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Why doesn’t the hit on Cam Newton get the flag?


Updated to include postgame quotes from referee Walt Coleman.

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…

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 a  defender is already engaged in initiating 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 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.

Pool report

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.

Coleman: OK.

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.

Coleman: Yes.

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.

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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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14 thoughts on “Why doesn’t the hit on Cam Newton get the flag?

  1. Slight correction – the defender is Trent Murphy. Trent Williams is Washington’s Left Tackle.

  2. The photo you used doesn’t do the play justice. The defender was already starting to lay out for Newton’s legs right before Newton started to slide. I wondered if there was some coverage for a defender when they are already “in the process” of making a tackle and the QB slides.

    Oh, and Newton is still a man-child. He’d better grow up.

  3. This is an easy no-call for the “late hit”. What is not making it easy is that Newton fights for every yard he can, and then tries to take liberties when it is too late. This is the same as mailing your bill payment on the day its due. You take the risk that your payment won’t be received in time and you’ll be hit with late fees.

    Cam Newton is a fighter, but he expects the same treatment as someone who doesn’t take as big of a risk. And that won’t happen. I know procrastination all t

  4. Nowhere in your article do you mention that ESPN’s officiating expert, Gerry Austin, opined that it was a foul. You seem to only include “evidence” that is pro-official. This play should have resulted in offsetting 15y penalties.

  5. While I think the no-call on the hit by Murphy on Newton was correct, the officials blew a call along the sidelines when Kawann Short was flagged for hitting Kirk Cousins and knocking him out-of-bounds and into a cheerleader. The hit may have looked bad (especially when the cheerleader was all but up-side-down in the aftermath), but contact occurred within the field of play. Short’s hit was legal.

  6. Jerry Austin is terrible and has been proven wrong so many times in his Monday Night analysis.

  7. walt coleman needs to be sidelined by the NFL. He’s the same ref that botched the end of the first half of the Bills Seahawks game a few Monday nights ago. Richard Sherman hits the Bills kicker without the ball even being snapped, and the Bills end up getting screwed. Roger Goodell is full of crap when he says player safety is a priority.

  8. This was an amazingly great call.

    First, Trent Murphy was trying to tackle a 260 pound freak of nature. Cam chose to slide late and very little contact was made. No harm, no foul. The official correctly flagged Newton for throwing the ball at an opponent.

    Everything went right.

    Two more points:

    It’s the REDSKINS!!!!! Now, that Trump is President it is time to grow up and stop placating the snowflakes.

    Who cares what Michael Wilbon has to say?

  9. No fine for Short:

    A letter from NFL headquarters in New York would have meant Short was fined for his hit on Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins on Monday night. Short drew an unnecessary roughness penalty when officials ruled Short shoved Cousins while he was out of bounds, although replays showed otherwise.

    Short said after the game it was a legal play, and league officials agreed with him.

  10. I think Walt Coleman (and crew) probably the worst in the NFL this season. Cam Newton is an arrogant show-off, unlike most of the other quarterbacks. There is no way that Taunting fouls should be given priority over fouls that could harm or injure a player as in this case.
    All players who deliberately dive onto grounded players should get a 15 yard penalty and sent off after 2 occurrences.

  11. Im glad cam got a flag he should get more! I hate that QBs like Cam an Wentz just run around (while their lineman hold most likely) and then when they about to get tackled throw it away or flop to try and draw a Call from the refs, this is such BS and is not how the game should be played. they aren’t even capable of finding receivers down field or willing to take risks so they don’t throw and just look for flags. Had to write this because i love football but hate seeing it ruined by shitty QBs who don’t read routes and instead cry for flags…

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