This game had 16 total penalties accepted, 8 for each team. But the penalties were only a small part of the officiating performance when the Denver Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns and their vaunted defense.
Courtland Sutton Offensive Holding
The announcers were baffled by a call of offensive holding against Courtland Sutton, and for very good reason. He did not do anything close to holding on the play. However, it is easy to see that the officials called the wrong player for the right penalty. Sutton did not engage in any block further than five yards down field from the line of scrimmage, and the penalty was enforced from the spot of the foul – which was fifteen yards down field from the line of scrimmage. A look at that area shows Lil’Jordan Humphrey very obviously held Cleveland DB Greg Newsome.
Getting the number of a player on a penalty wrong is really annoying in the heat of the game, but such a low priority that we should not worry about it. Most of the time when a penalty seems mis-called, I will go back and watch every player through the play to figure out who they meant to call it on, and every time I succeed. This one was real easy because of the enforcement spot. It was an unfortunate situation, and unfair to Sutton, but perfectly fair to the Broncos.
At the end of the game Lloyd Cushenbery was called for one of the penalties that almost never happens – a snap infraction. Snap infractions are where the center fails to snap the ball in a single smooth motion. While there may be some trick play history to the penalty I am unaware of, in today's game it mostly protects players from getting hurt diving into a bungled snap in inclement weather. When I see it in my games, the biggest thing is to alert the medical staff (unless weather is real rough) to possible cognitive concerns with the snapper and to possibly take a heat timeout (depending on weather, the broadcast desires, and the context of the game). There are a lot of things in football that can be both wrong and concerning, which is one of the reasons why officials are both useful and necessary. On this play there was little to be gained from taking those measures as the game was functionally over.
Play of the Game
Fabian Moreau had my favorite heads up play of the season. With about a minute left in the third quarter, he came in to help finish a tackle on a short pass to David Njoku. Njoku somewhat surprisingly went down right as Moreau was about to hit him, and Moreau responded by pulling his torso up and twisting away – turning what would have been a hard tackle into almost no contact on almost no notice. He might have been close enough that he could have gotten away with the hit without being called for a personal foul, but he made a solid move to advance player safety. Officials notice and appreciate these kinds of moves.
Garett Bolles Revisited
I wrote earlier this year about Bolles play and how he has a strong tendency to flail with his arms, keeping contact out and away from his body. This messes with officials keys for holding, and has gotten him numerous holds throughout his career when his technique did not meet the criteria for a hold. His play has been very different through most of this year. He is keeping his arms closer to his body, and I have seen a huge difference in his play.
Last year (and in the first couple of games this year), it was not uncommon for me to see ten or fifteen plays a game where officials might see a holding key. Its been weeks since I have seen those. His penalties are way down, but its not just the officials are calling him less. He is playing very different football, and from an officiating perspective, its much more acceptable.
One of the most underrated parts of coaching is pregame conferences with the officials. Coaches have a lot of time to set things up to go their way during these conferences. Trick plays, obscure rules, things you saw from scouting that have you worried, whatever it is, we appreciate honest conversations. The number of times I have stopped coaches from drawing fouls for insane trick play ideas that violate important but obscure rules is numerous. But the most important thing is that honesty in these conferences can give the officials a sense of the temperament of the game and help us keep the game safe, fair, and fun for all.
I have a degree of confidence from watching the first quarter that there were two different concerns raised about this game: Conduct after the play and the possibility of escalation, and pre-snap complaints about formations, motion, offsides and false starts. The officials were extremely zealous in patrolling these elements of the game from the first kickoff. It could have been a choice that they made from their film study of the teams, but this had a game day feel to it. Regardless of cause, the officials focused very intently on these elements of the game.
Big Hits and Flags
Baron Browning was flagged for roughing the passer on a big hit that knocked Dorian Thompson-Robinson out of the game. The announcers disagreed with the call, but they are wrong. It was a forcible hit to the head / neck area of a defenseless player. Throwing that flag every time is easy and correct. They are right that Browning did not hit helmet to helmet, but that is a far harder standard to consistently police than the head and neck area, and it does not promote player safety. This rule is far easier for players to understand and officials to enforce, so it was good to see it called correctly.
In a similar fashion, not flagging PJ Locke for the hit that knocked Amari Cooper out of the game was a good call. His hit was very hard, but it was clear watching it live that he hit Cooper below the head / neck area. This was violent, clean football, consistent with the standards. Both plays were solid crew judgment.
The officiating was very mixed this game. Excluding spots, I charted two bad calls and six questionable judgement calls. These calls had a very strong pro-Denver bias, as both bad calls benefited the Broncos, as well as five of the six questionable calls. However, the officials judgment of spotting the ball had three huge misses, and all of those benefited Cleveland. A challenge corrected one of those mistakes, but I hated those calls. The officials were probably my favorite of the year for preventative officiating, and did a great job with whistling forward progress. I thought that the deep wings let us down a bit, but that this game was fundamentally fine. There were clear areas of weakness, but I would not dread seeing that Denver is going to see these officials again later in the year.