The Jaguars, in a mad scramble down by a point, were able to get to the line quickly and snap the ball before the expiration of the fourth quarter. While Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was sacked, Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil pulled on Bortles’s facemask, drawing the 15-yard foul. (More on the enforcement in our quick calls.) This gave the Jaguars an untimed down, which they used to kick the game-winning field goal.
The play with the sack, however, should have been blown dead.
In the rush to get to the line, the offense is still required to be set for one second, just as any other part of the game. It is an illegal shift if they are not simultaneously set, or if, after setting at least two players move and don’t re-set. However, illegal shifts in the last minute of either half with the clock running, are converted to false starts.
NFL spokesman Michael Signora released a statement that the Jaguars were not set prior to the snap:
Inside of one minute remaining of either half, with the game clock running, when the offense is not set simultaneously prior to the snap, it’s a false start. This results in a 10-second runoff, which can only be avoided if a team has a timeout remaining. The correct call in this case would have been to penalize the offense for a false start because all 11 players were not set, and whistle to stop the play. The ensuing 10-second runoff should have ended the game.
The final result, despite the admission of error, cannot be changed. (Although the play never would have happened, if Dumervil committed the facemask after the whistle, the fouls would offset, and an untimed down from the previous line of scrimmage would be run.)
The video does show that there are offensive lineman still lowering in their posture at the snap, even though they are maintaining their stance, so the false start, indeed, should have been called. Yes, there was chaos, but the crew was responsible for shutting this play down.
The responsibility for the false start call rests on the four upfield officials: referee Pete Morelli, umpire Ruben Fowler, head linesman Ed Camp, and line judge Sarah Thomas. Morelli has been a stalwart of crew management and consistently receives playoff assignments. When Thomas was hired as the first permanent female official in the NFL, I was certain she was going to draw Morelli’s crew, because his business-like approach would not make her the “first,” but one of 122.
Also on Morelli’s crew is Rob Vernatchi, who did not notice the clock operator ran 13 seconds off the clock in a game last month. Vernatchi was suspended for a game for the incident — the league did not call it that, but it certainly was. Although Vernatchi did have responsibility for the clock, there are these factors that made the leap to an unprecedented suspension unusual:
- Vernatchi did not make the error, but he did not detect someone else’s error
- The Steelers ran two plays after the clock error into the two-minute warning. Assuming the same plays are run, the clock still would count to 2:00 after two plays.
- As an administrative matter that officials sometimes get outside help on, Vernatchi did not get assistance
- The error was not detected by anyone on the crew
- The clock operator could have just reset to the proper time, as standard operating procedure is to log every stoppage time; or at least notified the field of an issue
Vernatchi was suspended with pay, likely to head off an appeal by the referees union. If Dean Blandino, as the VP of officiating, decides the clock issue was a suspendable offense, the natural question is will he do the same with the false start?
The answer is probably a qualified “no,” because the suspension apparently was ordered from above Blandino’s head.
Troy Vincent — the former cornerback and players union executive — assumed the mantel of the NFL’s second-in-command in 2014 when he succeeded Ray Anderson as the Executive Vice-President of Football Operations. Under Anderson, the officiating department was parked under the overarching umbrella of Football Operations, rather than left as an autonomous department firewalled against the business interests that are, in a technical sense, the one true duty of the commissioner. During his Vincent’s tenure, he has intensified the hands-on approach of the position and seems to have more of an influence on the product than the commissioner. He launched the Football Ops website that reads more like a vanity project than anything, and he has a heavily polished, overly wordsmithed Twitter account that heaps praise on the department, engages in fluff Q&A with former players, and quotes Bible passages. Replay was rebranded NFL Vision Instant Replay, complete with embroidered polo shirts.
While putting his personal imprint on Football Operations, two sources tell Football Zebras that Vincent was responsible for the decision to suspend Vernatchi. While fines are assessed for rare errors in game administration, Vernatchi’s offense was worthy of a suspension in Vincent’s opinion. This does not mean that errors should not face repercussions, but it is hard to see how suspending an official improves officiating. It is, in the words of former referee Scott Green, “arbitrary punishment of an individual for a fast public-relations fix.”
And now, the die has been cast. Vernatchi’s oversight wound up being absorbed into the regular gameplay as a nonfactor, for which he was suspended. Unlike the clock error, the false start directly affected the win/loss result of the game, and this time four officials are involved. Vincent has a decision to make: the optics are terrible if the first female official is suspended halfway through her first season. And, it is a double standard if he does not.