If a senior vice president of officiating cannot explain the rule, who can?
On Sunday, the Panthers missed a game-winning extra-point largely on a penalty assessed from the touchdown, and subsequently lost in overtime. Receiver D.J. Moore tied the game with a deep touchdown catch, stepped over the end line, and removed his helmet before celebrating with fans in the front row. The unsportsmanlike conduct foul was controversial, because Moore was outside of the boundaries when he was flagged. The relevant rule is Rule 12-3-1(h):
There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. … Such acts specifically include … removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration, or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player.
So was the call correct? Is there a judgment call here? The only public statement on the play came from senior vice president of officiating administration Perry Fewell, who appeared in a blindingly quick interview during ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown on Monday. In his typical format, he provided the topline description of the play in a prepared Alexa-esque response:
So, in the fourth quarter, following Carolina’s touchdown with 12 seconds remaining in the game, there were multiple players in the field of play with their helmets off. And this is a foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.
This was followed by a pregnant pause that could bear quadruplets.
The small detail buried in this police-blotter-like summary is that the officiating department has found that multiple players were in violation of the rule, but it takes a follow-up question from host Booger McFarland to draw out whether that applied to Moore, which is why Fewell was booked on the show in the first place.
Fewell has blamed the officials for getting the number wrong. “They did call the foul on D.J. Moore. And that is correct. We see #84 [tight end Stephen Sullivan] and #73 [offensive lineman Michael Jordan] and, unfortunately at times game officials announce the wrong number when we have multiple violations. So [Moore] was not in the field of play when he initially took the helmet off. But there were multiple players in the field of play when they took their helmets off.”
Pressed further on the rule hinging on the “field of play or end zone,” Fewell added, “He was not in the field of play initially when he took the helmet off —— that is correct.”
Realizing there was no more fruit to bear from this segment, host Suzy Kolber wrapped up the interview. It truly was a 2-minute drill, because that is exactly how long the segment lasted.
This is the entirety of the officiating department’s response and it is maddening. It is clear that the outreach of the officiating department is a perfunctory duty and the transparency filter set to its lowest setting. This is the third consecutive season that the league has made very little effort to explain its rulings, all of them under the authority of Fewell and Walt Anderson, co-senior vice presidents of the department.
Fewell cannot explain the ruling, because he lacks an officiating background. He ascended to the position after having worked his second stint as an interim coach in 2020. While Anderson handles duties around the officiating end of the department, Fewell handles the administration end and the outreach with coaches and, infrequently, the public. The last video he released to the public, he reviewed four plays and made five errors.
What Fewell is saying is that the call was deemed correct only due to others having their helmets off in the field of play. He is also saying the officials erroneously announced the foul on Moore. So, he is also suggesting that had there not been other helmetless players, this call would have been incorrect and denied the Panthers of a win from a makeable extra-point kick. He is also out of alignment with how this foul has been called in the past.
How the rule has been interpreted
As we said on Sunday, the officials were using a common-sense interpretation of the rule that has been in place for years. In fact, the rule was added in 1998 to simply prohibit “removal by a player of his helmet after a play,” which was followed by a list of exceptions. It eventually evolved into the “field of play” language in 2010.
In 2013, it was revised to add the end zones, which were apparently inadvertently omitted. I’m not sure why the NFL moved away from a clearer explanation, but it was likely to consolidate the list of exceptions. Officials are not expected to know the history of the rule, but its enforcement should be made with a heavy dose of common sense, to borrow a line from Hall of Fame official Art McNally.
So “the field of play or the end zone,” by the letter of the rule, excludes areas outside of the boundaries. But the common sense interpretation is that it does not give a player the ability to step onto the end line to enter an immunity bubble from this rule.
Conversely, the letter of the rule also would have players exiting the field of play from removing their helmets until, and only when, they reach the sideline. Can a player legally remove his helmet outside the numbers while approaching the bench? Absolutely, and this is not a foul, unless there is an engagement with an official or opponent.
Also, when defenses celebrate as if taking a group photo, this is also not strictly followed to the letter. Because the defensive players have removed themselves from the dead-ball area and officials are not chasing down the celebration, there are no fouls as long as there are only uniformed players and there are no delays in restarting play.
It is with that in mind that we examine one of many such fouls that have been called. In this video from 2016, Giants receiver Odell Beckham scores a touchdown, steps on the end line, and removes his helmet. He runs back to the bench remaining out of bounds the entire time. Not only was Beckham flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, he was also fined $24,309 for the infraction. Fines are not automatic; if the officiating office deems this to be a legal play, the disciplinary wing of the league will not issue a fine.
Dean Blandino was the senior vice president of officiating at the time. In a video for The 33rd Team, he said of the Moore penalty, “I think that violates the spirit and the intent of the rule. What the rule was provided to allow the players to do is: if you leave the field, take your helmet off, there’s a celebration and then you go to the sidelines, great.”
Blandino continues, “I think this went above and beyond that. It’s a tough one. I did think that it was the correct call because, again, we have to use common sense in terms of what the spirit of the rule is.”
In the end, Fewell’s interpretation is the correct interpretation, no matter how it has been called in the past or what the common-sense answer is.
Fewell has backed himself into a corner as a result.