Football Zebras
CommentaryCan someone please let us know what the hell is going on?

Can someone please let us know what the hell is going on?

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Commentary by Ben Austro

The transition was expected to be bumpy. Before owners convened in Orlando in March, there wasn’t even a proposal on the table for one of the game’s monumental shifts toward player safety. The Competition Committee called an audible, and what became this year’s “use of the helmet” rule was so hastily introduced, it had passed before it was released to the media. Although it was probably a discarded proposal the committee already hashed out, it had the appearance of something sketched out on a hotel-branded notepad.

Details of the rule change and new points of emphasis on player safety were scant through the spring — a critical time for the league to get players, coaches, and the media up to speed. Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron had a newly created staff of 21 year-round officials at his disposal, and it appears as if there was limited engagement with this group on the new rules. 

As officials approach their July clinic, I am usually getting some bits of information on key officiating points particularly around rules changes. This year, there was either no advance information to give or there was a concerted effort to keep it under wraps.

When the usual rules tutorial video for players was released just before preseason, there were additional position-specific videos on legal and illegal hits. As Dom Cosentino at Deadspin pointed out, even those videos were fraught with apparent contradictions and open questions. We even noted that changes of this nature required communication from Riveron once players and officials broke in the new rules, which he did come through on, with the full expectation that the soft mortar of the rules would be cured for week 1 of the regular season.

While there are multiple examples of unnecessary roughness fouls that have called the rules into question, the most notable was a fourth quarter tackle by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Initial impressions were that referee Tony Corrente, not unlike any other official, made a snap decision at game speed that was, shall we say, off. Cousins himself could only thinly disguise his disbelief that it was a foul. Corrente, in my opinion at the time, made it worse by describing an action that seemed wholly absent: “He picked the quarterback up and drove him into the ground,” Corrente said to pool reporter Rob Demovsky after the game. 

Turns out, my blame of Corrente is misplaced. The league thinks it is a correct call. Not only was Corrente correct — and not a designation of “support,” which means it wasn’t a wrong call, instead there was a better call — but also a training tape will discuss the technique and how to avoid the flag, which was first reported by Tom Pelissero of NFL.com. Demovsky, who covers the Packers for ESPN, reported, “a league source reiterated Monday that the ‘technique of grabbing the passer from behind the leg or legs, scooping and pulling in an upward motion, is a foul.'”

What is missing? For one, how is Matthews tackle described as an illegal “scoop-and-pull” maneuver by the league, and not one of several leverage-based tackles intended to minimize injury? Also, why are legal tackling techniques under the rules, as opposed to finer points of rules interpretation, being taught two weeks into the regular season? Those are obvious questions. But there is one even more glaring.

Where is Al Riveron?

We only have a sentence from Demovsky’s unnamed source. And not to denigrate Pelissero’s talents in any way at all, but the use of “NFL.com has learned” in his article is nothing short of a bullshit phrase. The NFL fed information to NFL.com without attribution, rather than going on the record with an interview, issuing a press statement, sending that scant amount of information in a tweet, or even leveraging the corporate television network assets to get the message across. NFL.com has learned to tow the corporate line when needed, even if it means keeping co-workers clean.

As of Wednesday morning, Day +3 from the controversy, this is the most recent public comment from Riveron in any media platform:

That is from Day −2. Executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, Riveron’s boss, has also been silent on the issue.

[Update 9/27: Riveron’s Twitter feed, originally under the handle @alriveron, has been renamed @NFLOfficiating. At the time of the publication of this post, it was presented as Riveron’s official account under the @alriveron handle.]

Riveron was fast to point out there were 12 of 14 correct roughing-the-passer calls on Monday in Week 1, calling out first-year referee Shawn Smith for a miscall. Former referee Terry McAulay, now working for NBC, noted that “they have never pointed out a replay mistake,” since centralized replay responsibilities were shifted to Riveron in 2017.

This doesn’t even touch on the fact that whoever is driving this rule interpretation — Riveron, Vincent, the Competition Committee, the commissioner — is completely overshooting the target. Former officiating heads Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino addressed this in their Last Call webcast for Fox Sports. “They’re creating penalties for contact and tackles to me that don’t put the quarterback at risk of injury,” said Pereira. “I think we’re setting a dangerous precedent.” He’s right. Player-safety rules do not get retracted, and for good reason; a lenient interpretation gives rise to lawsuits for players to recover lost wages after being injured in any closely related circumstance.

Regardless, the league is obviously forging ahead with its “re-education” campaign. One hopes that Riveron has used his media blackout to get this training video to players post haste. If he has not disseminated the video by now, he has placed the Jets and Browns, who play on Thursday night, at a competitive disadvantage; the most equitable move is to hold the video for early next week, even though it defers a presumed player-safety issue for another week of yellow laundry on the field.

Either way, the league at least has handled this consistently with every ham-handed step from the Competition Committee in March to today.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)
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