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After Further Review: Broncos officiating Week 1 breakdown

Breaking down the good, bad, and ugly from the officials during the Denver Broncos 17-16 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: John is a long time Broncos fan and football official. He will be writing a weekly review of the officiating that the Broncos experience this season on MHR. Be sure to welcome him in the comments section below!

Welcome to After Further Review – where every week we examine in depth some elements of the officiating from the previous weeks Denver Broncos games. This week we have a number of penalties from the flag-fest that was week 1 in Seattle.

Helmet Hits

Helmet to helmet hits are very tricky penalties to enforce. Angle is extremely important. The NFL places an emphasis on safety, and has generally adopted the philosophy of erring on the side of calling too many instead of too few in recent years. This game saw four highlight worthy helmet to helmet hits. The opening kickoff of the second half saw DeeJay Dallas initiate a hit against Montrell Washington with his helmet. This went unflagged, and while Washington was not defenseless, it was a clearly missed call.

There was a similar situation in the first quarter with 6:40 remaining. Broncos safety Kareem Jackson hit Seattle Seahawks Tight End Noah Fant, leading with his helmet, and was flagged for a Personal Foul. Fant should not have met the definition of a defenseless player at the time, making the two situations similar (if Fant was so engaged with the defender he could not defend himself, he becomes defenseless – and it is possible that was a consideration to the covering official, but neither real time nor replay had that feel to it). While the announcers did not seem to like the penalty, it was a good call.

Defenseless players have special protections, and looser standards for a personal foul. Any initiated hit with the helmet is a foul, but functionally the bar is much lower on a defenseless player (this includes long snappers, kickers, punters, passers, players who have given themselves up or are on the ground, and most relevantly, players whose focus is on attempting to catch a ball). With 8:43 left in the first quarter, Seahawks safety Jamal Adams hit Broncos running back Javonte Williams while trying to make a catch. The pass fell incomplete, and no flag was thrown. Watching the live camera, it did not seem egregious, but the replay angle made clear that Adams had initiated a textbook illegal hit against the head of a defenseless player. This absolutely should have been thrown. Penalties against defenseless players always should look a little questionable, but it is really important for the safety of players to be extremely strict on these plays.

The crew had a better call on a defenseless player later in the game. Denver edge rusher Bradley Chubb hit Seahawks passer Geno Smith and made contact with his head. The commentators said that he led to the head, and I don’t agree with that, but it doesn’t matter. Smith, as someone who had just released a pass, is a defenseless player. Any hit which involves forcible contact to the head or neck of a defenseless player should be called a personal foul. This was an easy call, correctly done.

Defensive Holding

Defensive holding has one name but essentially two very different penalties. Both were called against Denver in this game. The first type is a hold on a running play. Defenders are allowed to tackle and hold opponents in an attempt to reach a runner, a loose ball, or a simulated runner, or with offensive players trying to block them. A defender holding/engaging in physical contact with an offensive player when not satisfying the above is almost always committing unnecessary roughness, and should be fouled for that offense instead. In my officiating career I have twice tried to call defensive holding on running plays, and both times been correctly overruled by the crew referee who insisted that I call either personal foul or no foul. It’s a penalty that functionally doesn’t exist.

Yet with 4:50 remaining in the second quarter, DJ Jones was called for defensive holding. He ended up out of the play and with an offensive lineman on top of him. There is nothing from film that suggests how this call got made.

Sometimes officials remember the wrong number, but there are no plausible other candidates here for the strange penalty. The announcer noted that this is almost never called, and for good reason. While none of the camera angles I have seen give the same view as umpire Tab Slaughter had, none of them justified the call. If you see something I didn’t, please comment and enlighten us all, but this looks like a random and bad call.

Later in the contest, Pat Surtain was also called for defensive holding. This was a very different scenario, one that is far more common. Simply put, he held DK Metcalf off the line, obstructing him from completing his route. These calls can be real tough to see on replay and easy to second, as there are a lot of elements that go into it – when did the obstructing end and what other action was going on. TThis particular call is a really good example of the importance of consistency and feel for the game. At any level of football it is both pretty reasonable to call this penalty and to let it go, and while I would not have penalized it, the correctness will depend on the officiating philosophy of the league and crew involved. Furthermore, this kind of defensive holding calls are really difficult get context about as they require study a part of the game that is rarely shown on TV.

Spotting the Ball

The last play to discuss this week is not about penalties, but about officiating mechanics. On the Broncos first drive, Javante Williams runs and takes the ball and two defenders out of bounds.

This play illustrates a maxim of officiating: Always box the players in (keep officials deeper on all sides of the field than all players) and keep all players in view. Getting zebra eyes on players out of bounds, and then immediately getting zebra jerseys in their midst is essential at all levels of football. One of the joys of watching NFL officials is how some of the best handle this. Keep an eye on the officials on plays like these and you will see some excellent maneuvers. On this play, we see a basic but perfectly executed move. Down judge Dana Mckenzie moves to the spot the ball went out, sets down his marking bean bag, and immediately continues onward to the three out of bounds players. This is picture perfect.

McKenzie, along with Line Judge Julian Mapp are the officials mostly responsible for spotting the ball. I was impressed throughout the game by the spots they used and the calls that they made. The painful goal line fumbles, Geno Smiths failed 4th down sneak, and Eric Tomlinson’s foot barely stepping out of bounds on what would have been a go-ahead touchdown were al consequential call obviously correct. A lot of those are easy to see with replay, but getting them right in full speed was the best officiating of the day.


In future weeks we will discuss offensive holding, offensive procedure fouls, defensive pass interference, as well as more work with personal fouls and unsportsmanlike conduct. However, none of those types of calls impacted the bottom line of the officiating in week one. This crew had a pretty uneven performance. While I was mostly impressed by Dana Mckenzie and Julian Mapp, I have questions about the judgement of first year Side Judge Lo van Pham and felt that umpire Tab Slaughter had a really bad day.

Officiating is a team sport, and it really hurts to have an amazing night from certain officials spoiled by others, but after this game I hope that the Broncos avoid another game from the Clete Blackmon crew.