By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In a high-speed, full-contact sport, some calls are going to be missed. Officials are going to make errors.
As viewers, we accept and understand this very human fallibility. The participants in this sport — the players, coaches, executives and owners — understand it as well.
But only to a certain extent.
And what has gone in this week — as most weeks — across the NFL in terms of officiating reached a fever pitch on Monday Night Football in Green Bay, when Cleke Blateman’s officiating crew played a significant role in determining the outcome of the game.
MONDAY IN GREEN BAY
Over the course of the 60 minutes of football played between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers on Monday night, some calls were missed. Again, such is to be expected.
But a few calls in the fourth quarter — two of which appeared to be phantom calls to keep possession with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers — were impossible to see without gaining some sense of skepticism.
The first came with 10:16 left in the fourth quarter, and with the Lions leading by nine points. Kevin Strong sacked Rodgers on a third-and-10, a play that would have forced Green Bay to punt the ball to Detroit. Alas, a late flag came in from umpire Jeff Rice, who claimed to have seen defensive end Trey Flowers commit an illegal hands to the face penalty against left tackle David Bakhtiari.
This was the play in question:
Flowers very clearly pushed on Bakhtiari’s shoulder pad throughout the rush, only making contact with the tackle’s facemask at the tail end of the play. Even then, the contact was a glancing blow, not “forcible” contact as the rule requires.
This was a missed call, and even ESPN’s rules expert John Parry agreed — a rarity in these days of former refs being tasked with criticizing current refs.
“I think we get fooled there based on where the hand is on the upper part of the chest, rather than the neck or the mask,” Parry said.
The officiating gaffe gave Green Bay a fresh set of downs. Three plays later, Aaron Rodgers threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to cut Detroit’s lead to 22-20.
On Detroit’s ensuing possession, this contact between Will Redmond and Marvin Jones was not ruled to be a case of defensive pass interference.
Had that penalty been enforced, it would have given Detroit a first down at Green Bay’s 22-yard line. Instead, they threw incomplete on the next play and were forced to punt.
Perhaps that one would or should be filed in the standard bin of missed calls in a football game. But the fact that it came sandwiched between two phantom Flowers penalties has to lead to a raised eyebrow or two around the NFL.
The second Flowers penalty came inside the two-minute warning, when the Lions’ defense made the stop needed to hold Green Bay to a field goal. Assuming Mason Crosby was going to make the short kick to give Green Bay a one-point lead, Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ offense was going to get the chance with 90 seconds left to drive for a game-winning kick.
That chance never happened, though, because Flowers was once again flagged for illegal use of hands, hands to the face. This call was somehow worse than the first.
— Tucker_TnL (@__thirdandlong) October 15, 2019
Bakhtiari’s head snapping back does necessarily mean that Flowers made contact with his head or neck. Nevertheless, Rice threw the flag, referee Clete Blakeman made the announcement, and Green Bay was then able to drain the clock down to 2 seconds before Crosby’s game-winning field goal.
SUNDAY IN KANSAS CITY
This was, naturally, not the only blemish for NFL officiating this weekend. On Sunday in Kansas City, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was tackled while attempting to run his route midway through the second quarter. A yellow flag flew, and Patrick Mahomes took a deep shot, likely assuming it was a free play. (He had already thrown a touchdown on a deep chuck earlier in the game on a free play, after Houston jumped offside.)
Yet when referee Shawn Hochuli announced the penalty on cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr., he announced a penalty for defensive pass interference. The penalty that actually had been committed was defensive holding and/or illegal contact — take your pick.
Yet because the crew wrongly assessed pass interference, the crew ruled that the penalty could not be enforced, as it occurred after Mahomes released the pass — a pass on which Kelce was not the intended target.
As such, the penalty flag was picked up, and the Houston interception counted. The Texans scored on the following drive, cutting Houston’s lead to one point en route to a 31-24 Texans victory.
Replay showed that indeed, the contact took place long before Mahomes let the football out of his hand.
In KC on Sunday, official threw a flag for defensive pass interference, instead of def. holding or illegal contact. After a discussion, the crew picked up the flag, because “the contact that was potentially a hold was while the ball was in the air.” Not true. Houston INT counted. pic.twitter.com/QIIxw3Lzdt
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) October 15, 2019
While missed calls happen often, this one rose to a different level, as it was a correct call, then it was a wrong call, and then it was wrongly wiped off the record.
THURSDAY IN NEW ENGLAND
In what has become the norm, a clear and obvious case of pass interference took place during an NFL game, leading to a head coach throwing a challenge flag to take advantage of the new system. As has been the case nearly every single time, that head coach was wrongly robbed of a timeout.
In this instance, it was Giants receiver Golden Tate, who had his elbow pinned to his hip by Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones. As a result of lacking the use of one of his arms, Tate was unable to catch the pass, which bounced off his shoulder pad and hit the turf.
Giants head coach Pat Shurmur threw a challenge flag, but the review process took less than a minute. Referee Brad Allen, after consulting with head of officiating Al Riveron, announced that despite what we had all seen, pass interference did not occur on the play.
The NFL’s stubborn unwillingness to change any calls or non-calls of pass interference (the Eagles-Packers game several weeks ago was another high-profile example) has made it such that if the exact same play as the Rams-Saints missed call last January were to happen today, it feels unlikely that a challenge flag would even result in the proper enforcement of a penalty.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY
Riveron does record videos and post them to Twitter … when he feels like it.
He did it on Thursday night, to explain … a bobbled pass that was ruled to be a catch. He did not make a video to explain any of the controversial calls, which tends to be his MO.
Likewise, you’ll never hear from Riveron when a call is clearly missed. Just as was the case with predecessor Dean Blandino, this constant state of silence in such moments does nothing to bolster any confidence in officiating from fans, players, coaches or executives.
GENERAL DISCOURSE DOESN’T HELP
This was no ordinary blown call, in the sense that the ramifications for Detroit were huge. Had the Lions won this game, they’d be sitting in first place in the NFC North with a 3-1-1 record. Yet because they lost, they’re now in last place with a 2-2-1 record. The swing was enormous.
Yet of course, such discussion always leads everybody down one of two paths. The first generally involves a directive to “stop crying,” which isn’t the most productive discourse. The second focuses on all of the things that the aggrieved team could have done in order to make the officiating miscues not matter.
The first, well, such is human nature. The second, though, overlooks the fact that these games involve two teams smashing into each other for 60 minutes. While winning by 45 points every week would be preferable, the fact is that in the age of parity, no victory is easily gained. At the very least, teams need to know they’re on a level playing field on Sundays (or Mondays); what happens after that is an acceptable fate.
To focus on the Lions settling for a number of field goals instead of scoring touchdowns on Monday is to dismiss the reality that if not for two bad calls (and a notable missed call), those field goal drives would have been more than enough to secure a hard-to-come-by road victory against a divisional opponent.
CURRENT “SAFETY NET” IS DOING NOTHING
Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reached a conclusion after witnessing the events on Monday night.
“Sky judge!” Breer wrote on Twitter, suggesting the implentation of a referee in the stadium watching TVs to help with the enforcement (and non-enforcement) of penalties. “Seriously, it makes ZERO sense that all of us have the benefit of crystal-clear HD television, with a ton of different angles, to see every single play in every game, and those officiating those games don’t. And why? To preserve ‘the human element’? Totally insane.”
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio arrived at the same conclusion.
“The time has come (indeed, it’s long overdue) for a video official who helps the officials on the field avoid committing game-deciding blunders — without the delay, uncertainty, and ridiculously high bar of replay review,” Florio tweeted.
The idea has merits, to be sure. But … the current system for pass interference review, wherein almost literally nothing ever gets enforced or taken away after the fact, only works to downplay any potential positive impact that implementation of such a system would have.
If video review can’t lead to the proper enforcement of just one penalty, then why would there be any confidence that video review could lead to better enforcement of all penalties?
When it comes to self-assessment, self-criticism, and self-awareness, the NFL appears to be sorely lacking. Employing such a system, then, would be quite the struggle.
Realistically, officiating crews do not function well enough to be able to execute any sort of scheme or conspiracy. That may be a harsh assessment, but anyone who’s witnessed an officiating crew bungle a half-dozen calls on a good day should find it difficult to believe that any crew is organized enough to pull off a coordinated effort to do anything.
Nevertheless, games like Monday — where another case of uneven officiating was pointed out by Florio — lead to some national discussions that no sports league ever wants to take place.
Here's what incompetence in officiating does: It gets people thinking that the league may be getting back at Lions coach Matt Patricia for wearing the Goodell clown nose T-shirt after Super Bowl LI. While extremely unlikely, horrible calls open the door to conspiracy theories.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 15, 2019
Did you think the officiating in Green Bay tonight showed that a fix was in, or do you chalk it up to sheer incompetence? If you have a third possibility, feel free to share.
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) October 15, 2019
Again, that’s not the type of discussion that Roger Goodell or anybody from the NFL wants to have. And, again, realistically, a grand conspiracy to hurt the Lions appears to be wildly unbelievable.
But when the officiating is that bad, logical brains are forced to seek answers. Until the officiating problem is either fixed or explained, such conversations will persist.
SO … WHAT?
And that, at the core of it, is the issue. For as obvious as some mistakes are, for as game-changing as some mistakes are, for as high-profile as some mistakes are, it appears as though the league is not at all motivated to make any sort of meaningful change in the process of officiating.
Outside of a mostly empty back-and-forth with a pool reporter, you’ll get no proper explanation, and you’ll get no accountability, and you’ll like it.
As outsiders, it feels like all we can do is shine a spotlight on the issues, make a little bit of noise, and hope that it effects some change — unlikely though it may be.