Breaking down the good and the bad from the officials in the Denver Broncos 24-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
There was an intentional grounding called against Arizona in the third quarter of the game, and the announcers were irritated by the call. Intentional grounding is called for any forward pass thrown from inside the tackles that does not have a realistic chance of completion to an originally eligible receiver (when done to avoid a sack). Vicinity of an eligible receiver is an important element of grounding, but it is not the only criteria. Spiking the ball near an eligible receiver is still intentional grounding and a foul, because vicinity is not the sole controlling factor.
These judgements get far more complicated for hits as the quarterback throws the ball, but in the Broncos game that was not an issue. In this case there was an eligible receiver in the vicinity of the throw, but there was no way for the receiver to plausibly catch the ball which hit the an offensive lineman’s leg seven yards closer to the quarterback than the eligible receiver. This was an obvious call, correctly made.
Twelve Men on the Field
Arizona was called for a penalty as Denver converted third and short early in the 4th quarter. The officials had a long discussion about the play, and broadcast rules analyst Mike Pereira chimed in as well to express that the officials should not have let the play go. The situation was interesting: Denver made a substitution after Brandon Johnson’s second down catch set up third and one, sending Jerry Jeudy off for Eric Tomlinson. Tomlinson was in the huddle at 29 seconds left on the play clock. Defense always has the right to substitute if the offense does. Arizona was not particularly fast to substitute, and so when Denver lined up at 20 seconds left on the playclock, Arizona had 13 men on the field. Umpire Barry Anderson came in to hold the offense, and spoke to Rypien. There was a snap at 17 seconds left on the game clock, at which point Arizona had 12 men on the field, and Denver successfully converted for a first down.
This play is really tricky to judge for a couple of reasons. First, the opportunity to substitute is based on the judgement of the umpire. It is clear on replay that one Cardinal is trying to leave before the play and does, but that twelve men are on the field in the proximity of the snap and may be getting into position for the play, not to leave the field. Eventually safety Christian Matthew realizes there are twelve on the field, and starts heading to the sidelines. So the first judgement is does the umpire think its reasonable for the defense to need more than twelve seconds to substitute. Additionally the umpire was out of position at the snap. Normally when umpires need to prevent a snap they will tell the center how long they must wait before a snap so that the umpire can get into position. If the center does not listen, the umpire should shut the play down.
This wouldn’t be a penalty, and this type of thing happens during most games – an official blows their whistle and stops the clock without an apparent reason, and then the play resets after a brief pause and no explanation. It is a perfectly fine solution. The only reason why umpire Barry Anderson should have allowed the play to continue is if he decided that he was sufficiently in position for the snap. What most likely happened is when Anderson came in, he told Rypien/Glasgow something very close to “Don’t snap, let him get off the field.” Rypien looks up, see one player exiting the field, and as soon as that player is off the field, calls for the snap. Anderson could have shut the play down even after the snap without penalizing the Broncos (or penalizing them for delay of game or unsportsmanlike conduct if he felt the situation merited it). He decided that the Broncos had complied with his instructions to his satisfaction, so he let their successful run stand. I probably agree with his judgement.
After the previous play Denver communicated a substitution and executed it completely in 11 seconds. About half way through that period it was clear who was substituting. Arizona then had 18 seconds before the snap to complete their substitution and get ready for the following play. Denver was fast but not extremely so, and Arizona got caught being slow. It was a good call by the officials, though Anderson probably should have been more clear in his instruction to the line.
Defensive Pass Interference
There was a controversial no call for defensive pass interference against Kareem Jackson on Arizona’s two point conversion attempt at the end of the game. This is a tricky play. At first look it screams defensive pass interference on Kareem Jackson. However, further review clearly shows that Jackson is credibly seeing the ball – he watches it released and looks to be playing the ball. At that point, the question mechanically becomes does he push DeAndre Hopkins as part of an attempted catch, or if not, does he interfere with Hopkins. The pass was pretty low, and its not completely clear to me that Jacksons action are taking Hopkins out of the play.
This is the hardest situation to call DPI in - both players have located the ball, and their momentum is carrying both players away from the ball. Most officials would have flagged that as pass interference, but it was not the obvious call the announcers made it out to be.
Remembering the Purpose of Penalties
Penalties are mostly pretty straightforward in the NFL. There are penalties for dangerous conduct (almost always 15 yards), for conduct that violates the fairness of the game (almost always 10 yards against offense, or 5 and an automatic first down against defense) or for conduct that makes it harder for the game to be enjoyable (almost always 5 yards). Penalties that are designed with player safety in mind, should be enforced with two considerations: Did the action risk player safety, and if repeated would it risk player safety. Two examples from the Broncos game show how this should lead to different outcomes.
The third time Rypien was sacked, Trysten Hill clearly both grabbed and pulled slightly on Rypien’s facemask. This should have been a 15 yard penalty by rule, and it was a missed call. However, the play both did not risk Rypien’s safety, and is the kind of conduct that is unlikely to (Hill was not hitting with his hand, and he quickly let go of the facemask). Technically this is a blown call, but it is the type of miss that is still compatible with the spirit of the rule.
JJ Watts first sack of Rypien was the opposite. Watt beat his man, and tackled Rypien hard. Both of Watts feet left the ground as he lunged into Rypien, and he seemed to land squarely on Rypien. This was not flagged, and it absolutely should have been. The rule about defenders landing on QBs with their full body weight is much maligned, but it still is a rule. Furthermore, this conduct was worse than normal in that Watts lunge was aggressive beyond any football value. This absolutely should have been flagged as roughing, because the conduct is the type of thing that creates injury.
Picking Up the Penalty Flag
Near the end of the first quarter, a low block by Budda Baker on Andrew Beck was initially flagged for a low block, but after discussion the officials waved off the penalty. Every element of this was solid officiating. Any official who sees a safety foul should absolutely throw their penalty flag. When a different official has a better view and sees it clean, then that flag should also get waved off. The best officials should work together on these type of situations to get the call possible. Realistically most of the time the replay assistant sorts it out if two officials have slightly different takes, but even then the result is a highly functional process. On this play the officials did eventually get it right, as Baker flew in low, but made contact with the waist of Beck.
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Offensive Holding #76
Referee Jerome Boger and his crew were unimpressive. The announcers made too big of a deal of the problems they noticed, but the officiating was still not great. The biggest issue was the officials did not exude the necessary sense of confidence. The crew was weak at communicating, had some questionable signals, and looked indecisive. Beyond that, they had up a number of sloppy calls, announcements, and signals. They also whistled loudly and frequently, far more than is normal for an NFL crew.
This is an experienced crew, but it was probably the worst officiating the Broncos have faced since September. Interestingly, the official who missed the DPI on the two point conversion attempt was a swing/fill-in official in Mike Weatherford. Weatherford is an extremely experienced official, and he was replacing a first-year official, so we would expect the game have run smoothly.