Breaking down the good, the bad, and the absent from the officials during the Denver Broncos 31-28 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
With about five minutes left in the first quarter, three officials threw flags for a facemask by Joey Bosa on Chase Edmonds. Multiple flags is a controversial situation among officials. It is rare that multiple officials are supposed to have a clear view of a foul – unless the play is drawn up poorly there are generally players moving in different directions that are supposed to draw official attention. While this can be true, especially with blocking fouls where it is imperative that the official see the entire block before throwing a flag, for a safety foul like that facemask it is possible to see multiple flags come out. Also it is easier to get the call right to throw the flags you see, and if other officials disagree to discuss the situation rather than hope that the proper official had the correct view and judgement.
Some coaches and fans will insist when a flag gets picked up that the officials decided in a biased fashion, but this attitude encourages wrong calls, and we should try to rise above the temptation.
Goal Lines and Punts
Midway through the third quarter, the Chargers special teams attempted to secure a punt to prevent it going into the endzone. While they were seemingly successful, the covering officials correctly ruled it a touchback. There are several components to punt coverage near the goal line that can be quite confusing to understand.
The first of these was relevant on the play – to avoid a safety or touchback, the ball must be entirely out of the endzone. Functionally the length of a football field is 100 yards minus the length of the football. The second factor in spotting punts is the spot of first touching. The receiving team may elect to take the ball at the first spot that the kicking team deliberately touched the ball (Administrating this is one of the reasons why officials drop a beanbag at the spot). If the kicking team player touches the ball airborne, then the spot of touching is where they last touched the ground – however it can never be inside the one yard line (hypothetically a kicking team player can play hot potato with the ball for a while in the endzone and still the ball has not entered the endzone unless their feet touch the ground while they are touching the ball). The end of punts have extensive rules, and covering those correctly is a large part of the job of the successful back judge.
In this game, back judge Rich Martinez had several challenging punt calls and he got them all reasonably sound.
Spotting the Ball
All season I have made brief observations about the way that the officials spotted the ball during their games. As spots are generally seen on TV angles, it can be interesting to learn how officials spot. There are two officials who spot the ball, the Down Judge and the Line Judge, one on each side of the field. Even on really deep passes, the spot is always the responsibility of those two officials, and the deep officials are responsible for other elements of the play. If the ball goes obviously to one side of the field, generally that official will be responsible for spotting the ball. They will do so by aligning their body so that the outside of their downfield foot is at the end of the football. Thus, on a close conversion, you can almost always know where the official will spot the ball by seeing their feet as they come in. Especially if the ball is to the middle of the field, there may be some uncertainty among the two spotting officials as to the spot.
Officials have ways of signaling that they are not sure of their spot, or that they absolutely are sure of it. In general, an unsure official will mirror the spot of their counterpart. At lower levels of play than the NFL (but not in the NFL), you can have a very good estimation of if the play gained a first down by watching the official who is opposed to the down box. If this line judge believes that the first down was reached or it was close enough to measure, they will call time out to stop the clock (again not in the NFL), but if they do not think it was close, they will raise one hand to signal to start the play clock. As they are one of the spotters of the ball, and they have a perfect angle of the line to gain, this shortcut is extremely reliable.
There were two major challenges in the game and both of them went against Denver. In the first case, Los Angeles challenged a Freddie Swain catch. I had liked the call on the field, and I probably liked overturning the call on replay. However, I did not think it was a good situation to challenge for Los Angeles, as it was not the biggest play of the game and winning the challenge still allowed Denver to continue their drive.
Later in the game, Denver challenged after a ruling on the field of an incomplete pass that was probably intercepted by Ja’Quan McMillian. I disliked the ruling on the field. I thought ti was pretty clear on the field that the ball was intercepted. The replay made it even more clear to me that the interception occurred. I was surprised that the challenge was not successful.There were a few other opportunities to challenge in the game, but none were high leverage situations or where I felt that the ruling on the field was notably wrong.
There are reasons to be frustrated by the officiating in a game like the Broncos had against the Chargers in week 18. However referee Shawn Hochuli and his crew did a lot of things well. I noted numerous instances throughout the game where I would have called a penalty, and the officials instead chose not to. This split fairly between the teams, though I think the Broncos got a slightly better end of the deal. In particular, I noted at least four or five egregious formation fouls that I would have flagged, and the officials let them all slide.
They had a consistent officiating philosophy, and more impressively they managed to avoid the pitfalls of it. The real danger of officiating passively is that players can feel its unfair or that the officials are unwilling to call anything and allow player conduct to escalate. Hochuli and his crew did a fantastic job of avoiding this problem by being very present in the game, inserting themselves among the players, and making the players know that the officials were awake and cared about the game, but were going to officiate it their way. This ended up serving the officials well. They did a good job spotting the ball, and were consistent in their approach to spotting throughout the game. I felt they let a bit too much go, and would not have objected to a defensive pass interference calls against Ja’Quan McMillian, or a personal foul against Alex Singleton.
Considering that the challenges went against Denver with rather harsh consequences, that Denver benefitted from a couple of borderline no calls probably evened things out. Regardless, this was a reasonable way to end the football season.