The NFL’s Rulebook Problem

Football has always been a complex sport with regards to schemes, strategies, terminology and mostly, the rules. When I started watching sports, some 20 years ago, Hockey and Basketball were the first one’s that piqued my interest. They were simple in terms of terminology, penalty calls and the basis of the sport; take a black or orange object and put it into a net. That’s as easy and as simplistic as you can get.

Football comes along and it takes a shitload of time to get used to. My buddy Nathanial often says that he cannot get into football because of how complex the rules are and the that there are far too many of them. He doesn’t even acknowledge the sport because of the subjectivity of the rules and the actual gameplay. It actually makes it hard for casual fans of the sport to stay engaged in my opinion but that is not here nor there for that discussion. If you take it a step further, and ask someone (an NFL referee) to explain every rule that exists in the rulebook, you be hard-pressed to not get different interpretations of the same rule. More on that in a bit.

And as the season’s have come and we get more controversial calls (Bert Emmanuel Rule, Tuck Rule, Calvin Johnson Rule etc.), there are more interpretations, more offseason rule changes by the competition committee and more debate the following day about the calls (or non-calls) that transpire.
The Cowboys-Packers matchup was easily the most anticipated game of the weekend and rightly so. You have the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers against the perceived perennial choker in Tony Romo. The preamble of the contest made many, including me, giddy. Dubbed the Ice Bowl II, as a re-match of the sub-zero temperature Cowboys-Packers game of 1967 in Lambeau Field for the NFL Championship, this game was hyped even more than Tom Brady versus Joe Flacco, or Peyton Manning facing his old team, the Indianapolis Colts.  When it comes to the NFL, it’s all about the narratives…NARRATIVES, NARRATIVES, NARRATIVES. The NFL will do anything to create a storyline. See New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the press box celebrating with Jerry Jones after the Cowboys’ wildcard win? Don’t tell me the NFL doesn’t love that. Dubbing a game the Ice Bowl II when the temperature pales in comparison to the original contest nearly 50 years ago and it not even being a championship game? Oh the narratives!

So when Dez Bryant, seemingly caught a near 45-yard pass on a fourth down play, over Sam Shields, high-pointing the ball and jumping out of Lambeau field, only for the referees to call it an incomplete pass, you know the NFL is loving this as well. No, I am absolutely not a conspiracy theorist, but the NFL isn’t hating the fact that talk radio, podcasts and all other media forms will be discussing about “completing the process”, “a football move”, “a move common to the game” and any other subjective interpretation that NFL referees use to reverse a call, all throughout the week. The ambiguity of NFL officiating and the rule book sucks for fans and even more for teams that are affected by questionable calls, but the NFL isn’t hating this at the same time. And we’re all sucked in, so much so, that I’m writing about this instead of breaking down the game and even worse, defending the Cowboys. Ugh.

Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk had a great piece last week about the NFL having a problem. He alludes to the fact that not only is the rule book overly complex, but the officiating is kinda bad as well. We all know about last week’s pass interference and subsequent non-pass interference call against Anthony Hitchens on Brandon Pettigrew. Hitchens actually fouled Pettigrew before that pass interference play, by tugging on the tight end’s jersey, which should have produced an illegal contact play for five yards. But I digress… Hitchens was called for a 15-yard penalty which would’ve led to an automatic first down. And by called, I literally mean called as in the head reference announced the penalty only for him to be overruled by the head linesman. Mike Pereira couldn’t believe that the call was overturned, proving again that the ex-head of officiating and the current officials are nowhere near the same page. I echoed Bill Simmons saying on one of his recent podcasts that he had never seen a flag thrown, a penalty announced only for it to be rescinded. It was ridiculous, but again, what does the NFL love? Those Narratives!

Back to the subjective nature of the NFL rule book. Pass interference calls are tough, but generally, like a foul in soccer, or an obstruction penalty in hockey, they are generally the same. But rules regarding catching the ball? The so-called football move is still completely up to the discretion of the referees and to this day, I do not know what it entails. In Dez Bryant’s case, it very well looks like he is making a move towards the end zone but as per Mike Pereira mentioned during the broadcast, it isn’t a move common to the game. My take is that, this rule needs to be completely re-done because of its subjective nature and the fact that it could be interpreted too many different ways. Did Gene Steratore apply the rule to the letter of the law? Most likely he did and as Vice President of Officiating, Dean Blandino tweeted,

But that play, as did the Calvin Johnson non-touchdown in the 2010 season opener (can’t believe that play is already four years ago) shows the depth to which proving a catch is in fact a catch is extremely difficult.

In the Colts-Broncos game, Josh Cribbs was fielding a punt. He caught the ball and was nearly simultaneously was drilled by Omar Bolden, causing the ball to be jarred. The call on the field was a fumble, as the ball was loose and eventually recovered by a Broncos player. Mike Carey, who was a veteran official, retiring last season, who now works for CBS  and chimes in on all penalties and official reviews, believed that the call would stand because similar to a catch from a pass from the line of scrimmage, the punt returner who catches the ball must maintain possession through the process of the catch, just like Dez Bryant should’ve right? He was wrong (based off the ruling), as he most of the time always is. The head referee claimed that Cribbs was downed by contact. At this point, I’m about ready to give up because I have no clue what is or is not a fumble, catch, penalty or incomplete pass. And while Luck threw an interception on the ensuing drive, that play would’ve given the Broncos terrific field position, had the fumble call stood as called.

Here’s Carey’s tweet after the game.

It’s not just catches that are infuriating people with the NFL rule book. Last week during Wild Card weekend, Cam Newton threw what seemed like an obvious intentional grounding penalty while under duress from the vaunted Arizona Cardinals blitz packages. It ‘fit’ the criteria. He was not outside the pocket, the throw barely reached the line of scrimmage and there was not a single receiver within the area. Somehow, the referee’s did not call it, claiming that a receiver (it was actually an offensive lineman) was close enough for it to be an incomplete pass. Intentional grounding is probably the most discretional call there is considering there isn’t a marker for where the quarterback’s pocket is. It’s a different imaginary box for every single referee and completely subjective. Still, the call was so egregious, one has to wonder what the refs were looking at there.

The worst part of all of this, Mike Carey, Mike Pereira and all of these former lead officials, provide nothing to the broadcast. They undermine their former colleagues and make calls even more subjective. Carey as I mentioned, is constantly wrong and it gives the appearances that the rules are not properly being interpreted by the officials (or Carey is just really bad at his job). And while Pereira bats a higher percentage than his CBS rival, he shows how incompetent those referees can be. NFL officials have no clue what is going on and the NFL rule book has become an every weekend algebra problem. It’s time to make some changes.


One comment

  1. mrick36

    I keep hearing people talk about Dez Bryant not fulfilling the third element of a completed pass, which is that “football move”. But that had nothing to do with the overturn of the call. Gene Steratore’s explanation after review was that “The receiver did not maintain possession of the football during the process of the catch….” This is a reversal based on Item 1 of the rule, not based on the non-fulfillment of the third element of the rule. The problem with this reversal is that the catch was already made and he was in the stage of fulfilling the third element, which was advancement of the ball from the 4 yard line to the half yard line. The third element, the “football move”, IS NOT part of the catch because it is required to occur AFTER the catch is made. But again, this was not part of the reversal decision. He claims that Bryant went “to the ground in the ground in the act of catching a pass.” And that is the requirement in order to consider Item 1. The act of catching the pass is the first two elements of the rule and was over when his right foot comes to the ground. Item 1 does not state that the receiver has to maintain possession when falling to the ground AFTER the catch is made. It states “in the act of catching a pass”, and that act had ended when Bryant’s right foot touched the ground, just before he tripped over Shields.

    Listen to Steratore’s explanation after the review:

    Plus, there are many plays throughout the history of the NFL where the receiver never makes any sort of move or even has time for it, yet the call is still a completion. You see it every single game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s