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Officiating: Technically Correct

Houston Texans 10 at Chicago Bears 3 (Week 10)
Third-and-9, Chicago at Midfield, 2:56 of Q2

(2:56) (Shotgun) 6-J.Cutler pass short middle to 23-D.Hester to HOU 8 for 42 yards (24-J.Joseph; 25-K.Jackson). Penalty on CHI-6-J.Cutler, Illegal Forward Pass, offsetting, enforced at 50 - No Play. Penalty on HOU-52-T.Dobbins, Unnecessary Roughness, offsetting. Chicago challenged the illegal forward pass ruling, and the play was Upheld. (Timeout #1.)


This play was strange because it included not one, but two extremely rare penalties. Jay Cutler, reacting to pressure in the backfield, scrambled a little too far forward and thew a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage, which is an illegal forward pass. Right after his release, Timothy Dobbins landed a powerful hit on Cutler, which was flagged as unnecessary roughness (although explained to the press box as hitting the quarterback above the shoulder).

Cutler was past the line of scrimmage, however, so why is he receiving extra protection? Behold the danger a referee raises when explaining a ruling: either due to confusion or simply to make a questionable flag fit into another penalty, the two often get mixed. Here, the referee informed us that the foul was assessed for hitting a quarterback above the shoulders. Unfortunately, that is not one of the predicate actions for unnecessary roughness. It is actually a quick summary of roughing the passer. Cutler, being past the line of scrimmage when the throw occurred, could not draw a penalty for roughing the passer, because he was no longer a passer:

3-22-3: A player who makes a legal forward pass is known as the passer until the pass ends.

So the reasoning clearly does not match up with a penalty. Bad call? Not quite. The call was unnecessary roughness, so let's see what qualifies:

12-2-7: It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.

(a) Players in a defenseless posture are: (1) A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass ….

Despite the fact that this rule requires a player throwing a pass, it does not specify that it must be a passer performing a pass, merely a player. Despite Cutler throwing an illegal forward pass, he is still a player, and he is still throwing a pass. Therefore, he was defenseless and hitting him was unnecessary roughness.

Is this called if Matt Forte is the one throwing? Absolutely not. Was it a necessary call? Absolutely not. Was the call correct? Absolutely. Part of the problem fans have assessing the performance of officials and the results of their work is being hung up on the idea of calls that are "good" rather than "correct." Moving outside of this framework allows everyone to better understand the practice of officiating, and in the process focus more on what matters: the action on the field.

As a final note, don't trust the extremely fat lines the networks paint on the field. The line of scrimmage (except where extended, as in the rules for free blocking) and line to gain are razor-thin. Look at the chains and how they relate to the edge of the CGI line, not the entire width of the line.


23 comments, Last at 25 Nov 2012, 3:06am

1 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

any comment on the Aldon Smith sack-fumble-penalty Monday night where he was called for illegal use of the hands or something

2 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

The beginning of the Unnecessary Roughness says:

"There shall be no unnecessary roughness. This shall include, but will not be limited to:..."

and then a number of situations are listed where Unnecessary Roughness should be called. But note that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list. So any argument of the form "this kind of hit wasn't specified by the rule" is already moot.

3 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

The flaw is not in the technical correctness of the call for the reasons you point out. There is a minor fault in the officiating as this would have been an ideal time to use their discretion and swallow the whistle. But the real fault here lies in the drafting of the rule and related guidelines. This was a totally foreseeable flaw in the rule that could have easily been addressed in the rule itself or at least in guidance on when it should and shouldn't be called. But they failed to do so.

13 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

No, it wouldn't. I asked about this in chat yesterday and stats/rules geek and FO commenter Travis posted the language that says it.

If Kubiak throws the flag it's a 15 yd penalty, but the TD still gets reviewed.

And here's the NFL press release on it:

Rule Explanation from Houston-Detroit Game:
The Replay Official cannot initiate a review of any ruling against a team that commits a foul that delays the next snap, such as illegally throwing the challenge flag. For your reference, the same situation happened on a turnover last week in the Arizona-Atlanta game.

The NFL Rule Book (page 89) states:
Replay Official’s Request for Review. After all scoring plays, interceptions, fumbles and backward passes that are recovered by an opponent or go out of bounds through an opponent’s end zone, muffed scrimmage kicks recovered by the kicking team, after the two-minute warning of each half, and throughout any overtime period, any Replay Review will be initiated by a Replay Official from a Replay Booth comparable to the location of the coaches’ booth or Press Box. There is no limit to the number of Referee Reviews that may be initiated by the Replay Official. He must initiate a review before the next legal snap or kick and cannot initiate a review of any ruling against a team that commits a foul that delays the next snap. His ability to initiate a review will be unrelated to the number of timeouts that either team has remaining, and no timeout will be charged for any review initiated by the Replay Official.

12 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

First, are you really saying that the best way to evaluate referees is only by whether they were narrowly technically correct? Because by that standard every NFL referee fails miserably, as by a narrow technical standard there's holding on nearly every pass play and a good percentage of runs.

Are you going to devote the next column to criticizing all the uncalled holding?

And, I can't wait to see the Lions-Texans column, too.

14 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

A lot of people are focusing on Schwartz throwing the flag and thereby drawing a penalty and how the rule as written places on onerous penalty on the Lions as a result.

But what about getting the call right in the first place? This is an issue I harp on about a lot. Since instant replay has been implemented, I've seen more instances of referees blowing calls that they know could be reversed when reviewed. That leads to a bias of letting a player score a TD he shouldn't, or allowing a turnover that shouldn't be a turnover, etc.

Forsett was down. The refs on the field should have seen he was down. He was the ballcarrier. His elbow and knee both hit the ground. How can the refs fail to stop the play at that point? That's bad officiating. I don't care if the mistake would have been fixed by a video review. It shouldn't need a video review.

15 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

You're asking officials who are humans standing at one point on the field and without any technological help to come to the same conclusion you're reaching while sitting on the couch. Yes, they are occasionally out of position, but more often it's just a matter of trying to make a very close decision with the naked eye in real time on a crowded field. (And I think the regular officials are better at doing this than the replacements were.) If no official saw Forsett down (maybe there were players in the way), they let play continue and rely on replay to correct them if they're wrong. In this particular case, Schwartz got caught by an odd rule that I doubt anyone intended to work quite the way it did. I know that on many close plays, I take advantage of being able to wait for a replay to make my own determination, and I have trouble getting angry about people who have to make those decisions without any help.

19 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

The call the refs made on Schwartz wasn't even technically correct according to the NFL Rule Book. After a post here on Thursday claiming the same thing, I decided to look at the NFL Rule Book myself. The NFL Rule Book states that the challenge Schwartz made is a 15 yard penalty. The paragraph above this rule deals with the idea of a penalty not allowing a challenge. The spirit of the rule is so that a delay of game or offsides wouldn't give a coach additional time to decide. The rule specifically says that the "team" can't challenge the play. It doesn't say that the play can no longer be challenged. This makes sense, otherwise the offense could just snap the ball in an illegal formation to prevent a review. Considering that the Lions wouldn't be challenging the play, but rather the instant replay booth that's challenging the play the referees are applying the rule incorrectly as it's written.

The refs have interpreted the rule wrong. Sports writers haven't helped by just parroting the rule as stated by the refs, instead of checking it themselves. It's a classic reporting error where it looks like multiple sources have confirmed the same thing, when in reality it all has stemmed from a single bad call.

16 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

They have instructed officials to err substantially on the side of letting the play run out. This was in response to the previous instant replay debacles in which numerous plays were blown dead only to find out under review that they should have continued. Thus, interceptions were granted, but spotted at the point of interception rather than letting the return commence and dealing with the consequences after.

The way it is today is much better.

18 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

I've just seen the Forsett play for the first time. It's incredible. If the officials are going to call plays as obvious as that wrongly deliberately so that they can review it, that is absolutely not a better system - especially with the unbelievable stupidity of the rule which states that it can't be reviewed if it's challenged by the wronged party.

I'd much rather have plays blown dead prematurely than have teams awarded touchdowns or turnovers they should never have had because the officials are deliberately calling plays wrongly.

21 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

If an official had seen Forsett down, he'd have blown the play dead. The situation the previous poster is talking about is the one where the ball comes out before or as the ballcarrier comes down, where blowing the whistle immediately means a possible fumble can't be advanced or even recovered.

23 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

I know it is, and that's what I'm talking about too. We have a situation where the rules by their nature encourage referees to award undeserved touchdowns or turnovers, because they'll be automatically reviewed and the refs can thereby correct the call if they botch it.

Except when an even more idiotic rule means that they can't.

22 Re: Officiating: Technically Correct

"But what about getting the call right in the first place? This is an issue I harp on about a lot. Since instant replay has been implemented, I've seen more instances of referees blowing calls that they know could be reversed when reviewed. That leads to a bias of letting a player score a TD he shouldn't, or allowing a turnover that shouldn't be a turnover, etc."

Excellent point. And the problem starts at the top. Mike Pereira was in charge of officials and listen to his take on replay. A few games back they consulted him and he basically said that even though the replay had shown the official got it right on the field, he'd have preferred the guy call it the other way because then there'd have been a better chance of fixing it with replay had he been wrong. That just blew me away: the idea that anybody with a clue would advocate officials intentionally making the wrong call just in case it turned out he was wrong and the play ended up getting reviewed. And if you get guys doing this, what happens for the vast majority of plays that DON'T ever get reviewed, either because they're not reviewable or because decides he can't risk losing a challenge on it?