Week 13: Packers at Lions (video)
Once again, the Lions find a thread of officiating controversy woven into their quilt of heartbreaking losses. Despite never surrendering a lead from the opening kickoff until there was :00 on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Lions still were not able to emerge victorious.
Down by two, but 79 yards away from the end zone, the Packers attempted to execute a series of laterals after a 19-yard pass. Before long, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had the ball again, who was prohibited from throwing a second forward pass. Lions defensive end Devin Taylor ended the play by tackling Rodgers with the Packers gaining 3 of the necessary 79 yards.
A cruel twist of fate — or lack of a twist, as it were — brought 15 more yards and another chance.
Both referee Carl Cheffers and head linesman Kent Payne threw a flag on Taylor for a facemask foul, as Rodgers’ head turned with the takedown. It looked like a signature facemask call — even as Rodgers lay on the ground with his helmet akilter and his chinstrap up under his nose, waving his hands to lobby for a penalty that was already flagged. Since the clock expired, the Packers were granted an untimed down; with the snap coming with all zeroes on the clock, Rodgers launched a desperation pass roughly 70 yards in the air to tight end Richard Rodgers for the game-winning touchdown (video).
— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) December 4, 2015
The replay of the tackle, though, showed that Taylor made contact with the facemask, but most of the jarring motion that moved Rodgers’ helmet was when Taylor pulled at the shoulder of the quarterback. By all respects of the rule, this was an incorrect call. Taylor did not tackle Rodgers by the facemask, but made incidental contact. Rule 12-2-14 states that a player must grasp the facemask and continue with additional action:
No player shall grasp and control, twist, turn, push, or pull the facemask of an opponent in any direction.
Note: If a player grasps an opponent’s facemask, he must immediately release it. If he does not immediately release it and controls his opponent, it is a foul.
This was difficult to see at game speed, and only with the aid of replay was it clear that there was no foul. The fact that the touchdown play would never have occurred if the penalty wasn’t called, and sealing a Lions victory against their division rival instead, made it an especially hard blow for the Lions. A call such as this in a season riddled with officiating controversies is just magnified to the nth degree. However, the correct call would probably never be made in this situation for additional reasons.
Prove a negative. The umpire, 16-year veteran Undrey Wash, was also near the play and did not throw a flag. Cheffers was behind Aaron Rodgers, and Payne had just retreated along the sideline when the backward pass came back to that point. Wash did not see a facemask foul, otherwise he, too, would’ve thrown a flag. But he apparently did not see enough to, essentially, prove a negative — that there was no grasp and control of Rodgers’ facemask. If he did feel the flags were in error, Wash would have had to be very convincing as well as certain in his convictions to get two other veteran officials to pick up their flags.
Err on the side of player safety. To that end, Wash still would have an uphill battle to fight against the call if he felt there was no facemask foul. One of the league’s reference guides to players, simply titled Game Related Discipline, says that player safety takes precedence if an official is equivocating about a call. “The Competition Committee emphasizes that Game Officials should aggressively enforce player safety rules and not hesitate to throw the flag when confronted with a potential unnecessary roughness situation.” This is the provision that officials err on the side of player safety; the calculus at the Competition Committee level is that erroneous roughness penalties are acceptable collateral damage.
Incidental facemask no longer exists. The five-yard penalty for incidental contact with the facemask was removed from the rulebook in 2008. The Competition Committee rationalized that, as long as the personal-foul violations were called tightly, incidental contact was not a player-safety issue. Had that rule been on the books, it would have definitely resulted in an untimed down for the Packers, however it would be 10 yards back.
No roughness call on quarterback. Rodgers is not in the act of passing, so he does not get the defenseless player protections from forcible blows to the head. (This was not a forcible blow, but let’s seal off that possibility entirely.) In essence, he isn’t a quarterback anymore; he’s a runner, and he loses most of the protections that a quarterback is afforded. Even if he is considered a quarterback, the incidental contact to the facemask is specifically excluded.
Not reviewable. The Competition Committee has taken a longtime stance against directly reviewing penalties in replay, with the exception of the objective 12-on-the-field foul. (Other penalties sometimes may be ruled on when it relates to other reviewable elements.) There was a serious consideration this past offseason to allow 15-yard penalties to be reviewable (as well as a several other penalty-review proposals), but ultimately the Competition Committee decided not to support any such proposal, although some teams advanced their own.
Back to the call as it was made, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino was quick to defend the penalty on Twitter:
Hand up to the mask, quick grab with finger and head gets turned. At full speed official is going to make that call almost every time.
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) December 4, 2015
Reading between the lines, there are two things here: Blandino does think that it was not a foul, because he doesn’t specifically back up the call. Also, the covering officials are not being downgraded, based on his couched explanation that officials will consistently make this leap in judgement.
It should have stopped right there, but appearing on NFL Total Access via phone after the game, Blandino seemed to leave an opening that the call, in fact, is correct (with my emphasis):
It’s a close play. But even looking at the replay, the hand is up by the mask, the finger looks like it gets caught in the mask, and the head gets turned. So, I’m not convinced that it wasn’t a facemask even looking at the replay. But live, at full speed, the referee is going to see that hand up at the mask and the head turn and he’s going to make that call every time.
Asked if the call could go either way:
You know it’s one that it’s really close. We made the call. I think when you watch the play live, I was just like everybody else, you thought that’s a facemask. Then you see the replay, and it is a lot closer than it initially seemed. But, again, hand up near the mask, finger caught in that bottom bar, and the head does turn.
It still comes down to a call that was impossible to detect, not reviewable, and not open for much discussion. It is not correct, however, to consider this to be a legitimate facemask call, as that would mean, for consistency’s sake, the 15-yard foul would extend beyond its defined boundaries.