A game is not defined by a single play, even if that play is a horribly botched — or at least horribly miscommunicated — call by the officials which greatly effected the outcome of said game.
This is the internal conflict we are left dealing with after last night’s Patriots-Panthers game, which was a highly entertaining slugfest and one of the few truly riveting primetime games we’ve had this year from start to finish. Now during the morning after, those who choose to embrace the totality of a football game know that a referee never truly determines an outcome. This is the same good fight we fought early last February following what appeared to be holding on Michael Crabtree in the end zone during the Super Bowl that was never called. That wound still throbs.
With this one, the forgiving among us can accept that to err is to ref, and leaving your fate in the hands of an official at the end of a game is generally a bad football business model. We can’t, however, accept the calling of a penalty, and then the immediate rescinding of that call.
Let’s review the matter before the court of public opinion before we go much further. It came on the final play of the Panthers’ 24-20 win that was official seconds later, a lead they had gained after a masterful Cam Newton-led drive that covered 83 yards and culminated with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn.
This is the moment in question…
What you see there is Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly draping his body over Rob Gronkowski while Robert Lester intercepts a Tom Brady pass with the clock hitting triple zeros to end both the game and the Patriots’ attempt at their own game-winning drive that started with 59 seconds left and three timeouts. For Kuechly, that exact position at this exact moment in a game was quite familiar.
End of Pats-Panthers much like Bills-Panthers, except the refs got Kuechly for interfering with Stevie Johnson, setting up EJ’s late heroics
— Jerry Sullivan (@TBNSully) November 19, 2013
Terrence Miles, the back judge, saw Kuechly’s blatant disregard for fundamental rules, and tossed some yellow laundry onto the field. Then the officials gathered, which is terrific, because that’s what they should do with a call that could greatly alter the result of a game. If a pass interference call stands as it should have (there’s been some debate about whether or not holding was the more appropriate call, but that’s supposed to be called before the ball is in the air), the Patriots would have advanced to the one-yard line for an untimed down and a chance to win the game, something that’s much easier to do from one yard out than it is from the 18 yard-line where this play began.
But then the flag was pocketed, with no explanation initially given to the coaches, the players, or the public by head referee Clete Blakeman. Brady did not enjoy this…
I’m glad you asked that, Mike Tirico, because later Blakeman explained himself. He said that in essence the ball wasn’t catchable. In essence.
There were two officials that came in. One was the umpire and the other one was our side judge and there was a discussion at that point as to the, in essence, the catchability of the ball due to its location. So it was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.
By definition, pass interference negated by an uncatchable ball is given the vague description of simply being “contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players”.
Now, I realize that officials don’t have the benefit of instant replay, and super duper freeze frame technology. That’s why there are many of them, and multiple sets of eyes positioned strategically during every single play, maximizing the opportunity to see an infraction. It’s not a perfect system, and calls are still missed. But this case was a rare instance in which the system worked in real time, and then malfunctioned once humans began thinking.
Look at the still image above, and then note Blakeman’s explanation again after you translate it into English. There are two key and separate observations that were apparently made collectively by the officials. One is correct, and the more complex and important determination is, at best, high presumptuous.
The first is that the ball was underthrown, something we can all agree on. Brady was under pressure as he was most of the night, and couldn’t quite get the required zip on the pass to ensure it arrived at its desired destination. But although that’s undeniably true and it would have made for a difficult and even unlikely catch, it wasn’t underthrown to the point that a catch was impossible.
Instead, Kuechly’s pass interference denied Gronkowski the chance to even make an attempt on the ball. That’s the second part of Blakeman’s explanation, and it’s difficult to fathom, especially after he had watched a replay before speaking with the media. It’s quite clear the infraction took place long before the interception was completed, and not “at or about” the same time as primary contact. And regardless, the ball wasn’t uncatchable because Brady threw it so wayward, but because, again, Gronkowski was denied the opportunity to make an attempt. That’s the very definition of a pass interference penalty.
However horribly feeble it may have been, there’s justification for not making the call, as the ball was indeed underthrown. I’ve already sufficiently diced that argument, but it’s the same thinking that contributed to the non-call on the Crabtree play. Officials are human, not cyborgs, and the lack of desire to insert yourself into a critical play is pretty much the most human thing. But once you bow down to the initial — and correct — instincts to call the penalty, picking the flag up is indefensible.
But remember, kids, there was 59 minutes and 54 seconds of football prior to this play, and the blown call adventure can both giveth and taketh.
More notes, stray thoughts, and other such randomness
Cam Newton has endless energy
I am a horrible person.
You may have already known that, but I feel deep shame for allowing that call to overtake my life, and dedicating a lot of words to it while thus far glossing over a really fun football game, and the game of the year thus far. Writing about the NFL often results in being a mirror to the conversation, and that play will dominate NFL chatter for at least one full news cycle. So until about noon.
But yes, the game was glorious, ending in the Panthers’ sixth straight win as they improve to 7-3. It was even in almost every way except the final score, most notably the yards gained per play (a narrow Patriots advantage at 5.8 to 5.6), and the time of possession (30:46 to 29:14, again a narrow Patriots advantage).
The difference, though, was Newton, who threw three touchdowns with no interceptions, and in addition to that game-winning drive in which he had 57 of his 209 total passing yards, he also did this…
Elvis did not see a problem with the final play
Jim Irsay in disguise? pic.twitter.com/BPEPCbFsvc
— Mike Tunison (@xmasape) November 19, 2013
Matt McGloin made history
Moving on briefly to non-awesome MNF game matters, it seems this Matt McGloin as the starter in Oakland deal may have some legs, which happens when you make history I suppose.
Matt McGloin and Todd Marinovich only rookies — drafted or not — since merger in 1970 with 3+ TDs and no interceptions in first NFL start.
— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) November 18, 2013
What can Chip Kelly do for you?
Nick Foles has been doing the throwing and the downfield reading over his last three masterful games in which he’s thrown 16 touchdown passes with zero interceptions, and he’s maintained a passer rating of 128.0. But although the intention certainly isn’t to take anything away from Foles’ success, it’s worth noting that Chip Kelly’s offense has historically been highly quarterback friendly, producing multiple passers who have minimized their mistakes.
That’s why Tim McManus noted it:
Whether it was Jeremiah Masoli (15 TD, 6 INT in 2009), Darron Thomas (63 TD, 16 INT in 2010-11) or Marcus Mariota (32 TD, 6 INT in 2012), all of his signal-callers produced in a pretty big way while he was head coach at Oregon. Mariota continues to thrive this season (25 TD, 0 INT) running essentially the same system that Kelly installed. Michael Vick had this Eagles offense humming for the most part before he got injured.
Inevitable Internet thing
The Internet offers us many marvelous things daily. For example, if I’m feeling stressed out and need to watch some penguins slide around or steal rocks from each other, the web’s interconnecting tubes will happily oblige.
Some things are obligatory, though, and Grumpy Cat is the worst. But Jim Ross mashups are still not the worst. Not even close.
STOP IT! STOP IT NOW!
Let this die, Jacksonville. Let this die a horrible death.