There have been a lot of somewhat bland Denver Broncos games this year, with little to talk about regarding the officiating. Most weeks, I have covered almost every interesting play I wrote down from the game. This week I am only going to talk about half of them, because there were some real crazy highs and lows from the officials in Denver’s Week 7 matchup against the Green Bay Packers.
Referee Alex Kemp and umpire Mike Morton had a very different standard for holding than we have seen this year. They called several holds where the offender did not impede the opponent, including two impactful ones against Denver. I have talked before about three criteria for a hold call: 1) illegal blocking technique 2) impeding the opponent and 3) impacting the play. Most crews this year have hyper-focused on #2 with a bit of attention to #3.
This week they cared a lot about #1 but were indifferent to #2 and #3. Its not technically incorrect by the rules, and if the NFL decided they want to change mid-season how holding is called, that could be fine, but the change was jarring and the result was to penalize conduct when it didn’t impact the play of the game. I did not approve of the judgment involved.
Defensive Pass Interference No Call on Surtain
In the second quarter, Pat Surtain was not called for defensive pass interference on a play where, because the officials had a long conversation and the announcers thought a pass interference was merited, the broadcast showed numerous angles of the play. This play is worth dissecting. First, I thought watching live that it should have been called DPI – Surtain was all over receiver Jayden Reed, and when Reed attempted to make the catch one of his arms was trapped.
As I have previously discussed, a receiver missing an arm is a classic indicator for DPI. However, in this case replay makes clear that Surtain trapped Reeds arm by moving his torso too close to Reed for Reed to function - which is not a foul. Surtains left arm does not make contact with Reed, his body gets between Reeds right arm and his torso / left arm, and Surtain’s right arm makes a swat at the ball. Surtain being so athletic he can get his torso in-between Reeds arms is absolute insanity, and to do so without tripping either player while running full speed verges on the superhuman. But there is nothing there that should have been flagged.
After reviewing the play multiple times, I am honestly not sure if the covering official saw everything and made a legendarily correct call, or if he didn’t see Reeds missing arm and “missed” what would have been a routine but technically incorrect DPI call. Regardless, he got it right.
Green Bay receiver Romeo Doubs and Denver cornerback simultaneously caught a pass in the endzone. The announcers and officials both seemingly agreed that it was a simultaneous possession, and noted that by rule a simultaneous possession goes to the offense (except on a kick).
Rules analyst Gene Steratore made a comment to disagree, noting that Surtain’s feet came down first, and thus he established possession first, and thus should have been awarded the interception. Steratore is probably wrong about the rules, and absolutely wrong on how it should be ruled. The rules clarify that simultaneous possession is determined by mutual control of the ball, rather than mutual possession of the ball. Control is required for possession, but not the inverse, so in this case the officials got the call by the rulebook.
However, more broadly, the point of the rules is to establish fairness, safety, and fun for the game, so its important to think about how officials should enforce a play like that. It is not realistically possible for an official to determine which of two players feet were on the ground or in the air while also determining who first gained control of the ball (or if it was simultaneous).
Honestly it is a huge challenge for officials to determine feet placement relative to control when there is just one player to consider. So to make the game fair, officials need an equally enforceable rule to apply to all situations, and the simultaneous catch rule is a good example of this – it makes the officials only need to determine one element, so it makes it possible to treat both teams fairly. It also means that Surtain was on notice – he probably could have successfully swatted the ball away and Denver would have given up a field goal, but he was willing to take the risk of a simultaneous catch for the possibility of an interception. It was a fair situation to be in, and left him with an interesting choice. Steratore was wrong to try to get cute with the result.
Kareem Jackson Ejection
Kareem Jackson was ejected for a flagrant personal foul with 14:02 left in the game. The officials did not explicitly call it a helmet to helmet hit or targeting. Their identification was probably safe, and still applicable. The tight end still met the definition of a defenseless player, and it was an unnecessarily rough high hit. I would have wanted to eject him as well.
Afterwards, the announcers asked Gene Steratore if previous history would come into play with a decision like this, and Steratore said no. He is absolutely right, with one significant qualification. Previous conduct that is potentially relevant from this contest is absolutely fair game to take into consideration. This was not relevant to Jackson, but there are a number of times where a player gets multiple unnecessary roughness penalties during a game before being ejected for one. That can and always will be an important part of officiating.
The officials called a lot of false starts, and frankly there was some pretty poor judgment shown with these calls. The most egregious was the call against Green Bay center Josh Myers. Distinguishing between false starts and shifts, motion, or non-abrupt movement is very tricky. It is helpful to remember the reason why false starts exist as a penalty – namely to prevent an unfair advantage.
Correspondingly, officials should generally ignore false starts that do not place the defense at a disadvantage. Tackles, tight ends, and wide receivers can gain an enormous advantage by starting early. Guards have some potential to start early. Running backs almost never gain any advantage (unless they are moving forward, in which case it is illegal motion as well). Quarterback false starts should almost never be called because not only is there rarely an advantage, but also because a QB genuinely false starting is likely to be an indication of a potential medical issue than it is an attempt to gain advantage. Centers basically can’t false start – it is an absurd notion that the person holding the ball started moving early. This game both a center and a running back were called for false starts. Both were bad calls.
I like to make these evaluations about the crew as a whole. Most of the time the crew works together, and there is not a lot of difference in quality between different officials. This game was different. The deep three officials made some of the best calls I have seen all season, and had an overall great game. The other four officials were bad. I counted many major blown calls against each team, and a similar number of questionable calls. The spotting of the ball was inconsistent and not particularly confident. Most egregiously, they kept inserting themselves into the game with no real purpose. This was not a highlight reel game from team zebra, which is really too bad because there were some standout individual performances.