Zebra Report: Get Off the NFL Officiating

Occasionally FanHouse's resident referee will chime in with thoughts on major topics relating to officiating. We call it The Zebra Report.

You know why? It's really, REALLY freaking hard to officiate football at any level. About 99% of the fans don't know this, because they've never given it a shot. It's okay to bash them because you'll never be in that position. I understand that we second guess and bash coaches and players, too, but there's a big difference here. You can officiate. There's a major shortage of officials, and many places are desperate for new ones. I suggest that instead of being part of the problem -- whining and screaming about how much the "refs suck" -- become part of the solution. Put your money where your mouth is and start working games. You'll find, as I did eight years ago, it's much more difficult than it looks.

That being said, we do need to hold ourselves accountable. Some of the things I've discussed and will discuss as "unacceptable" are the same things I would say about myself. I've missed a blatant pass interference before. I saw it on film ... and my only question was, "how in the hell did I not see that?" I still can't answer that, except to say I obviously wasn't looking at that guy. It's not because I care about which team wins or that someone is paying me off. I missed it. People make mistakes.

The purpose of these reports is to educate the masses on the actual rules. If mistakes happen, I'll point them out. Let's remember, though, that the average game in the NFL sees more than 100 plays. There are 13 to 16 games each week. When we sift through six to eight plays a week, that shows how great a job they do overall. Remember, seven guys are watching 22 incredibly fast and strong athletes. Things are going to get missed.

I'm glad we had this talk, now please feel free to inundate the comments section with how much smarter and better you are than the NFL referees ... sure you are.

Incident 1: Cardinals penalized for having a player fall injured
Well, here's the situation. The Cowboys are driving, desperately trying to get into field goal range (as they trail by three, naturally). They advance into marginal territory (high 50s-range), and line up to spike the ball. The Cardinals have an injured player down behind the line of scrimmage, whom is therefore ruled to be off-sides.

The problem is that the NFL used to have major issues with players faking injuries in the last two minutes of a game or half, and they've put in safeguards against this. As a co-worker pointed out this week on an email chain, the NFL is really going to look stupid when a player is laying there with a broken leg and getting penalized for not making his way off the field.

I don't know the specific guidelines officials have in this situation. Personally, I believe the officials are instructed to call this a penalty, and thus, got the call right. I also believe it's ridiculous to penalize a guy for actually being hurt. This is something that should be addressed by Roger Goodell.

Here is what I think we would do on my high school crew ... wait until the snap is absolutely imminent. I mean checking to make sure the 10 other defensive players are on the correct side of the ball, and all 11 offensive players are lined up and set. The QB is just about to call the signal ... and then we would blow the whistle for an injury timeout. It's the common sense approach. At this point, what advantage does the defense gain for having a guy lay there in pain? You didn't give the offense any extra seconds, either, because you waited until you thought they were going to snap the football. If you want to charge the defense a timeout in the NFL because of the "faking injury" rules, go ahead.

The offense wouldn't really be helped a ton by this act, either ... because the second the hobbled player got off the field, the clock would wind. The Cowboys would likely have had to spike the ball and then make a decision on whether or not to kick a long field goal or throw a Hail Mary.

Incident 2: Pass interference called on Lions
Allegedly this cost the Lions the game. I hate this. You play 60 minutes of football, have a QB run out of the end-zone without real close pressure to take a safety, stall on offense all game, and the refs cost you the game with one call? C'mon. I will take this opportunity to say that I believe this call was a bad one. I don't know the official, but I know how we think ... and I guarantee when he saw the replay he was sick to his stomach because he blew the call. It's a bad feeling, my friends. From his angle, I'm sure it looked bad ... but the defender didn't gain an advantage or knock the receiver off his route.

While we're here, let's go over some guidelines to pass interference ... so you can more accurately argue with your friends on what is and what is not DPI (defensive pass interference, that's ref speak).

1. Incidental contact should not result in a flag, unless the defender is not playing the ball. Let's say the defender is looking at the back of the receiver, and accidentally steps on his foot ... which results in both players falling down. That's a penalty. If he's looking back at the ball and it happens, it's not. Where he's looking is paramount. This is actually probably what drew the flag on Leigh Bodden. He never appeared to turn and look. Now, I'm not saying he gave enough contact to warrant a flag, but looking back at the ball would have helped his cause.

2. If there is a tipped pass or the pass is going to land behind the line of scrimmage, you can mug the receivers with no repercussions. It is not a bad mechanic for a crew to throw a flag from the back judge position, only to pick up the flag when the linesmen report that the passes ended up behind the line of scrimmage. Everyone, in that case, was doing their proper job because a guy 25 yards down field cannot see if the pass crossed the line of scrimmage. See, a picked up flag isn't always a bad call!

3. Slowing a receiver down, whether via an arm bar (some call it a "buddy arm") or running slow in front of him is a flag ... unless the receiver is going to overrun the football and the DB is trying to slow down to pick it off. Discretion is the key word here.

4. Grabbing a receiver's arm is a penalty every time, no matter the severity.

5. "Playing through the back" of the receiver is a penalty. Say the receiver establishes position and a pass is headed right to him ... the defender cannot knock him out of the way in an attempt to intercept the ball. You most often hear, "he was going for the ball!" You can go for the ball, but you can't physically move the receiver in order to do so.

6. As I discussed in "Incident 3" of my first report, you cannot knock the receiver off his route without playing the football. Check out that portion of that post for more details.

7 The dreaded "hook and turn." A defender may place his hand on the receiver's back and swat at the ball with his other hand. This usually happens on a quick slant or a hitch-route. However, if the defender grasps and turns the offensive player in any way while performing this act, it's a penalty.

(Hat tip to Officials Quarterly Magazine, Fall 2008 issue)

There was apparently a questionable DPI call in the Jacksonville/Denver game as well. I haven't had the chance to view it, but you can probably check these criteria and decide on your own.

Incident 3: Ben Utecht drops the football, but it's ruled a catch
Well, this is where replay needs to help. I'm shocked the booth didn't review this play, and I fully expect the NFL cried mea culpa to the Jets this week. Sometimes when the player goes to the ground, not one official has a good enough angle to see when it comes loose. It sucks, but that's a fact. I know in high school there are times when there's a huge pile and all of a sudden the ball comes squirting out. We have no choice but to leave the ball with the offense because we can't assume the guy lost possession before being stopped.

On this play, the whole point of replay is to make sure the human element doesn't affect outcomes of games. Well, the justice was poetic because the Jets won ... but that doesn't change the fact that the replay booth should have been quicker to review.

Incident 4: Tony Romo appears to fumble, refs rule "tuck rule"
I really, really hate this rule. It's ridiculous that a QB can cause himself to fumble by trying to stop himself from throwing a pass and have it be ruled incomplete. I actually saw one in person for the first time Monday night and the coaches were screaming "tuck rule, that's incomplete." Fortunately, we don't have that crap in high school. Really, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It's not a pass if you stop the ball with your off-hand. It should be a fumble.

That being said, the officials are bound by the rule book. It's a rule, and they had to call it correctly by the letter of the "law."

Incident 5: Romo fumbles and Cards recover, refs leave ball with Dallas
I have an issue here. The referee is mic'd for a reason. As MDS opined on Sunday, no explanation was given and this was clearly -- to me and my limited high school experience -- a fumble. If something happened that made it not a fumble, we probably need to know. They wouldn't allow Ken Whisenhunt to challenge the play, either, and we never found out why. I'm lost on this one, so for now I'd have to guess they missed it.

Incident 6: Calvin Johnson fumbles
This appeared nearly identical to the Adrian Peterson fumble from the previous week, according to a collegue of mine (I never saw the play). The explanation I can gather is that both times the play stood as called on the field, which means it was so close there would never be indisputable visual evidence with which to overturn the on-field call.

This does make me want to point out the need for consistency. There's nothing more frustrating than hearing, "the crew last week called that," or vice versa. At every level, the officials should strive to call everything consistently, otherwise the group as a whole looks bad. I understand the on-field calls remain when there's not indisputable visual evidence, but there should really be uniformity on plays like this. If the plays really were identical, they should contain identical rulings. In my mind, there are no two ways about it.

Incident 7: Chargers appear to intercept a pass, officials rule incomplete
Chargers fans, I know you got royally screwed in Denver, but the league is not out to get you. This was a textbook incomplete pass, as the officials ruled absolutely correct.

I could see people saying something like, "he had the ball and then the ground caused the fumble ... so it's not a fumble and should be the Chargers ball." It's correct that the ground cannot cause a fumble and that the ground was what caused the defender to lose possession of the ball. It's not a fumble, though, because he never completed the catch. In order to complete a catch, the player must secure possession of the football through his landing -- or for enough time to make a "football move" should he be on his feet. For example, if a receiver makes a diving catch and then the ball flies loose when he hits the ground, it is incomplete because he never legally caught the ball. Having control in mid-air is not a legal catch yet.

Here's a really cool example ... let's say a defensive player leaps up and clearly catches an interception, but on the way down the nearby offensive player grabs for the ball and they fight over it. As they lay on the ground, the players both have their arms wrapped around the ball. When both players have equal possession of the ball, it is called duel possession. In duel possession, the offense retains, so we have a catch for the offense. And no, the ball never legally changed hands, so it's not an automatic first down for possession change and change-back.

Yes, I had the pleasure of making this call and then the great pleasure of being called every name in the book by the home crowd earlier this season. It was fun, I tell ya.

Officiating's fun. If you think you can do a better job than even your local Pop Warner refs, I beg of you to give it a shot. Maybe one day you can get booed by hundreds of fans. Or thousands!

I'll be back next week. As always, if you want a rule or play reviewed (even if it's a local 8th grade game), you may submit one to our mailbox.

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