A crisis of identity in the NFL forced an earthquake in the NFL officiating community over the past two days that has shaken the rock-solid foundation of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
NFL officials right now don’t seem to know their ass from their elbow, as the old saying goes.
And this ignorance quite possibly changed the outcome of two different Week 11 games, each featuring a pair of legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
League officials on Sunday ruled that this hit below by San Francisco 49ers defender Ahmad Brooks against New Orleans QB Drew Brees was a penalty because, as we reported on it Sunday, those pricy, protective high-tech shoulder pads now constitute the “neck area” in the anatomically challenged modern NFL.
San Francisco’s forced fumble was waived off. Or, as the NFL curiously put it in the 49ers-Saints gamebook: the 49ers “were not allowed to retain possession.” New Orleans went on to win, 23-20.
We chronicled the play and the call in great detail here on Sunday.
Then last night, Carolina’s emerging superstar linebacker Luke Kuechly did everything but prison rape New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the final play of the game. Tom Brady's pass was picked off. Game over. Or so we thought: a penalty, one clear on replay and in still image here, was called against Kuechly.
In this case, it was the penalty that was waived off and the turnover allowed to stand. The Panthers held on to win, 24-20.
There is always a game or two each year decided upon controversial calls that generate national debate. Last year it was the Golden Tate touchdown in the early-season Green Bay-Seattle game. But rarely are high-profile and controversial games decided on consecutive days, and rarer still with calls that seem to utterly contradict each other.
Brooks did nothing more than take down Brees with what has long been a legitimate football play: he sacked the quarterback with a clear hit around the shoulder pads. It was certainly a hard and violent hit. One that jerked Brees' head forward and ripped his feet off the ground. But it was far from an improper hit by any historic standard, and even by more modern standards of protecting the quarterback.
We understand protecting quarterback from violent hits to the head. But when the shoulder pads are now defined as a newly protected and anatomically incorrect “neck area” we have a bit of problem. As we noted Sunday, when the area in which you can hit a quarterback is smaller than the strike zone in baseball, the National Flag Football League can’t be far away.
If the NFL wants it that way, that’s fine. Long term, it won’t be good for the league or the game. But it is what it is on its own. A debate for another day.
But Monday night’s penalty turned non-penalty stands as an utter contradiction of decades of conventional football wisdom, tactics and strategy clearly understood even by casual fans.
Receivers have enjoyed ever more downfield protection over the years, much like quarterbacks. And while a recent spate of rules have provided quarterbacks more protection than ever, receivers have enjoyed special downfield protection at least since the massive rule changes of 1978.
Every red-blooded American school boy knows you can’t manhandle a receiver more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. Hell, you can barely touch them without drawing a flag. Pass interference results in more yardage of penalties and more game-changing plays than any infraction in football, and maybe in sports.
We're not land surveyors. But we're pretty certain Gronkowski was more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage Monday night.
Kuechly did more than manhandle Gronkowski on the game’s final play. He drove him out of the play and nearly out of the back of the end zone, preventing the record-setting tight end from making an attempt to catch the ball.
Even former NFL official turned voice-of-the-refs Mike Pereira had trouble explaining this one.
At least one of those calls this week was wrong – and more likely both of them were wrong. Certainly, different circumstances in each case. But the one penalty clearly contradicted the spirit and even the letter of the non-penalty.
Seems to us the NFL and its officials are suffering an identity crisis over the state of the game. At the very least, and at best, they had these two calls ass-backward.