Welcome to After Further Review where every week we examine in depth some elements of the officiating from the previous weeks Denver Broncos games.
The week 2 game against the Houston Texans saw lots of penalties, but a very different officiating experience than week one. Here are some of the interesting officiating mechanics and calls from the game.
Defensive Pass Interference
Pass interference is one of the hardest and most annoying penalties to adjudicate. The players are a lot faster than us, receivers try to move unpredictably giving us no guaranteed angles, and the call is really subjective. Lots of fans and coaches feel like these don’t get called fairly, because they forget one basic tenant of passes – both teams have equal rights to attempt to reach the ball. Actions taken that are plausibly related to attempting to catch the ball are going to be allowed. However there are a few keys that can make calling interference easy. The first is when a player obviously shoves another down or holds them back. The change in momentum tend to be easy to see, especially if the receiver is being followed by one of the deep three officials. Denver benefitted from one of these calls on their first drive, when Derek Stingley tugged on Courtland Suttons shoulder and made it dip down and his jersey pull back. This is an easy call, well done. The announcers also did a good job of accurately discussing why the call was made.
The other easy pass interference calls are when the two players shoulders are in opposing directions. Receivers are almost always positioned to catch the ball, as they know where it is supposed to go, so if defenders are not faced the same way, almost anything can be justification for a call. We had one of these plays with 3:25 in the second quarter. Wilson’s pass to Andrew Beck fell incomplete, and Kevin Pierre Louis had close coverage with shoulders facing away from Beck (and the ball). Pierre Louis made almost no contact with Beck, but the opposing shoulder keys up an easy call.
The real tough DPI calls are when the players are running pairing each other, or when a receiver is crossing into a defender’s zone and they are coming from opposite directions. Officials want to have the perfect angle to make the call, and while some official on the field generally has a great angle, that official frequently has different responsibilities than watching the relevant receiver. The other pass interference call against Derek Stingley was a great example of this. Look at the players shoulders and bodily momentums. Stingley is in lock-step with Sutton, both are running with natural gaits and there is no shoulder dip or obvious change in momentum. From the TV angle you can see the little arm hook that deserves a call but consider the angle that Side Judge Eugene Hall had. His view is almost entirely of Suttons back, and he is making this call while trying to run at a pace set by two incredibly athletic young players yet identifies the arm-locking. It was an excellent call.
One thing that separates different officiating crews is their philosophy on when to whistle a play dead. By rule a proper whistle is not ending a play, it is communicating that some action has already ended the play. Some officials believe in rarely blowing their whistles. This avoids inadvertent whistles (the worst thing that can happen to an official besides losing the down). But it allows for more borderline action and a more physical game. It also prevents runners from having the opportunity to surprisingly break away from defenders who seem to have them wrapped up.
In week one, the Broncos had officials who were very aggressive and assertive with their whistles. Week two saw the exact opposite. Two plays stand out. The first was in the first quarter with 8:29 on the clock. Davis Mills slipped in the pocket, and Randy Gregory got a hand on him while his knee was down. The play was dead then, as it was ruled after the fact. However, the official didn’t blow the play dead, and Mills was in the process of rising, where he was then confronted by other Broncos. The result was unnecessary physicality and a generally sloppy appearance, though it was pretty inconsequential.
The second play was a defensive offsides call also from the first quarter. Houston edge rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo jumped hard offsides, and the officials initially let the play go, though as the play turned into a hot mess they then shut down the play. The announcers covering this play saw it wrong. They talked about shutting the play down when the defender is unabated to the quarterback and how that’s a tricky standard. This is true, but it missed that the offsides defender drew right tackle Cameron Fleming into an egregious false start. If the defender had not jumped, Fleming would have been flagged every single time. And when an offsides draws a false start, the officials have no option but to shut the play down, which they should have done here.
There is no right speed to whistle. With Javonte Williams an absurd ability to break tackles, the officials waiting a bit has probably been the best call. I will be interested in seeing if other crews use their scouting to whistle slowly against the Broncos, partially because if my crew had Williams, I would be nervous about blowing a play dead right as he busted out of the arms of a defender.
Twelve Men on the Field
Denver got called for twelve men in formation on defense. This penalty is a simple one of player safety – officials should always try to throw a flag and penalize the team before a snap takes place with twelve on the field. The likelihood of anything positive happening for the game is incredibly low, so officials always are directed by the rules to kill the play if the snap appears imminent. Here it was an easy call by Carl Cheffers’ crew, as Denver’s defense appeared to have no recognition that it had twelve on the field.
Officials sometimes transition into alert-mode. In this mode they will be hyper-vigilant to separate players from opposing teams to prevent fights and other personal fouls. This has disadvantages, as it takes a lot of effort, and removes a lot of opportunities for sportsmanship. While it decreases the number of personal fouls, it increases the likelihood that marginal conduct will be flagged. After halftime the officials went alert on this game, and it quite surprised me, as I hadn’t seen lots of jawing back and forth, the teams do not have any real rivalry, and the broadcast certainly didn’t seem to pick up any tension. As the game draws to the close, officials are hustling between every play to separate players and keep heavy supervision in place. Maybe the crew decided to live-drill alert, or maybe they saw something I hadn’t, but it was unusual and something you can see clearly on tape.
So far this year, the Broncos games have had a lot of penalties. Against Houston however, there was almost nothing I can fault the officiating crew on. They had a few borderline no-calls that I might have called under different situations, but nothing to really get upset about. The biggest mistake was signaling the Sutton touchdown, on the first drive, and replay corrected that miss. This was a great outing from an elite-level crew. It was particularly impressive because the crew is relatively inexperienced and included a first-year official in umpire Brandon Cruse. Expect to see a number of these officials in super bowls over the next few years.