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After Further Review: Denver Broncos Officiating Review for Week 15

Breaking down the changing rules and the officiating calls from the brutal Week 15 Denver Broncos loss to the Detroit Lions.

The Detroit Lions took on the Denver Broncos during week 15 of 2023 NFL season Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The second most brutal loss of the season for the Denver Broncos featured some excellent highs, but mostly embarrassing lows from the officials. The officiating added quite a bit to a bad night for Denver against the Detroit Lions.

Third Quarter Sequence

The most notable sequence of the game was a goal to go series that saw Denver marked at less than the 1 yard line on two consecutive plays. Gene Steratore disliked the call on 2nd down, and thought replay showed McLaughlin scored, but thought the spot was good on third down that had Javonte Williams short of the line to gain. I disagree with both observations. I thought the McLaughlin ruling was close, but that the Williams ruling was egregiously bad. After looking at replay of the Williams ruling, I honestly do not see how anyone could consider him down before he broke the plane of the endzone. I was surprised to see Payton not challenge either, especially the third down play.

On fourth down, Quinn Meinerz was penalized for offsides. This was an extremely tacky call. No part of his body touching the ground was offsides, and officials used to always let helmets go for both sides of the ball. The league has made a mid-season point of emphasis this year on offsides on short plays, changing the norm. But this was bad judgement and quite unusual. It is extremely difficult for players to be certain that their heads are not over the neutral zone, and to set a new standard midseason for something that is only going to be extremely sporadically enforced is all grievously mistaken. If the league wants to decrease the effectiveness of short yardage dives, they need to do so without asking officials to officiate inconsistent with their duties to fairness.

Mailbag: Late Flags

I was asked a couple of weeks ago about why flags sometimes come out very late after a play, or way later than the spot of the actual foul and did not have space to reply at the time. The reason for this is simple priorities. The booth replay officials give the enforcement spot for every penalty in the NFL, so there is no reason why the officials on the field need to accurately throw their flags. This has changed dramatically over the last 10 years – it used to be essential to get the flag throw correct, and like most officials I used to spend hours in the preseason drilling on my throw accuracy.

Now, there is no need to get it right. Because of this, officials also frequently take the view that there is no need to be timely with their flags. Having seen the infraction, they can continue officiating the play and wait for a convenient break in the action to throw their flag, especially if there are critical moments they might need to have increased focus on. The result is that sometimes flags come out a good deal later than they used to, but it is all just a part of focusing on getting the play right and taking full advantage of the tools available to officials. For what its worth, penalties simultaneous with the snap should be thrown immediately.

Personal Fouls for High Hits

During his suspension for unnecessary roughness, Kareem Jackson has shared his frustration at inconsistency with league rules on high hits. This is a complicated topic. First, there are many officials who do not really like the evolving emphasis towards higher safety in football. Probably the most vocal opponent of this approach is former head of NFL officiating Dean Blandino. Getting consistency among officials to a subjective standard takes time, and frankly some officials will need to be forced out when their conception of the game does not match modernized rules. Additionally, there is a lot of misconception among fans about different standards. This can be illustrated in two big hits that the Broncos offense took against Detroit.

The first of these has been ridiculed by, among others, Kareem Jackson. It was a hit that Brian Branch delivered to Adam Trautman near the end of the first quarter. Trautman was attempting to catch the ball when Branch hit him very hard, connecting with his helmet to the head and neck area (I think to the shoulder). No penalty was called. This was a blown call. By the standards used in the NFL, this was a clear personal foul. There is an official responsible for watching each skill position player on each play, so this getting missed is surprising. But this conduct clearly violated the standard, and either the officials missed it and screwed up, or their judgment was flawed to think that it did not rise to the level of a foul.

Much later in the game, Jerry Jeudy was hit very hard by safety Ifeatu Melifonwu. This hit was almost head on, and Melifonwu led with his helmet. Here he appears to make contact with Jeudy in the shoulder, with contact continuing into his helmet. This was a savage hit, and Jeudy left the game to be evaluated for a concussion afterwards. However, under the current rules, it was perfectly legal. Unlike the earlier call, Jeudy had clearly established himself as a runner and had the full ability to defend himself. As such, the hit needed to be not only to the head / neck area (which both hits were) but a direct helmet to helmet hit. Thus the no-call was good officiating.

This seeming lack of logic and consistency in penalty enforcement can be frustrating, and its made worse by the existence of blown calls. I do not think that Roger Goodell has communicated the issue well, particularly to Kareem Jackson. But while there are flaws in the system, the increased emphasis on safety is one that will significantly improve football for the participants in the long term, and is something we need to keep working towards.

Evolution of Blocking Fouls

Over the last five years, the NFL has decided to stop enforcing illegal block in the back. It used to be one of the more common fouls, called nearly two hundred times per season. Despite the season adding an extra game, each year fewer and fewer of these blocks are called as fouls. The league is on pace to call fewer than 40 of these fouls this season, down 80% over the last five years. I find this a bit frustrating. The rule is clear, and presumably the rule exists for both fairness and safety. But the NFL does not want it called. There were two obvious uncalled illegal blocks in the back in this game, one by each team. There have been many uncalled illegal blocks in the back in Denver games, and I have mostly just noted them without comment. At some point, if the NFL really wants to stop enforcing this rule, they should just remove it. The conduct is happening at the same rate as when there were hundreds flagged in a season. This is a place where I believe clarity would significantly improve the game.

Official Evaluation

The officiating by John Hussey and his crew was brutal. There were five bad calls, all of which benefitted Detroit, and eight questionable calls, five of which benefitted Detroit. Not only were there many bad calls, but they were mostly highly impactful calls. The uncalled illegal blindside block in the second quarter on third down set up Detroit's first touchdown. The uncalled personal foul for a high hit to a defenseless receiver on third down stalled out a Denver drive in the first quarter at midfield that should have continued.

The bad and questionable calls on the goal line directly lost Denver 4 points in the third quarter. Probably the worst uncalled holding of the year facilitated a 13 yard run for Detroit in the 4th quarter – they scored on the next play. The annoying part of the brutal officiating is that it was almost all due to the short wings. Their spots were consistently bad, and they missed numerous big calls detailed above. The deep wings called a great game, with consistently good judgement on pass interference calls and reacting quickly after the play. This deep wing crew was probably my favorite deep set of officials of the season, and I wish I could have enjoyed their excellent night more.