As the dust settles on another year of NFL action we take a look back at the controversial calls in the Super Bowl.
This season has not been smooth in terms of officiating. During the off-season, the owners voted in changes to Instant Replay that would centralise key decisions in the hands of New York (in conjunction with the game referee and the on-site replay official).
Just before the season began and just after that decision, the Snr VP of Officiating, Dean Blandino, who the owners had put their faith in jumped ship and went to work as a rules analyst for Fox.
Stepping into Dean’s shoes was his previous replay right-hand man, Al Riveron. Unlike Blandino, Riveron was a previous on-field official and appeared the ideal person to take over from what Dean had designed.
Well, that was the theory, the reality of the new centralised system is that plays were not being reviewed with the previous bar of, “clear and obvious” errors being overturned but plays were being re-officiated in super slow-mo and fans were left even more confused about ‘what is a catch’.
Things weren’t helped when Mike Pereira, the former boss or Riveron and Blandino took to Twitter to berate the calls:
regarding the Buffalo no touchdown, nothing more irritating to an official than to make a great call and then someone in a suit in an office in New York incorrectly reverses it. It is more and more obvious that there isn’t a standard for staying with the call on the field.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) 24 December 2017
Whether Riveron realised what this was doing to the reputation of the officials or someone senior had a not-so-quiet word is only speculation, either way, the postseason brought changes.
Gone was the over-analysis of the play in replay and a return to the feeling that scores stayed scores and decisions on the field stood as called unless there was something significant.
So moving to Minneapolis on Sunday for Super Bowl LII, what difference did the officiating make?
All season long fans were complaining that the Patriots paid the officials and calls always went their way. Well, there were a few key moments on Sunday and whilst Eagles fans and the independents feared the worst, it was the Eagles that came out on top, both in the game and getting the calls going their way.
Before people talk about the Refs winning it for the Eagles, here are the stats.
Eagles — 6 penalties for 35 yards
Patriots — 1 penalty for 5 yards (+1 declined)
It’s not unusual for there to be fewer penalties in the Super Bowl than in regular season games. Firstly the teams getting there tend to be more disciplined than the rest, plus when it’s all on the line they tend to concentrate better and avoid unnecessary procedural calls such as false starts and offsides.
There is also a tendency for the on-field officials to let the players play. They do not want to be the topic on Monday’s TV shows.
There were really only four or five plays that looked in any way like they may be questions to ask about the officiating.
Take The Head Out Of Football
The first was early in the 2nd quarter when receiver Brandin Cooks, took a vicious hit that knocked him out. People started comparing it to the Gronkowski hit suffered in the Championship game and wondered why there was no flag.
Whilst receivers get defenceless player protection against hits to the head and neck area, this protection ends when they have established themselves as a runner which cooks clearly did as he dodged around looking for more room to run. Gronkowski, on the other hand, was still in the process of catching the ball when he was hit. (If the videos below fail to play in your region, just click on the link to watch them natively on Youtube)
Compared to the Gronkowski hit:
At the end of the half, Philadelphia scored a touchdown on the now infamous ‘Philly Special’ a play called by Nick Foles where he ends up being the receiver with a little miss-direction thrown in for good measure. A few things about this play worth noting. First, in order for the quarterback to be eligible to catch a pass (in the NFL, doesn’t apply in the British rules), he can’t be under centre. He moved toward the line like a man in motion and tapped the arse of one of his other lineman. It wasn’t an illegal shift (as two people need to move in a shift) and even if the motion would have been questionable he got ‘set’ prior to the snap.
The part of this play that can be questioned is the positioning of the wide receiver on the side the ball was thrown to. He looks like he’s level with the lineman, however, due to their stagger it brought him so he didn’t break the waistband of the centre. Technically he’s off the line which could be a penalty, however, this is a judgement call by the official who considered him close enough.
The fourth down trick play TS to Nick Foles was an illegal formation, should have been called back…extended WR to the top of the screen is off the ball (needs to be on the line with just the OT on inside him). #SB52 #Eagles #Patriots pic.twitter.com/tdX7hIpiGu
— Matt Chatham (@chatham58) 5 February 2018
“you are going to see that called nine out of ten times”
Mike Pereira, speaking on KNBR said “The league has come out today and said it’s a judgement call and in the eyes of the official he was close enough” but he also said “you are going to see that called nine out of ten times”
The final areas to be considered are the two touchdowns by Philadelphia that were reviewed and given by New York.
The Replay rulings may have surprised some, however, they were consistent with the way people were saying they wanted replay to operate, “Unless it’s clear and obvious, let the play stand as called on the field”. Both were called touchdowns on the field, neither had enough clear and obvious evidence to overturn.
What is a Catch?
Both of these plays go to the heart of what is a catch. So let’s break it down as there many preconceptions that are false in relation to the existing catch rule in the NFL.
There are three elements needed in a catch, the first is control, get hold of the ball, next is feet in bounds (or another body part), then finally you have the part that people miss or misunderstand, time.
This ‘magical’ third element is what causes most issues when people try to understand the catch rule. What it really means is the transition from being a receiver to being a runner. In order to make that transition, the receiver needs to be in a position to defend themselves from a hit in the same way a runner would. It’s not easy to define because it’s not always going to be the same thing. Sometimes it’s the number of steps a receiver has taken once they have the ball under control, others it’s the ability to brace for contact. Either way, it’s a judgement only the covering official can make.
Many when talking about changing/simplifying the catch rule want to remove this third element and say that if a receiver has the ball in control and has two feet on the ground it’s a catch. On the surface, this seems reasonable. However, it’s the unintended consequences that need to be looked at.
Most times a receiver when catching the ball will be in the middle of two, three or more defenders. If as they get the ball and their feet down, they are hit and the ball comes loose, by the simplified definition, this is now a fumble. On probability, most of these will be recovered by the defence. When league owners and coaches who make up the competition committee and who decide the rules (note, not officials) looking at these type of plays certainly don’t want that outcome, this is why that element remains stubbornly in the definition of a catch.
The final part that comes into play only applies if the receiver is going to the ground as part of the catch, then they also need to survive that contact and retain control.
The important part of the rule in relation to this control is this note:
“If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.”
Now, having defined our rules let’s take a look at the two controversial plays reviewed on Sunday.
Corey Clement TD
In the first, Corey Clement catches the ball in the end zone, gets two feet down and it’s ruled a touchdown. During the review there was a question as to if the receiver lost control when getting his two feet down. If he did, the count of feet starts again and his third was definitely out of bounds.
Watch and listen as referee Gene Steretore talks to Al Riveron whilst looking at the replay.
Zack Ertz TD
This one should not have taken so long to review. Ertz clearly establishes himself as a runner in the field of play then dives for the end zone losing the ball as it hits the ground. As he was a runner, as soon as the tip of the ball broke the plane of the goal line the play is over and the TD made.
— NFL (@NFL) 5 February 2018
During the commentary, there is talk asking for comparison to the Jesse James play for the Steelers. The difference between those two plays is that James has not become a runner and is going to the ground. As a result, he must survive going to the ground and he doesn’t, the ball came loose.
Here’s the James play.
— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) 18 December 2017
The two key questions are, did the refs win it for the Eagles and is the catch rule going to change in the off-season?
As I hope you’ll have seen if you’ve got this far, in relation to the rules, the refs didn’t play a major part in changing the result of the game. Calls went the Eagles way but it would be fair to say if the Patriots would have made them, the results would have been the same.
As for rule changes relating to a catch, there may well be changes made as there was enough heat generated to need commissionaire Roger Godell involved in media statements, however, will they change in the dramatic way people expect, I seriously don’t think so.
What I do want to see is replay being used like it was in the Super Bowl, stay with the on-field officials unless there is something clear and obvious!