Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Did My Brethren In Stripes Make The Right Calls?

The internet has been a buzz with discussions and opinions about the 3 controversial penalties called against our defense that led to New England scoring 13 points.   No doubt they came at critical moments and extended Patriot drives that culminated in our utlimate demise.

Before I examine the penalties in question, let me share a brief summary of my resume as a football official and a synopsis of types of officials' penalties.  Afterward, if you are interested, you can continue reading about where football officials come from and how they get to the NFL. And if you have further interest, I can help you start to become a football official yourself.  We are in need of good young officials.

I am a member of the New Jersey Football Officials Association and, as such, I am approved by the New Jersey Insterscholastic Athletic Association to officiate high football games in the state of New Jersey, which I  have been actively participating in since 1990.  I have been assigned to our state playoffs for the past 20 years, having officiated our state finals 2 of the past 6 years, including a double overtime final last season.
I have been our crew chief for 22 years and take the Referee position which is the official in the white hat.  My chief responsibility is to manage the game and protect the quarterbacks and kickers.  I have also been assigning football officials in Central Jersey for the past 18 years.  Which means that schools give me their schedules and say "Carl, get me good officials".  So I have a pretty good understanding of what causes penalties and, more importantly, why they are called.

Why Penalties Are Called:
The first rule of thumb you learn to incorporate as an official on any level is Advantage/Disadvantage.  Once you get an clear understanding and ability to apply this to the consequences of action, you can be easily accepted by coaches, players, assignors, fellow officials and fans for that matter.  This is the key to success as an official.  Did one players actions cause an unfair advantage and/or place the opponent at an unfair disadvantage within the rules of the game?

"There is holding on every play."  I am sure you have heard that before.  And quite frankly, there isn't.  But when it does occur, did the offensive hold cause the defensive player to be at an unfair disadvantage? Did it impede his progress to the ball carrier?  And is the defensive player attempting to get away from the hold?  The most common penalty for holding that is called is at the point of attack on a running play or a take down on a passing play.  I will see a right tackle hold on a sweep around the left end.  Should I flag that? No, its not at the point of attack.  I will just tell that player to not do that and he will know I am watching for that in the future.

Teams are also coaching their players on how to draw penalties.  Defensive linemen are now attacking an interior lineman's biceps on an extended arm and then holding that arm across their chest with their interior forearm to make it look like holding.  I kid you not.

Some penalties have to be called no matter when or where they are.  These deal with player saftey issues such as grasping the face mask, roughing the passer/kicker/holder/snapper, blocking below the waist, horse collar and personal fouls.  Others are left to the officials judgement as to whether or not they effected the play and caused an unfair advantage.

Before calling any penalty, officials are schooled to see the entire action from start to finish.  If they catch only the end of an action, they are taught not to throw the flag. Hence, "See the entire play."   Each official is responsible for watching certain players prior to and at the snap.  As the play develops they may need to switch responsibilities and, because of this, football officials are assigned as crews.  Thus, they learn how to work as a team and try, as best they can, to get things right.

Please keep in mind, that officials are human too.  Susceptible to mistakes and human frailty.  We are not machines nor computers.  We love the game and try, as best as we can, to not take the game away from the players.   

Classifications of Penalties Called:
The Cadillac Call - a penalty that everyone can view as a clear penalty, no argument on this one
The Judgement Call - can go either way
The Phantom Call - where did that one come from, a late flag can cause this interpretation

As a crew chief, I remind our crew every game during our pregame, that we are looking to call only cadillac calls.  That's it.  Anything else, that is not a safety issue, we pass on.  So now you have a little understanding of where I come from and now lets see if we can read off the same page.

Play # 1 In Question:
2nd Quarter 6:09 on clock, New England ball, 3rd and 6 from their 46 yard line.  Brady throws a pass to Gronkowski running a post pattern from the slot.  Jimmy Wilson steps in front of Gronkowski and knocks down the pass with no contact.  That's what we all saw, yet the Side Judge flags Wilson for a DPI, defensive pass interference. 

How can he call that? The rules in the NFL do not allow any defensive back from undercutting the route of a receiver and impeding his progress to the ball.  At the start of the play, the Side Judge's responsibility is the widest receiver on his side.  If he goes deep, he stays with him.  If he takes a short route and the interior receiver goes deep, then he switches responsiblities with Head Linesman and takes the slot receiver, Gronkowski in this scenario.  This play happens in less then 6 seconds, of which the Side Judge has only 3 seconds to make the read and then refocus on Gronkowski and make the call/no call on the play. 

What he probably saw and what took me 6 replays of the play to finally see was Gronkowski stumbling for two steps immediately after the undercut by Wilson, which gave the impression of creating a disadvantage towards Gronkowski and most certainly influenced the call.

Final analysis:  Judgement Call and the Side Judge will get a film of it to review but I believe he should have passed on this one.

Play # 2 In Question:
3rd Quarter :48 on the clock, New Engalnd ball, 3rd and 5 from our 35 yard line.  Brady backs out of the pocket and forces a throw to Gronkowski in triple coverage on the right side of the field.  A late flag is thrown by the Side Judge for defensive holding against Pattersen on the left side of the formation.

What the Side Judge and I saw, after reviewing the tape, was Pattersen contacting the receiver, Dobson, within five yards of the line of scrimmage with his hands on Dobson's sholders, which is legal.  However, as Pattersen pulls his right arm down and behind his back, Dobson's left sholder drops forward waist high and he falls to the ground on his left side.  This is defensive holding whether it is within 5 yards or not.  You can contact a receiver within 5 yards but you can not grasp him. Brady never looks his way during the play.  And the flag comes in late.

Final Analysis: Phantom Call. Why the flag came in late? I do not know why.  Sometimes you just cannot get the damn thing out of your pocket.  I kid you not.  Some officials tuck them inside their belts in front of them and still cannot find them.  But that flag was way late.

Play # 3 In Question:
4th Quarter 9:09 on the clock, New England ball, 2nd and 7 from our 23 yard line.  Brady drops back to pass and as he shuffles to his left he is stripped of the ball from behind and Vernon, lying on the ground sweeps at the ball with his left arm extended and knocks the ball down the field to our 45 yard line where their big galoot beats our big galoot to recover the ball.  The Line Judge flags Vernon for Illegal Batting of the ball.

Illegal Batting isn't one of your run of the mill penalties that we see called week after week.  I cannot remember even calling it myself.  Basically, the offensive team cannot bat a backwards pass towards their goal line and neither team can bat any grounded loose ball towards their goal.  The defense may bat a grounded kick away from their goal as when they attempt to stop a punt from going into the end zone.

What the Line Judge saw and what I saw immediately was the ball rolling in front of Vernon, who was lying on his belly, with # 61, Offensive Tackle Marcus Cannon, closing in and reaching for the ball with 2 hands. As Cannon falls towards the recovery, Vernon knocks the ball away and towards our goal.  When they announced a flag was thrown, I yelled out "They can't be calling Illegal Batting, not now!!"

Final Analysis: Officials do not incorporate player intent other than Unnecessary Roughness Calls or fighting.  I believe Vernon was just trying to grab the ball, however, since Cannon was about to fall on the ball, his action is viewed as creating an unfair advantage by batting the ball towards his own goal and away from Cannon.  Cadillac Call, even though it may be the rarest of penalties called.

Whether you agree with me or not, I have heard it all from the stands and sidelines in 24 years of officiating and some of them are pretty funny. 

We Need Good Young Officials:
If you have any interest in becoming an official, you can continue reading and I will be willing to help you in this endeavor. My email address is below.

How to become an official:
Start at the high School Level
Must be 18 years of age and out of High School.
Should be in decent shape to start.
Apply through the State Association where you live.
Attend Cadet Training Classes.
Pass a written exam.

In New Jersey, you apply to the NJFOA.org before March of 2014. 
We have 2 cadet training programs;
1 year plan begins classes in May and meets once a week until beginning of December when you take State Exam.
2 year plan begins classes in August and meets once a week during football season only and you take State Exam after your second year.

You begin officiating games immediately on the Pop Warner, Junior High School and Sub Varsity Levels.
You cannot do Varsity Football until you pass the exam.  You get paid to officiate games on all levels.
If you love the game, its a great part time job, but you need to be available to officiate the games.
Sub Varsity and Junior High games start at 4 PM Monday-Friday and Saturday morning at 9 AM
Varsity games start on Friday at 7 PM and Saturday at 1 PM
Pop Warner games start Saturday nights at 6 PM for 2 games and Sundays at 10 AM for 3-5 games

If you start while attending College, you have a great shot at reaching the NFL. If you start just after college you have a good shot and should be able to get to NCAA by 30 years old.

Where NFL officials come from:
After 5 years in NCAA, you can apply to the NFL.  They look for D1 officials first. They review all who apply.

Where NCAA officials come from:
After 5 years or 50 High School Varsity Football games you can apply.  If they need officials and you are sellected you start doing Sub Varsity and Division 3 games.  You work your way up by attending officials camps and getting noticed by assignors for certain leagues.

Where High School Officials come from:
People like you who kept reading. 
This is a great opportunity to earn some extra money and enjoy yourself too.  In New Jersey you will make $60 for a sub varsity and lower game and $85 for a varsity game. You can do about 10-12 games a week if you want to.
I have a young man on my crew as an alternate who is a sophomore at Rutgers.  He would have to flip alot of burgers to make $60 in an hour and a half.  He will have his 50 Varsity games under his belt by the time he graduates Colllege.  The following year he will apply to the NCAA and minimum $200 a game at low level plus his high school and pop warner games.  By 35 he will be doing Division 1 making $1,000 a game minimum plus the others. By 45 he will be in the NFL starting at $3,000 per game but you cannot do any other games once you get to the NFL.  NFL veteran officials make $10,000+ per game.  NCAA and NFL officials must make a decent living elsewhere.  They do not want this as your main source of income.

Again, you should love the game.  This is not a good job to be just a fan as you do have the worst seat in the house since you have to watch your zone only during the play.  But it is very exciting on Friday nights under the lights with 3000 people booing you!           

Carl Leone
Dolfan since 12/25/1971
Carldleone@aol.com

7 comments:

  1. One of the most informative, factually interesting, unbiased, and well written articles I have read as far as "posts on the web" go.
    Question: If your name is Carl, are you also "Bitchin' Dave?" or did you just post this on "Bitchin' Dave's" site?
    What gives?
    Just curious who's who.
    BTW, 47 yr. old lifelong die -hard Phins Fan here, based in Ct.
    There are and I have quite a few lifelong die-hard Phins fans here in Ct. for some strange reason.
    Keep up the good work.
    Great article, although I am really surprised that you saw the "batting the ball forward" call as a "Cadillac Call," Dolphins fan or not. Looks lie a really tough call to make, and when in doubt, and unless very obvious, it should maybe not be called....kind of like "tie goes to the runner" in baseball, no? Looked to me like he was trying to recover the ball and pull it in, but it was inadvertently pushed forward by the back of his hand. Who wouldn't be trying to recover that ball by pulling it in. If he was on his feet running towards it, and had his palm forward, and pushed it forward rather than trying to grab it--that to me is "batting forward." The only reason it hit the back of his hand was because he couldn't quite reach it. That's just how I and a lot of other people saw it, and it seemed too vague to make the call. I think the call was made b/c the ball inadvertently went forward, not b/c they saw him intentionally bat it forward.
    Why is a call of this magnitude not reviewable??

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  2. Hi Steve

    Thanks for the compliments. I really appreciate it.

    "Bitchin' Dave" is Dave Kennedy, who runs the site and writes very well too. I answered a blog he posted for writers is how I got involved.

    Its a Cadillac Call because it is "clearly a good call" if you happen to know the rule. Unfortunately, it just doesn't happen that often to be recognizable to the average fan. We, as officials, review these situations at our weekly meetings and I also read the case book through out each season on my private throne. The case book goes through the rule book by using actual plays that could occur and then gives the rulings to each possible outcome. These are mind ticklers we use so that when something does happen on the field, in an instance, we can react correctly.

    I agree that Vernon was probably trying to recover the ball, but officials don't judge intent, just consequences of action. It is just such a rare circumstance that may come along once in a lifetime of a covering official. It is a shame it happened during one of our games and against us. Do you remember the "Holy Roller"? That was continuous mini-batting at its best and probably the source of the rule. You can be assured that coaches on all levels of play wiill be yelling for anything close to being batting in future games.

    It is not reviewable because penalties are not reviewable. If they were, these games would take 5 hours to finish.

    BTW...I used to umpire baseball as well and there are no ties. When In Doubt, Bang 'Em OUT!

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  3. Hi Carl do you know how calls stats are tracked both called and missed. My thinking is every player on every play should be reviewed and both call and non call stats should be tracked and tied to the responsible ref. You should see a balance in calling or not calling. Or in other words if you want to throw flags in judgment calls. You should be flagging the same penalty judgments for both teams. If a ref is showing a high number of called penalties for one team vs non called for the other team human error or not he is causing a unbalanced game and should be removed. How is accountability tracked?

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    1. Secondly can a team request to not have a crew. Could the Dolphins request to not have the refs from the Patriots game call any more games for them?

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    2. Good questions gofins4sb.

      Officials on the NFL level are reviewed weekly by the League office of officiating. Every play is reviewed and each official is graded on positioning, calls, mechanics and presence.

      Each crew chief receives film as well as a scouting report on what to expect from the teams in their next game. They have a midweek conference call meeting and arrive at the game city by Saturday morning. From the time they get on that plane' no alcohol is allowed. They have a crew meeting Saturday evening to review tape from their previous game sent from the league office, both good and bad calls. They review the scouting report and discuss how they will handle certain situations if they arrise in the game.

      They receive a personal report weekly about their performance. If the don't score high enough at the end of the season, they are replaced.

      During the game, the write down their own penalties on a card and have to hand that in afterward. The Back Judge writes down the Referees penalties since he has to report the foul to the TV and wouldn't have time to write it down.

      You are correct about attempting to call it "Both Ways". It is Pass Interference or Defensive Holding for one team, it better be the same for the other team. Plus if you let something go earlier in the game, like hand checking between receiver and defensive backs, you better not start calling it in the fourth quarter. And if your teamate on the opposite side is calling something than you need to start calling it too. BTW...the sideline officials switch sides at halftime.

      Some crews, like mine, are known to let them play. That means we only call the obvious cadillac calls. Some crews allow more than others and some games dictate what you need to call. Most division games are called loosely. If there is bad blood between teams, they will tighten up on contact calls.

      As far as evening up the amount of penalties called. That is not our job, that's the coach's job. Well coached teams don't have as many penalties as poorly coached teams do. Shula's teams were always the least penalized teams in the league. His teams knew the rules and were very disciplined.

      Each official and crew are graded weekly by the league office. If they want playoff games or the Super Bowl, they better do a good job.

      Teams shouldn't be seeing the same crew more than twice a season. There are 16 crews and some alternates. Some weeks have teams and crews both on byes. They make every effort that the crews don't see the same teams more than twice and that is rare. Teams cannot request who does or does not officiate their games. They can complain but they have no right to blackball an official or crew. The league may make an effort to have certain personalities avoid eachother, but that would an exception. Teams can request crews do their games too and the same rules would apply.

      They also make every effort that each crew gets at least 3 night games if not 4.
      They try to not play favorites.

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  4. Hi Carl do you know how calls stats are tracked both called and missed. My thinking is every player on every play should be reviewed and both call and non call stats should be tracked and tied to the responsible ref. You should see a balance in calling or not calling. Or in other words if you want to throw flags in judgment calls. You should be flagging the same penalty judgments for both teams. If a ref is showing a high number of called penalties for one team vs non called for the other team human error or not he is causing a unbalanced game and should be removed. How is accountability tracked?

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  5. Hi Carl
    I may disagree with your conclusion but the reasoning is sound.
    I have a followup question about the batted ball play. Why was the penalty enforced from the previous spot of the down instead of from the spot of the foul or the spot of the fumble even? If this had been a fumbled punt where would the penalty been taken from? It was a killer penalty on what should have been a positive play for the Dolphins.

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