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Week 12

Morelli crew has ’embarrassing’ delays determining down and penalty enforcements




Week 12: Cardinals at 49ers

Referee Pete Morelli and his crew had a rough day in a season where high profile errors have beset the crew.

The history, of course, involves a clock operator’s error that wasn’t corrected by the side judge, leading to the side judge’s suspension. It also includes a missed penalty in a hurry-up offense that could have affected the ultimate result of the game. The officials involved in that play were downgraded, but no other discipline was given.

Things started to unravel for the crew in Santa Clara, Calif., as the 49ers were caught with 13 players on the field. Because there was a quick snap, four officials threw their flags at the completion of the down. (The referee, umpire, head linesman, and line judge all have the duty to count offensive players.) Morelli enforced this as a dead-ball foul, but in reality, this is retroactive to the snap, because the crew can clearly establish the personnel that were on the field at the snap. Therefore, it is (a) 5 yards and repeat the down, or (b) decline the foul and take the result of the play. The crew enforced this from the dead-ball spot and counted the down. (While 12-in-the-huddle can be called between downs, it may only be called against the offense.)

Once the next snap occurs, that misapplication can’t be corrected.

Shortly thereafter, there was a confusion on the number of the down that lead to an excruciating six-minute delay to rectify. At one point, Morelli announced “third down,” before eventually settling on second down. During the process, a Fox Sports cameraman zoomed into the log maintained by the down-box operator.

“It was just embarrassing,” said one officiating source.

Early in the second quarter, another botched enforcement almost hit the crew twice on one play. Cardinals receiver John Brown caught a Carson Palmer pass in the end zone, but side judge Rob Vernatchi threw his hat and his flag — a signal that Brown stepped out of bounds, returned in bounds, and was first to touch the pass. It was clearer on replay, but Brown had not re-established in bounds — hold this fact while I step through the play as it was called.

Morelli was willing to allow the 49ers to decline the illegal-touching penalty, but that means the result of the play stands, which is Brown catching the ball in the end zone. If a player is ruled to have illegally touched the pass, it means he was out of bounds and re-established in bounds. The result is not an incomplete pass. The 49ers must accept the penalty to nullify the touchdown catch. Eventually, Morelli announced the penalty would be accepted, but he was willing to grant the down incrementing to fourth down, with the Cardinals having their field-goal unit on the field.

Back to Brown being in or out of bounds. Since Brown did not get a second foot in bounds when he touches the ball, he is still out of bounds, even though his body is in between the sidelines. Only when the second foot comes down has the player re-established in bounds. With one foot in, the pass touches an out-of-bounds object, and is therefore incomplete. In that case, there is no foul — it’s just incomplete.

The call of Brown in/out of bounds is reviewable, and the 49ers could have challenged the call to get the incomplete ruling (and the flag picked up). While it is understandable to miss the second in-bounds foot at game speed, the fact that there was a lengthy delay to get the foul straightened out was unacceptable.

Morelli was in contact with either the replay booth or the game observer. For this game, the dean of referees, Jim Tunney, was assigned to the game, and possibility was involved in rectifying the botched enforcements.

For Morelli, this is very puzzling for those in officiating circles, because he is the consummate game manager. We graded him highly last year, and he deservedly won the Art McNally Award — usually given to a retired official, or at least one “retired” to replay — for his stellar career. It has been an uncharacteristic year for him (although, to be fair, some of these issues belong to his crew), and hopefully for everyone’s sake, the crew can shake this slump.

Update: I posted the following in the comments, but I am including them in the post to address those questions that were posed on these plays:

Re: the knee on a downed player. That is a personal foul, and should have been called. Obviously it was not seen, otherwise it would have been called.

Regarding the roughing the QB call: I left that out specifically, because I think there are mitigating factors. I saw the front angle and I didn’t see any contact to the head or a “stuffing” of the QB. When I saw the replay from the end zone, it was abundantly clear why it was called. When Palmer’s helmet jars like it did, it seems certain to be a forcible blow to the head. That end zone angle is roughly equivalent to the angle Morelli had. The directive also is to err on the side of caution and throw the flag if it appears to be roughing. Morelli was in the position he was supposed to be and did not have the best angle, yet he has the responsibility for that call. The Competition Committee is aware of this issue on roughing the QB, but it has not proposed a solution. For that, I can’t fault Morelli — he’s doing it exactly how they’ve asked him to do.

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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