It was the middle of the second quarter on a 3rd and 9, when Cam Newton found himself flushed out of the pocket, and the Panthers quarterback rolled to the right to escape (video). Realizing that he was not going to gain much, Newton slid to surrender on the play as Washington linebacker Trent Murphy hit Newton with an audible crack heard by the home audience. Newton tossed the ball at Murphy and a flag fluttered in the air. Surely, this was a foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit by Murphy. Referee Walt Coleman:
After the play was over, unsportsmanlike conduct, taunting, on number 1 on the offense. A 15-yard penalty will be assessed. Fourth down.
This seems so incongruous that it’s the mugging victim being ticketed for jaywalking. The complaints were, well…
The officiating crew should be suspended rest of season for flagging the reaction and not the hit to Cam's head. Disgraceful…
— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) December 20, 2016
Okay, first we’ll step down from that ledge and unpack how this play occurred.
Newton’s scrambling ability is one of his core assets and one of his tactical liabilities. With a history of receiving a fair share of unpenalized helmet hits, for which he has some legitimate gripes about, the refrain begins, “but, (insert star quarterback’s name here) gets the flag every time he’s hit.” However, because of Newton’s competitiveness, he has put himself in situations that the Brady/Rodgers/Flacco contingent does not. In this case, Newton’s competitiveness got in the way.
First, remember that the scrambling Newton is treated like any other runner, as he is about to advance beyond the line of scrimmage and is not in a passing posture. Any runner in a feet-first slide gets protection from defensive contact, and specifically hits to the head; the compromise is for being ruled down where the first body part goes down in the slide. If a defender hits a sliding player, this is a 15-yard personal foul.
Because runners have exploited this protection, the league issued a point of emphasis in the offseason that a late slide where the defenders is already engaged in intitating a tackle is not going to be penalized as a late hit. In the picture, Newton is beginning to slide and contact is about a step or two away. The rules regarding sliding players contains this notation:
If a defender has already committed himself, and the contact is unavoidable, it is not a foul unless the defender makes forcible contact into the head or neck area of the runner with the helmet, shoulder, or forearm, or commits some other act that is unnecessary roughness. …
A runner who desires to take advantage of this protection is responsible for starting his slide before contact by a defensive player is imminent; if he does not, and waits until the last moment to begin his slide, he puts himself in jeopardy of being contacted.
Newton is still protected from forcible blows to the head when he is sliding. and so the collision that was heard needs to be considered.
Murphy is seen here in his initial contact with Newton. He was actually in a typical strike zone if Newton was still a standing runner and is also using his arms to complete the tackle. There was no forcible blow in this case because force of the attack was concentrated in wrapping Newton up. The sound of the hit was incidental contact, which seems to be Murphy’s facemask hitting Newton’s helmet; an ESPN parabolic microphone was on the sideline just feet away from the contact, making it sound worse than it was. In this case, if Murphy used his arms to deliver a forearm blow to Newton’s helmet, or if Murphy lowered the boom by dipping his head, he falls into the category of delivering a forcible blow.
Line judge Kevin Codey was the primary covering official and sorted out the events above in real time without benefit of slow-motion replay. He obviously heard the sound of contact, but he did not have a knee-jerk reaction to flag that. He calculated all of the above, was mindful of the point of emphasis for this very situation, and held his flag … until Newton was guilty of taunting. Coleman, who has responsibility is covering the for the quarterback, backed up this assessment in an interview with a pool reporter after the game, saying, “What we ruled was that he slid late but there was no forcible contact with the head — that he just went over the top.” Field judge Terry Brown, seen in the background of the shot above was also covering the play. Coleman continued, “Obviously any of the three of us could have thrown our flag.”
The taunting foul is another piece of the puzzle that seems out of place. How is tossing the ball at the opponent a 15-yard foul? After the play, Newton mixed things up with defensive lineman Chris Baker, who took exception to showing up his teammate, and Newton appeared gleeful in what he thought was a defensive penalty. These little things combine to create retaliation in short order, and so bright lines were drawn in the rulebook to encompass a large swath of the unsportsmanlike real estate. By imposing harsh penalties on these seemingly small infractions lessens any flareups that make the game impossible for officials to manage.
Newton acknowledged the unsportsmanlike conduct foul in a postgame press conference:
That just can’t happen on my part. I just have to let the referees do their job. I thought it was a questionable hit, but yet I can’t throw a ball at a person. I know that’s against the rules, too.
This all said, it still remains possible that the officiating department sees this differently and finds that, in their judgement, it was an illegal helmet hit on a sliding player. But, in doing so, it would ignore all of the moving aspects of this play that Coleman, Codey, and Brown took into consideration and stood there with conviction to make the unpopular call. Even if the league capitulates, they cannot downgrade a call like that.
Coleman was interviewed by a pool reporter after the game. The transcript is below.
Q: The questions we have are on the no-call on the late hit on Cam Newton, the one that he was penalized for taunting.
Q: What was your reasoning for not issuing a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cam?
Coleman: Well, what I saw was that Cam slid late and the defender went over the top. I didn’t see any forcible contact with the head.
Q: OK. So, I believe it’s Rule 7, Article 1, Section 2, right?
Coleman: I don’t know.
Q: Well, anyway, I read through the rule book and there’s a point that if the ballcarrier slides, if the intent to slide isn’t until late, the contact with the defender wouldn’t be penalized.
Coleman: Well, but you can’t hit him in the head. OK, so if they slide late, they can be contacted, but they still can’t be contacted forcibly in the head. And so what we ruled was that he slid late but there was no forcible contact with the head — that he just went over the top. So that’s what we ruled.
Q: Were there any discussions with the other officials on the crew?
Coleman: Well, there were three of us obviously working the play — the downfield guy [Brown], the guy that was working on the sideline [Codey], and me being behind the play. And obviously any of the three of us could have thrown our flag.
Q: And the taunting was just him…
Coleman: Him throwing the ball at the player. That is a foul if you throw a ball at the player. That’s considered taunting.
Q: So this will be our last one. Cam raised an issue after the Week 8 game that he didn’t feel safe. That was a game that your crew officiated.
Q: When he makes a comment like that — I believe he even spoke to Commissioner Goodell about it — does that affect the way that you and your crew officiate the game? Do you have any conversations about it at all?
Coleman: We just work the game, and if it’s a foul, we call it a foul. If it’s not, then we don’t. We just officiate the game and do the best of our ability. So, you know, it doesn’t make any difference to us who is playing or who the quarterback is. We’re trying to get the plays correct.
Q: I’ve got you. I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Coleman: Thank you.