“No, at that point, I got tired of the explanations I was getting,” Mularkey said. “So no, I did not.”
Not quite. The Patriots led 35-7 before the Titans embarked on a meaningless touchdown drive in the final minutes of the game to “cut” the Patriots’ lead to 21 points. The correct call on Trawick was correct; the debatable call against Decker came when the Titans had ample opportunity to make a stop or two on defense.
Alas, any call made when the Patriots are involved is sure to generate attention.