By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The story should probably begin by saying that the team that most deserved to win the game probably did so on Monday night in Santa Clara. Probably.
It should also begin by stating that nobody ever wants to talk about referees, or write about referees, or even really think about referees very much. That is not why anybody watch sports.
Yet for the second time in a month, an otherwise very compelling Monday Night Football contest was marred by a certain level of officiating that can only be described one particular way.
While any NFL game is bound to have some questionable calls, some missed calls, and some players and coaches left scratching their helmeted heads, this one in particular featured some rules that are almost never applied, it featured an instance of Al Riveron apparently not watching video replays that were presumably displayed in front of his face, and it featured a series of other standard mishaps.
Perhaps it’s best to start in reverse chronological order, because that is where we can find perhaps the biggest problem on display.
A Booth Review In Overtime To Take A Closer Look At A Bad Spot
This was the biggest botch of the evening, because it did not involve human error in a lightning-fast sport spot. It involved a mechanism that is in place to make sure that the calls on the field are correct at all times, and it involved a process that requires the big boss of NFL officiating to make a judgment based on video evidence.
It’s supposed to work.
In this case, it did not.
This particular play came later in the overtime period, with the score tied 24-24. 49ers running back Raheem Mostert took an inside handoff on a third-and-2 at the Seattle 30-yard line. He was initially held up at the line of scrimmage, but with some extra effort, he was able to fall forward, landing on top of a teammate and never really being down. The ball appeared to have clearly crossed the line to gain, which was the Seattle 28-yard line.
The down judge on the far side of the field (from the broadcast angle) ran in from the sideline as if Mostert had indeed picked up the first down, but the line judge running in from the near side jogged in a full yard shorter. This is understandable, as it’s difficult for humans to see through a mass of bodies to see exactly where the football was when the ball carrier hit the turf.
This is why we have replay.
And the replay showed that it appeared that Mostert indeed fell forward and picked up the first down. While there is still perhaps some wiggle room left for interpretation, it did appear as though the down judge had the spot correct initially.
Yet when referee Alex Kemp got on the headset to talk with Al Riveron and the New York replay office … well, it’s unclear what happened. Kemp announced that the call on the field stands, thus giving San Francisco a fourth-and-1 at the Seattle 29-yard line. That gave the tremendously inexperienced Chase McLaughling, playing in his fifth career NFL game, a chance to drill a 47-yard game winner.
He did not drill the game-winner.
Um…. this is not where the ball is supposed to go. pic.twitter.com/Ie5EfA9Mq8
— Jennifer Lee Chan (@jenniferleechan) November 12, 2019
Had the ball been properly spotted — either on the field or after review — then the Niners would have had a fresh set of downs at the 28-yard line. Even if they didn’t gain another yard, they’d have been able to take more time off the clock, thus limiting the chance or possibility of a Seahawks game-winning drive.
We’ll never know how or why the ball was spotted where it was, because Riveron has yet to produce one of those tremendous videos where he wears a vest and clumsily explains the rules of football to a Twitter audience whose sole purpose is to roast the NFL Officiating account.
Russell Wilson … In The Grasp … A Full 2 Seconds Later
This one is a sensitive matter to football fans in New England, so if you’re still touchy about Super Bowl XLII, please scroll down for the next one.
For everybody else, watch this play with the sound up, and ask yourself if you’ve ever seen anything like this at the NFL level.
The timing of this whistle is insane. This referee is terrible. pic.twitter.com/yC74eeJEBR
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) November 12, 2019
Kemp ruled that Wilson was in the grasp of Arik Armstead in the Seattle backfield and thus was sacked. That was Kemp’s ruling … despite Wilson clearly not being in the grasp of Armstead, as evidenced by Wilson’s ability to break free and scramble for a gain of three or four yards. It was a tremendous play by Wilson, but it didn’t count.
Instead of a manageable third-and-7 on the opening drive of overtime, the Seahawks faced a third-and-16. They converted, with Wilson completing a pass for 28 yards to set up the potential game-winning score. But Wilson threw an interception on a second-and-5 from the San Francisco 14-yard line.
It’s a particularly perplexing play when you see where Kemp was when he decided to blow his whistle:
As you can clearly see, Kemp didn’t blow his whistle until Wilson was a full seven yards away from the place where he was “in the grasp” of the defender.
That is atrocious.
Just like before, Riveron has not produced any vested-up videos explaining why this call was actually correct.
Certainly, Wilson might have liked getting that whistle for being “in the grasp” earlier in the game:
What just happened…?!
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2019
Alas, the rules? What are they? We’re not sure. But we are pretty sure that if a ball carrier has already scampered seven yards away from someone who tried to tackle him, then that defender never had the ball carrier “in his grasp.” Nevertheless.
You Can Lead With Your Helmet … Unless You Target A Handsome Quarterback With A Million Dollar Smile
You may or may not remember this, but the NFL came out in 2018 as a league that simply was not going to tolerate any players leading with their helmet. Whether you were trying to make a tackle or if you were the ball carrier, if you lowered your head while readying for contact, you were going to be flagged.
The NFL was serious about this. Until … well, until the league stopped caring about it roughly one week into the 2018 season.
Since then, the rule has become a mere blip in the history of the rulebook, a penalty that was enforced with regularity in the 2018 preseason but has since all but evaporated from actual enforcement.
That much was clear when Tyler Lockett took a reverse pitch around the right side of the field midway through the second quarter. With former teammate Richard Sherman breaking down for a tackle, Lockett braced for contact by lowering his head. Sherman did the same. You’ll never guess what happened next: They slammed their helmets into each other.
Lockett withstood the contact … and then absorbed another hit by another defender who led with the crown of his helmet. The sound was nasty.
Remember when the NFL made it illegal for tacklers and ball carriers to lead with their helmet, and they enforced it heavily for a preseason, and then just never spoke of it again? pic.twitter.com/bAX3ATvSx3
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) November 12, 2019
Both hits were exactly what the NFL outlawed a little over a year ago, yet neither drew a flag for either team. That was to be expected, though, because again, that rule has quietly been erased from the books.
Or … has it?
In the third quarter, Jimmy Garoppolo shook off a would-be sack by Jadeveon Clowney, only to find the 291-pound Quinton Jefferson barreling toward him to swallow him up. Garoppolo did what most humans would do in that situation, crumpling his body toward the turf in an effort to lower the amount of pain that was about to be levied upon him. In so doing, Garoppolo dropped his head from its standard height at around 6 feet and 2 inches off the ground down to maybe 3 feet on the ground. That movement by Garoppolo led to him absorbing some helmet-to-helmet contact from Jefferson, who had clearly targeted Garoppolo’s midsection, which is the only place on a quarterback’s body that defensive players are allowed to actually hit.
The bad result of helmet-to-helmet contact, though, led to flags flying. Jefferson was hit with a 15-yard penalty for lowering his head to initiate contact. Despite the fact that this penalty is just about never called, Riveron insisted in his vest-tastic video that the rules were properly applied in this situation.
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) November 12, 2019
“The defender lowers his head to initiate contact, and does make contact with the quarterback,” Riveron said. “The quarterback does change his trajectory, however there is strict liability on the individual performing the act — in this case, the defender, No. 99. Therefore the ruling of Use of Helmet is correct.”
The rule never made sense to begin with, as the head tends to be the leading body part in … every tackling attempt … because … it is attached to shoulders with a neck … and thus it can’t just hang out behind a player’s shoulders during tackling attempts. And its enforcement appears to be quite selective.
Surely, these defenders led with their heads when trying to deliver a shot on Wilson, who was sliding and thus was not eligible to even be hit at all. Yet that did not warrant a penalty flag.
Russell Wilson is not handsome enough to get the call. It’s right there in the rulebook. pic.twitter.com/JVXbE6zPDq
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) November 12, 2019
Why wasn’t linebacker Dre Greenlaw penalized for lowering his head to initiate contact? Perhaps Wilson is not quite at Garoppolo’s level of handsomeness. That’s the most reasonable explanation available.
Fortunately, Wilson tried to steal some of Garoppolo’s dashing good looks after the game.
Hopefully that helps the NFL’s front-runner for MVP as he continues to play football this season.
Tackling is hereinafter canceled in the NFL pic.twitter.com/mbxW7sBvpi
— Tucker Boynton (@Tucker_TnL) November 12, 2019
It was nice of Kemp to announce this one as a “personal foul” and leaving it at that. Why describe what actually happened that was illegal? Just say “personal foul,” walk off the 15 yards, and call it a job well done.
On this play, Neiko Thorpe’s chest drove through Richie James Jr.’s shoulder pads. James was eligible to be hit, just not “forcibly” in the “head or neck area.” Did this particular tackle rise to that level of unnecessary roughness, or was it in line with most tackles in the NFL?
Those were the big ones, but the game had plenty of smaller issues that most games feature nowadays.
Shaquill Griffin intercepted a Garoppolo pass on the game’s opening drive, but it was negated by a questionable defensive holding penalty on Jamar Taylor. Replay showed it looked like receiver Emmanuel Sanders slipped, which led to the appearance of defensive holding. That, though, could be argued either way.
Three plays later, Garoppolo completed a pass to Sanders a yard shy of the sticks, which set them up for a fourth down. But Tre Flowers was called for pass interference against Sanders, despite Flowers not really interfering with Sanders … as evidenced largely by Sanders catching the pass.
That's pass interference? pic.twitter.com/KkrPchr22O
— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) November 12, 2019
Again, such things are up for interpretation.
Yet later in the first quarter, when Wilson threw to D.K. Metcalf on a Seattle third down, Emmanuel Mosely appeared to have interfered with Metcalf. Mosely had his back to the ball and pushed on Metcalf with two hands, yet no flag flew, and Seattle had to punt.
— LosRealAli West (@LosRealAli) November 12, 2019
It certainly wasn’t egregious contact, but it matched or surpassed the standard that had been set earlier in the quarter. Such discrepancies are commonplace, though.
That went both ways, though, as Jacob Hollister kiiiiind of pushed off before his 3-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.
And we've officially taken the lead. 🙌
Q3: SEA 14, SF 10 pic.twitter.com/ZCjjY5tb3U
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) November 12, 2019
Scoring plays are automatically reviewed, but we know that with the way pass interference isn’t really up for being overturned or assessed after the fact these days, that one was never coming off the board.
IN CONCLUSION …
The Seahawks won the game, 27-24. The Niners are no longer undefeated, and the Seahawks are now just one game behind the 49ers in the NFC West. That’s a fairly significant swing.
Did the Seahawks ultimately deserve to win the game, given the discrepancy in calls? Yes. Maybe? Honestly, it’s rather challenging to do the calculus on that equation. As football spectators, though, computing that kind of advanced mathematics is increasingly becoming a part of the football viewing experience. That it’s now taken center stage on Monday Night Football twice in the span of a month probably isn’t what the league would prefer, but the officiating problems in the NFL do not appear to be something that can or will be cleared up any time soon.