This week saw a very clear officiating philosophy. The low stakes contest led to low impact officiating.
Players Not In Formation
The officiating crew clearly came into this game determined to not call penalties they did not have to. One of the results of this was that they let a lot of really bad formations go. On probably half of the passing downs in the game, Denver Broncos LT Garett Bolles was too far back and not validly on the line of scrimmage. In similar situations, Los Angeles Chargers RT Trey Pipkins was also not on the line of scrimmage. Its tough to call these penalties, because any one play is unlikely to significantly impact the game. But it gave both offenses advantages. The officials also were extremely forgiving of wide receivers not in formation. The chargers had one play where a receiver signaled he was off the line of scrimmage, and then he looks at the receiver next to him who is on the line and a step behind him, and then shrugs and went with it. I got the impression that the officials were hoping that letting things go would increase their chances of plum post-season assignments (it normally does), but they let a lot of sloppy stuff go in this game.
After the offsides against Quinn Meinerz two weeks ago, I started tracking offsides that goes uncalled (both of the technical variety and of the Kansas City it absolutely needs to get called massive problem variety). This week there were three offsides obviously worse than the Meinerz call that went uncalled. I did not think any of these were a problem.
The announcers commented after an early hit by Derwin James something to the effect of “that’s a big hit, but I thought the NFL was trying to take those hits out of the game.” The announcers were clearly correct. James had one egregious personal foul go uncalled for a hit to the head and neck area of a defenseless receiver, and two others that were questionable. The officials were clearly trying to not throw flags in this game, but I think this worked against them when James came out so out of control. He calmed down significantly as the game went on, but I was surprised to see that level of passivity from the officials in the face of violent play.
Kick Catch Interference
One recurring theme over the last few weeks has been a reluctance by officials to call catch interference on fair catches. There have been occasions of borderline interference over the past few weeks that have not drawn flags but that clearly would by the letter of the rule. The NFL is taking a very forgiving stance with this one, allowing quite a bit of contact. It has not yet significantly impacted any Broncos game, but shows a divergence from the rules as written that has been apparent.
Both quarterbacks in this game had several times where they could have been called for intentional grounding. None were incredibly egregious, but there were three plays where I would have ruled both that no receiver was in the area, and that the quarterback was in the pocket. This is a further example of the officials desperately not wanting to call penalties in the game.
Adventures in Review
There is no way to get replay review perfect. The most important constraint on replay is game time. Reviews need to be quick, impactful, and rare enough so that games end in a timely fashion. The Broncos were major beneficiaries of one of the unfair elements of replay review in this game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Mid way through the third quarter, on second down Jarrett Stidham completed a pass to Brandon Johnson short of the sticks. Johnson was down with a little bit more than two yards to go, but because of a bad spot, he was marked down as only a yard shy. The spot of the ball ins not reviewable except in the context of the line to gain, and in this case both spots were clearly shy of the line to gain. So no replay was possible.
Denver, faced with the fairly easy task of gaining one yard on two plays, tried on third down and failed, and then tried again on fourth and the successful conversion extended their drive. Its easy to say that Denver got lucky in this play, or that the officials were bad and should get better, but that’s not really a solution. Replay has been the go to solution, but it was not available. Especially in light of the rise of the tush push, its becoming obvious that the impact of 3rd and 1 vs 3rd and 2 is a huge deal. But officials cannot succeed in moving the game along if replay review can happen constantly. This is an example of where I am not sure how replay could help make the game better.
The end of the Cowboys and Lions game has a great and sharp contrast, where it is clear that replay needs to get better to improve play. First, the umpire threw a solid flag for tripping. Unfortunately, he assessed the penalty against the wrong team. This call was brutal, but its surprisingly easy to have happen for an official. We process an enormous amount of conduct in the course of a game, and it is far easier to see a foul than it is to follow it up to connect the conduct to a player or sometimes a team. Cases like this tripping call, where both legs are clothed in white make it even harder. Replay could get better at correcting calls like this – quickly having the booth official radio down who they think the offender is on a penalty. This might not add substantial time to administrating penalties, but could fix some situations. Some referees are much better than others at using their replay reviewers, and this is an area I hope to see officials continue to improve upon.
The officials, led by Referee Craig Wrolstad, worked really hard to stay out of the game. This was not a clean game, and there was lots of sloppy football from both teams. The officials decided to let it mostly go. I marked them with two bad calls, one of which benefited each team, and four questionable calls, three of which benefited the Chargers. The spotting of the ball was mostly great, the officials had solid calls on forward progress. There was one replay that overturned a call on the field, but I did not mind the call on the field as the play looked like the receiver was out of bounds from the perspective of the covering official (replay showed a better angle and correctly overturned the call on the field). All things considered, this was a forgettable performance but that is not a bad thing.