Defenseless Players and Unnecessary Roughness
I have written about the concept of defenseless players a few times this year. It is absolutely essential for understanding how hits are judged in the NFL for unnecessary roughness. Any hit to the head or neck area (and this is going to be judged to include the shoulders, upper back, and upper chest) of a defenseless player should draw a flag.
The trick is that defenseless player is a term of art – it doesn’t mean what the common English words imply. It stands in for any situation where a players primary focus is on tasks other than their opponents, or their ability to defend themselves is compromised. This includes: any player (of either team) attempting to catch, kick, or pass the ball or in the immediate aftermath of those actions, any player in a passing position, any player who has given themselves up or stopped making football actions, (very commonly this is linemen after a pass has been thrown), long snappers immediately after the snap on field goals, any one who should not expect an opponent to be able to hit them from the direction the opponent hits them, any player on the ground, and any ball carrier who is in the arms of a defender tackling them.
The broadcasters moaned about two different hard hits in this game, but they were missing the key element of defenselessness for both of them. The first was when Alex Singleton hit John Metchie very hard and in the neck area. There was a penalty on the play for an illegal block, but the announcers were convinced the penalty was on Singleton and that he should have been flagged. The officials got this one right and Singleton should not have been flagged. Metchie had established himself as a runner, and his ability to defend himself was not compromised, so he had no expanded protection. If Singleton had initiated a helmet to helmet hit, it would have been a penalty, but against a runner who had the ability to defend himself, the extra protection does not apply and the officials made a good call.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Russell Wilson was hit in the neck area by Jimmie Ward while sliding. As soon as he initiates a slide, he has given himself up and receives defenseless player protections. This hit was very quickly after Wilson gave himself up, but it was absolutely after he had done so. Because he had started his slide, he qualifies for extra protection, and the officials correctly flagged Ward for a personal foul.
Gene Steratore opined after a potential Samaje Perrine fumble was ruled to not be a fumble because of forward progress that he felt the officials marked forward progress too quickly. I disagree. I like quick calls for forward progress as a way to improve safety by some measure while still keeping the physicality in football.
However, the broadcast was also weakened by a systemic flaw with the approach they take with Steratore. He is not on site at any game, and provides commentary on any play that gets tagged by production. This means he does not see most of the plays that do not get tagged. If officials are going to be fair, its important that they be consistent – ideally across the league but certainly they should set a consistent standard within a game. Steratore probably was unaware that Referee Sean Smith and his crew were consistently zealous about blowing forward progress quickly throughout this game. In the context of consistency, it was even more correct that they blew the Perrine play dead when they did.
Houston was called for illegal formation twice. One time was so unbelievably clear there was no choice but to call it. The other was strange, and probably a bad call, though Houston did an extremely bad job with getting into formation properly. Both the Browning offsides and the Tunsil false start were calls that I disagreed with. Put that all together and the common theme was that the officials were hyper active on pre-snap stuff where they probably could have found a better way to get the game going the way they wanted. Pre-snap penalties are easy for officials to call, but these penalties do not impact safety and often do not impact fairness. These were not smoothly handled.
There were two big pass interference situations in this came. The first was a deep throw to Marvin Mims. I disliked the no-call. Stingley did not play the ball or look back at all, he lunged with his hands and connected with Mims shoulder before the ball arrived, causing it to dip. That squarely meets both the criteria for defensive pass interference and the indicators we look for. With their position on the field of play, the back judge should have had a good view of the interference as well.
Later in the game defensive pass interference was called against Jalen Pitre on a long Sutton catch. This play was a mess. Pitre clearly arm bars Suttons left arm, a classic defensive pass interference. Sutton responds by pushing Pitre away. This push away is classic offensive pass interference. Both flags would have been justified independently of each other, though that result is absolutely crazy. It does not advance fairness in the game to award either team a penalty there, and offsetting penalties is a mess. While probably the best outcome, throwing the defensive pass interference was not a good outcome. Fortunately Sutton caught the ball and made most of the officiating irrelevant to this play.
Slow Penalty Flags
Several readers have commented on late penalty flags over the past few weeks so I wanted to discuss a few reasons for these. The first reason a flag might come in late is if the penalty has components that multiple officials need to judge. Illegal touching and Intentional Grounding are good examples where normally it takes several officials to fully understand the situation and get a good call. A late flag will result from the need to discuss the play. However, the most common reason is far more mundane.
In the NFL, the replay booth always assists in placing penalty flags at the correct location. As a result of this, officials have no particular need to throw their flag immediately. While we want to flag quickly because it helps sell the penalty, it is far better for us to wait and throw it later if we believe that there is something better to do with our time. If there are other parts of the play that still deserve our intense focus, its good to take time to get those right, and let the flag come in late. The result sometimes looks like a flag is coming in after seeing the result of the play, but that should never be the intent. Instead, its just a consequence of leveraging technology to officiate better.
I noted five bad calls in this game along with five questionable calls. Of the bad calls, four benefited Houston (though two were bad spots that did not massively benefit Houston). Denver benefited from four of the questionable calls. There were ten accepted penalties, eight against Houston and two against Denver. The spotting of the ball was probably the worst I have seen all year except in high leverage situations near the line to gain, where they consistently performed well.
As mentioned above, I disliked their pre-snap judgments. One of my favorite easy calls of the year was when umpire Bryan Neale pulled CJ Stroud for a concussion evaluation. This was obviously the right call to make and he did it well. . I was a big fan of their whistling forward progress. All things considered, while the officiating had some real weaknesses, I would not dread seeing the Sean Smith crew assigned to further Broncos games, even though I think they have some areas to improve.