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If the facemask call is the wrong call, how can it be the right call?

gb_det facemask

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).

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:

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.

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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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29 thoughts on “If the facemask call is the wrong call, how can it be the right call?

  1. One Question that I have. If the N.F.L. is so concerned about Quarterback safety then how come while in the pocket there is no horse-collar tackle Plenty for the Quarterback.

    Simms said on T.V. that is the rule.

  2. Two days ago, on the topic of experienced NFL referees (we have seen this before) I said this:

    The NFL wants it both ways – to have the illusion of professionalism, impartiality and fairness (in officiating) while at the same time, using the officials to determine the outcome of games. Or at the least – allowing the officials to determine the outcome of football games. Looking the other way when the officials screw up, over and over again, and cost teams (Detroit Lions anyone?) wins. In the end we can all debate why NFL officiating sucks so bad, and talk about ways that might fix this mess. But the reality is the NFL wants it this way and will do nothing (aside from hanging up some window dressing and blaming the occasional scapegoat) to change it.

    Detroit Lions anyone?

  3. Officials call what they THINK they see…not what actually happens.

    Shame we don’t have the technology to tell them they were in a bad position and the rest of the world knows what really happens.

    Maybe someday we’ll be able to communicate with the officials on the field when they make a game changing mistake like that.


  4. I refuse to join the Lions pity party. The guy had his hand up in the facemask, and he put himself in position for the penalty to be called. Anyone who has played sports at any level knows that when you put yourself in position to invite bad calls, they’re probably going to happen from time to time. This just happened to be a critical juncture in the game.

    Interestingly, there wasn’t this much fuss when the Packers lost to Arizona in the wildcard playoff shootout that ended with a strip sack of Rodgers that included a blatant facemask takedown that wasn’t called.

  5. Go back to the Wild Card game in 2009. GB VS AZ. In OT, on the final play resulting in a turnover that lost the game for GB, Roger’s facemask was grabbed and pulled down. Based on the explanation above, that should have been called. Packer fans screamed and officiating apologists in the media and in the league office said “good no call”. What an opportunity that was to clean up the face mask and ensure that the facemask call would be review-able. But no. So, the NFL deserves a heap of blame for this coming back to haunt them and their fans. Inconsistency is rampant in officiating judgement. Last night, Detroit was flagged for a PI in the first half even though the defender was turned looking towards the ball. Reasoning was he was not playing the ball. Same situation at the end of the game but no call. The DET defender turned around, but continued to drive the GB player back so in essence he was pushing the player away from the ball instead of playing the ball.
    The NFL pimped the game out to TV. Now the average fan can see a half dozen games a week-end instead of the 2 or 3 from back in the day. The NFL did not consider that this would expose the incompetence of its officiating and their lack of accountability. Fans were isolated to only their games so their anger was bottled; but now the cat is out of the bag. The only way to solve this is for someone in the media to not sell out and for fans to look beyond the emotions of their own team. Officiating grades, mistakes, and history should be as public as player stats and coaching records. Without this, the fans will continue to be shorted and everyone will be surprised when a “Tim Donaghy” scandal occurs in the NFL.

  6. Doug,
    In reference to why there is no horse collar penalty for QBs while in the pocket the reason is that the player safety concern only exists when the player is running and is pulled down from the back of their pads. When they are running forward in particular this creates a lot of torque on their spine, which has caused injuries in the past and is the original reason for the rule. As the QB is more or less stationary in the pocket this safety concern doesn’t exist.

    The Competition Committee reviewed this back in 2012 and decided that there is no player safety risk for the QB in the pocket, see:

  7. The problem is that only Rodgers, Brady, and Peyton (and probably the Cowboys) get that call. Other teams would be left screaming the opposite way. It’s really too bad that no technology exists that could look at crucial calls quickly and get them right. Oh, wait…

  8. Was this really an incorrect call? I admit I haven’t studied the play closely but it did appear even on replay that the lower bar of the facemask remained in the grasp of the tackler throughout the tackle, which both twisted and pulled the helmet.

  9. Another horrible call by the officials that directly resulted in a loss for the Lions. Twice on Nat tv this year alone. Go back to Dallas in the playoffs and the Megatron “finish the process” td overturned in Chicago a couple of years ago. The nfl has no accountability and now I will root for the concussion crazies and the legislators(who want to tax the fanduels and fantasy leagues) to put this cash cow out of business. But of course some teams can continue to ride the fine line of all rules and never are held accountable(Patriots).

  10. This was the night football refs
    Put guess work in , and took reality out of the game.what ever
    Happened to refs gathering off to
    The side discussing the call and
    Seeing if one ref had a better angle of the play, surely the ref that made the call did not have a clue.this could cost more jobs to
    The Lions staff.

  11. The Umpire had the look. The best look. He didn’t see a penalty on that tackle. The Referee had a look that was from behind. Not a good look at all. Could only see the head jerk and threw it on that assumption. The Linesman had a slightly better look, but not a definitive look. All he could see was the front of the face mask, he could not see the shoulder of the QB. But he also saw the head jerk, so he instinctively tossed in his flag after he saw the Referee. The Umpire did not do his job. He should’ve explained to the Referee what he saw, and both flags should have been picked up and waived off. Game over.

  12. HL flag came late like 2 secs. He did not have the best view but he had doubt. He saw R flag down, threw his for moral support!

  13. “Facemask is one of the only calls that every single player will get, there is absolutely no bias on that penalty. Pretending otherwise is asinine.”

    I think it’s asinine to keep pretending that some teams and players don’t get the benefit of marginal late-game calls that other teams and players don’t get. I don’t see why a clearly marginal (and probably flat out wrong) facemasking call should be viewed any differently. Until I see differently I would maintain that, in a similar situation on a similarly absurd desperation play, if that tackle happens to Matt Stafford the game would be over.

    Many years as fans of the nationally unpopular Lions has conditioned most of us to expect these types of late-game game-deciding calls (or non-calls), which have happened against our team over and over again (several of them against the Packers). It has occurred far too often (with no marginal calls in return) to be random, and like a lot of fans of the NFL’s “lesser” teams, I’m really past the argument that the officials are totally fair and unbiased, or that there aren’t a few teams favored by the league and its media partners. These biases may be unconscious, but that doesn’t make them any less biased, and it can’t continue to serve to hide them.

    “The Umpire did not do his job. He should’ve explained to the Referee what he saw, and both flags should have been picked up and waived off. Game over.”

    Only problem with that scenario: Detroit Lions are not the Dallas Cowboys (or Green Bay Packers, or New England Patriots). Letting the penalty go made for a much more interesting TV-friendly finish for the NFL and one of its favorite teams. You could certainly hear the glee in Phil Simms’ voice.

  14. I would again add that rule 12-2-4 states the following: “No player shall grasp and control, twist, turn, push, or pull the facemask of an opponent in any direction.” I disagree with your comment that it requires a grasp and control as a part of any call. There is no use of the word “and” in the sentence. In fact there is the use of the word “or”. There are commas, which to me means a “grasp and control” is one thing. A “twist”, “turn”, “push” OR “pull” the facebmask are all separate things. IF they wanted it to mean a push or a pull or a twist was “OK” if there was NOT a grasp/control they would/should have used the word “and” in the sentence. Just say’n. That call SHOULD always be called live and should never be subject to replay. If we add that sort of call to replay the games will be 4 hours long and viewership and attendance will drop to that of bowling….

  15. If Rodgers wore a double chinstrap as most players do, would his helmet still have been twisted or his chinstrap end up under his nose?

  16. @Dave
    I understand the confusion, but the official interpretation of the rule is:

    No player shall {grasp} and {control, twist, turn, push, or pull} the facemask of an opponent in any direction.

    It used to state grasp and “control or twist” — the other verbs got tacked on to make sure that there were no loopholes.

  17. After watching the play in slow motion, I believe the more correct call should have been a horse collar foul because the QB was a runner, and no longer a QB in the pocket because of the numerous backward passes on the play. The defenders hand went across the QB’s facemark, but did NOT grasp or twist the face mask. However, it does appear from the video that defender did have his fingers inside the QB’s jersey collar, and pulled or pushed him to the ground. Both the R and the HL did NOT have a good look at the foul from their angles, and Yes the U who had the best angle should have conferred to the R & HL what he saw, but he did NOT throw his flag? So I agree with Kevin who said pick up the flags, waive them off, and Game over!

  18. And GB got away with a blatant block from behind in the backfield on the Hail Mary play that pretty much allowed Rogers to escape to get the throw off to begin with. The refs helped a team win again……

  19. In the 4th quarter, Green Bay got away with an offensive PI when the receiver wrapped his arms around the defender from behind. GB ended up with a TD. Then they were given a free play on a shoulder pad tackle (not face masking in any way, shape, or form), and finally allowed to hold and block in the back on the untimed down.

    Those biased calls are the difference between a “good team” like GB, and a “bad team” like Detroit. It happens over and over and over again, year after year after year. The Detroit Lions have always competed with class, and are one of the teams with the lowest number of off-field problems (drugs, steroids, arrests, etc). Their ownership has always been regarded as one of the best in the NFL. To see how the NFL treats the 90 yr old Martha Ford is a disgrace and goes to show how the NFL has lost all it’s integrity. Time to bring back the USFL again.

  20. What really bothers me is that it is indisputable that it was NOT a face mask, and it shouldn’t have been called as much. Regardless of “what it looked like at the time”, the defender did not grab, twist, push, or pull on Aaron Rodgers facemask. That is the ground-truth, but many in the media are trying to rationalize the call and put the blame on Devin Taylor.

    Basic logic then says that a legal tackle at 0:00 on the clock means the game is over, plain and simple. But not it the NFL (Never Fair to the Lions).

  21. “The Detroit Lions have always competed with class”

    Bwahahahahahahaha… wait let me gather myself.. the attack on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the stomp on Aaron Rodgers’ hurt leg, the scuffle between Coach Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh… HAHAHA… competing with class?! LOL… good one!

    Anyway, YES, the league has always favored the marquee teams. And YES, the referees favor the star players. As a longtime Packers fan, I remember when the Packers were on the other end of this back in the 80s and even into the 90s when they were trying to become elite. All that said, the whole issue with the facemask isn’t a conspiracy. It looked like a facemask in real time, and the play isn’t reviewable. Should it be reviewable? Hell yeah! A review could have helped the Packers win a playoff game a few years back against Arizona. But it is what it is, and the same call would have been made had the teams been in reverse situations.

  22. Ben Austro,
    Do you think fouls should be reviewable by the replay booth? Challengeable by the coaches? It would be nice to hear FZ’s opinion

  23. I watched the game. Not a Lions fan BUT it was not an intentional finger that GRAZED the facemask. AARON DID A GREAT JOB ACTING AND MOKING A SIMPLE PLAY LOOK LIKE A BIG DEA,. THEY WERE LOSING. WHAT DID YOU ECXPECT? Not a GB fan either.

  24. It all depends on which quarterback is being hit. Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers will almost always get the call even if they are only going by his reaction after the play. He is quick to bitch about every little tap on his helmet. That is why as a Packer fan, I will never be ale to have respect for Rodgers, great Quarterback don’t get me wrong but players like Teddy Bridgewater are taking vicious hits and they don’t complain they keep playing. Brett Favre was the perfect definition of tough winning games the old fashion way. Now games are won by who

  25. ever will hype the superbowl, in order to make killer profits. Maybe they want to see Seattle vs Green Bay for NFC again, Then Seatle vs Patriots or vise versa reguardless that’s money in the bank. Panthers will choke in the playoffs.

  26. Lets not even mention the few plays in the first half where flags were being tossed more than the football was in the whole game. The commentators even said they had no comment and their silence explained it all. When they watched the players penalized in the replays, they were away from the ball and doing nothing close to being illegal, but what are you gonna do.

  27. Guys: Not a facemask. In addition, the rule should be read with the “and” attached to every verb. As an example, a runner can stiff arm an opponent in the facemask and so long as he does not grasp and whatever to it, it is not a foul. Just another terrible call by the R here. This R clearly does not know a prime philosophy in football officiating – If you think you saw a foul, you didn’t see it and don’t throw. You need to see it.” Here, the R thought he saw a facemask, and he threw. He was 100% wrong on the call. The U in this situation had a good look at it, and should have told the R to pick up his damn flag, even though this R (remember their oversized egos) would never have picked it up. Maybe the U knew this and figured he might as well keep his mouth shut. Just another game changing call by a terrible official, which has become common place this and last season. How about this one in the Dolphins Ravens game. Another major game changer. Yep. OPI called. WTF?

    And we are only in the first quarter of the Monday night game and they already missed a monstrous hold against REDSKIN gunner 35, so bad the gunner was dipped down and twisted, and had his shirt ripped off his shoulder pad. Not called and this is the only player the deep official should be keyed on. How does he miss such an easy call? Just a terrible piece of officiating. Then, a bogus illegal block call that killed another drive when the blocker did not even contact the defender. Again, the short wing guessed at what he saw, and threw. Another drive stopped because of an incompetent official guessing at a foul. The league really needs to clean up the whole department starting at the top, and get guys in here who were vetted, worked their craft for years, and don’t make such rookie mistakes. It can be done. There are hundred of D3/D3/D1AA guys (your best officials) out there who are deserving of a chance. These hardworking officials know damn well they will never get a shot, yet they toil week in week out perfecting their craft. These are the officials you want working these games. Not the clowns (not all, but many) we see out here on a weekly basis.

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