Monday Night Football saw far too many flags and too many questionable plays, to even attempt to break them all down. This week we are focusing on some general observations about the officiating.
One of the hard things about this game was that the officials did not seem to have a consistent philosophy on how they would rule. They aggressively ruled that forward progress had stopped on some plays, but at other times allowed plays to continue way past normal for forward progress. They had several defensive pass interference calls that most crews would have called defensive holding, but let that same conduct slide on other plays. They called false starts for aggressive signaling from the offensive linemen on two of the five obvious times it happened. I could not discern a philosophical difference between the plays they called holding and those they didn’t – they let some that did not seem to obstruct the play go, but others that didn’t obstruct the play they called. They were consistent in missing facemask penalties. One good thing is that the officials were not any more inconsistent as the game progressed - many bad officiating crews try to swallow their flags the later a close game gets, and Ron Torbert and his crew were flag-happy but inconsistent throughout.
Mathis, a 4th round rookie, was flagged four times for pass interference. These calls have been widely panned by Denver Broncos faithful. Unfortunately, I do not agree with Broncos fans on these calls. There were five questionable plays by Mathis during the game that I identified. During the first two (included his first DPI), his shoulders are turned away from the cornerback. Almost any physical action from this posture is going to correctly draw a flag. Mathis did not appear to illegally interfere from either of those positions, which is beyond impressive. But on each of his called DPIs he held the receiver downfield out of their break. It is easy for Broncos fans to see that he was clean at the point of contact, but the issue is that he was in the position to be clean because he had held earlier off-camera. Calling DPI for this level of holding is a bit more rigorous than I would like, and it was grating to see it called rigorously there but not when Courtland Sutton was getting held, but it was still valid and an expression of a Mathis problem, not an officiating one.
The problem for Mathis is that now this week is on tape. Teams going forward can try to isolate him and use double moves to try to get him to reach out with his hands, while officials can decide to be vigilant about him attempting for extra leverage.
The Refs Are Never Wrong
One of the reasons why I decided to write this column is that I feel that there is a significant disconnect about officiating among fans. Officials are taught to almost never acknowledge error. The NFL is equally zealous about this philosophy. But the funny thing is that officials know we make mistakes, and make them regularly. Each week I receive grades and feedback on my officiating from multiple other sources, watch and grade my own game and that of other officials, and review random / interesting plays sent from a number of other officiating crews.. While I am a good official, I still make weekly lists of things to improve upon. All successful officials have to thrive in an environment with extreme amounts of feedback, much of it negative. But we do not share this element of officiating with fans or the press. Instead we insist that the officials are never wrong.
This has become relevant over the last two weeks of games due to the high profile phantom roughing the passer calls. By policy and rule, calling roughing the passer cannot get a referee downgraded. So it is always a correct call. Even as these calls are going to be panned and discouraged, they will be held up as correct. One of my goals with this column is to look at some elements of officiating, and try to bridge that communication disconnect. So while the league office of officiating won’t say it, allow me: That roughing the passer call was a bad call. So was that other one. The third one was absolutely terrible. But the one on Bradley Chubb from week 1 was a good call.
Justin Simmons spoke about this earlier this week, a lack of understanding about what conduct is required: “A lot of them are self-inflicted. Everyone is talking about the pass interference calls. I don’t want to get fined, but I don’t know exactly how some of those were ruled. I know [OLB Bradley] Chubb had that one roughing the passer call. I don’t even know what roughing the passer is. It’s those things—figuring out the small details. Figuring it out and talking to the refs. What exactly are you looking for? How can I play this better? We try to have those conversations so those things don’t happen. Some of them are obvious, and some of them are judgment calls. We just need to do a better job. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter our opinion on it. The fact of the matter is that it was called, and it affects our game. It affects how we play the next play. We just have to do better.”
It is easy to blame the refs for these type of situations, and it is possible that Ron Tolbert's crew is having internal consistency problems. But the more likely scenario is that the problem rests with the Broncos. One essential and underrated part of being a great head coach is to position your team to accommodate the philosophy of the officials. The biggest part is being open to communication and asking answerable questions instead of angry ones. Simmons quote is an excellent example of mature leadership, the kind of request for communication that tends to endear teams to the officials and earns the benefit of the doubt (also mechanically, it can get free calls/no calls - if a player earnestly asks an official to explain what he did wrong to earn a DPI for example, but the official cannot have that conversation just then, the official is going to be much less likely to flag the player for something similar until they can have the conversation). Requests like what Simmons said will endear players and teams to officials. While this is pure speculation, I believe that it is likely that the Broncos coaches, and especially Hackett are interacting with the officials in unproductive ways that is bringing out the worst of the officials.
Would You Call a Penalty?
Is this a foul?
This poll is closed
Yes: Holding on the right guard (#77)
No: He didn’t impede the play enough
No: Let them play ball
This was not a great game for either officials or the Broncos. The officials had consistency issues with big penalties, and generally were too willing to throw flags. One area where they were consistent was with spotting the ball. I felt that they gave accurate or generous spots to the offense team throughout the game. There were not a lot of critical spots, but especially on intermediate passes (5-15 yards down field) the spotting could have been more accurate. Obviously the officials were very generous on a critical third down and gave Los Angeles almost an extra full yard which took what should have been a 4th and short into an easy first down. Overall, this was a bad game, and it was the type of undisciplined game I was afraid the Broncos might have in divisional play after their early discipline issues.