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Two rule clarifications regarding plays from last night's game

Well, that was an adventure! I trust everyone's heart rates and blood pressure have returned to normal since yesterday early evening?

Officiating is always a subject of debate and controversy in the NFL, and last night's game was no exception. But while fans will adeptly pick out incorrect calls in virtually every game, on occasion some of the debate includes a bit of confusion about exactly what NFL rules call for in a given situation. This can lead a correct call looking bad and vice versa. In last night's contest, there were two plays in which the BTB community in general perceived a call going the wrong way - with the discussion appearing to be missing some bits of the corresponding rules for the situations.

The following discusses each, in the hopes of straightening out the record on each rule for the sake of the plays from this past game and similar plays going forward. I hope this is at least a little helpful!

Intentional Grounding

With 10:24 left in the 4th quarter, Dallas up 20 to 14 but with New England with a first down at midfield, Patriot Quarterback Mac Jones faked a handoff out of the shotgun and dropped back to pass (click here to watch the play). Jones did not have long to survey the field before pressure off the edge from a blitzing Jayron Kearse forced him to pull the trigger early and rush a throw. The resulting wobbly pass fluttered 7 or so yards downfield before dropping harmlessly to the turf - with nary a Patriot receiver anywhere in frame of the television broadcast.

The throw did not travel in the vicinity of a receiver, making it textbook Intentional Grounding, yes? Not so fast! Courtesy of Item 2 of the section on Intentional Grounding in the NFL Rulebook (emphasis mine):

Physical Contact. Intentional grounding should not be called if:
1) the passer initiates his passing motion toward an eligible receiver and then is significantly affected by physical contact from a defensive player that causes the pass to land in an area that is not in the direction and vicinity of an eligible receiver; or
2) the passer is out of the pocket, and his passing motion is significantly affected by physical contact from a defensive player that causes the ball to land short of the line of scrimmage.

This rule operates in concert with Item 1 of the segment on Forward Pass (again, emphasis mine):

Contact by Team B Player. If a Team B player contacts the passer or the ball after forward movement begins, a forward pass is ruled, regardless of where the ball strikes the ground or a player. When this occurs, intentional grounding rules do not apply.

If a Team B player contacts the passer or the ball before forward movement begins, the direction of the pass is the responsibility of the passer, and grounding rules apply.

What this amounts to is a handful of scenarios with various outcomes:
-If a QB is hit by a defender before he initiates his throwing motion, and is inside the pocket, his throw must be in the vicinity of a receiver or else is a penalty.
-If a QB is hit by a defender before he initiates his throwing motion, and he is outside the pocket, the throw must reach the LOS or else is a penalty.
-If a QB is hit by a defender after he initiates his throwing motion in the direction of an eligible receiver, there is no penalty.
-If a QB is hit by a defender after he initiates his throwing motion, and he is outside the pocket, there is no penalty, even if the original motion was not towards an eligible receiver.

In short, Intentional Grounding factors in the occurrence of contact, as well as when contact occurs. This makes sense; if the QB begins a throw but then is hit in a way that affects his throwing motion, he necessarily is not longer fully in control of the pass and thus cannot intentionally ground the ball. But, if the QB has not begun the throw and is already being hit - and thus is already close to being sacked - he cannot rely on this exception to avoid the sack or penalty with a simply flick of a throw.

How this affects the view of the play from last night:
Check the tape if you haven't already, and you'll see that contact comes very near to the beginning of Jones's throwing motion. We cannot be sure from that angle that Jones definitely began the throw before contact, but it was bang-bang at worst, and Intentional Grounding is a ruling that should by default not be called unless there is confidence that the penalty has occurred. Thus, the non-call was almost surely appropriate by spirit and letter of the law; the only fair way to rule a penalty would be to argue that the one receiver in the intended direction of throw was already beyond the area where the ball reasonably could have gone, but given the extent of the disruption of the throw that would be a tough to firmly justify.

Facemask

During the opening possession of overtime, New England ball and 3rd-and-3 near midfield, Mac Jones attempted a back shoulder pass to Nelson Agholor (not the sort of hands I would look to on third down in OT, but to each his own) near the right sideline. Agholor either broke back to the ball a little too late or else the pass was targeted too far outside, but either way it fell just beyond the receiver's reach for an incompletion.

Some watching the live broadcast might have observed Cornerback Anthony Brown's hand potentially pulling momentarily on Agholor's facemask, and replay clearly showed that Brown's hand caught the facemask and tugged the helmet for an instant before letting go (click here to watch the play).

A grab of the facemask is a textbook, unquestioned penalty, yes? Not so fast!
Courtest of the section on a Facemask penalty in the NFL Rulebook (emphasis mine):

No player shall grasp and control, twist, turn, push, or pull the facemask of an opponent in any direction.

Note: If a player grasps an opponent’s facemask, he must immediately release it. If he does not immediately release it and controls his opponent, it is a foul.

A quick NFL history recap:
Before 2008, NFL rules contained a 5 yard penalty for "incidental grasp and release" of a facemask to pair with the 15 yard penalty that remains in use. The incidental level of Facemask penalty was removed largely due to the league admitting that it created too many various levels of subjectivity in trying to make these rulings, though it is likely that some argued that a grasp and release that did not affect the opponent's body was not the sort of action that justified any sort of penalty. Either way, the league at the time made it clear that it wanted to streamline Facemask calls to a binary officiating decision, penalizing facemask grabs that affected the opponent substantially (intentional or not) while letting go anything minor.


As we can see, when the NFL consolidated the Facemask penalty it added the "note" that served to clarify at what point grabbing the facemask becomes a penalty: any grabbing longer than an "immediate" release and "control" of his opponent, i.e. anything that affects the movement of the opponent's head or body in a way that affects him on the play.

You might note that there is an element of subjectivity to this note - if so, well done! When debatable Facemask incidents come up in broadcasts, that is exactly as it is described by announcers or officiating consultants. How long is "immediate", and how much does one need to affect the opponent before satisfying the element of "control"? Those are good questions! NFL referees annually evaluate and educate themselves on past examples of plays (penalties as well as close misses) to work to develop consistency in this area, and if fans pick up enough examples over their own viewership they can likewise build up a sense of what crosses the line and what doesn't.

How this affects the view of the play from last night:
By the intent of the rule and based on how referees typically rule on it, the non-call was correct. It is beyond question that Brown grasped Agholor's facemask, but remember that contact alone is not sufficient for a penalty. On the basis of duration, at live speed and by precedent Brown's grasp was immediately released. Even if we put that element aside, even watching the slow-motion replay we can see that the helmet only slightly turns (it seems a little loose on Agholor's head) without his actual head turning in any notable way, and his body does not show signs of being impeded in terms of turning back to the ball. Thus, even on the basis of just the control element of the penalty the standard for penalty was not reached.

However, and this is important, we must remember that this penalty is subjective. The moment a player such as Brown grasps the opponent's facemask, everything that follows is up to the evaluation of the referee, and while there is precedent behind what crosses the line and what doesn't there is nothing absolute that can exculpate for certain. Therefore, while the non-call is correct, it is also a given that it would not have been a "wrong" call had the penalty been issued. The only way to be completely absolved of a Facemask penalty is to be certain to not grasp the facemask at all, and likewise the only way a referee can issue a "bad" Facemask call is by ruling a Facemask when no grasp occurred.

Suggestions On Complaining About Penalties (And Non-Calls)

It is wise for fans to embrace the degree of subjectivity with certain penalties before complaining about calls and non-calls. For example, when it comes to Offensive Holding, we all know the saying "there is holding on every play", and thus a "wrong" holding call in isolation shouldn't get one too worked up unless it was blatantly guilty or innocent.

Perhaps the best example of this is the "hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area" element of Roughing The Passer. That rule is both inherently subjective (it does excuse non-forcible contact, though NFL officials seem to have trouble reliably making that differentiation) and involves all sorts of contact (deserving of penalty and otherwise) that happens in an instant and often at an angle that is hard to spot. In my opinion, thanks to the practices of the TV networks (which usually show slow-motion, perfectly angle replays of such contact and then allow announcers to question a potential roughing call without adequate focus on whether contact was "forcible"), fans have become conditioned to note every example of contact with a passer's helmet and treat it as a "bad" call if not penalized. If we accept that the officials can't possibly spot every helmet contact, and that not every helmet contact is in fact a deserving penalty, it would solidly cut down on the number of claims of "bad" officiating - claims the officials don't really deserve, in this case. A readily-apparent, but missed, blow to the head, or repeatedly overlooking contact to the helmet of a particular passer? Different story.

So, try to build a sense of what parts of rules are objective, what parts are subjective, what exceptions are out there with various rules, and in practice how NFL referees employ (or don't) those exceptions. That way, you can save your complaints for worthy bad calls!

Cowboys vs. Patriots, Week 6 2021: Unevenly Officiated Or Not?

Having broken down two calls from last night's game, while we're at it we can put in a word on the overall officiating from last night's game. First and foremost, there were definitely "bad" calls (and non-calls) that went against each team - surprise surprise! Some folks here will treat that as the end of the subject, in the way that the NFL will offset all penalties on a play even if one side commits a single penalty and the other 3+ ones, but of course what really matters is the balance of calls both in terms of quantity and impact in any given drive.

There was some attention drawn to offensive blocking penalties. Again, it probably goes to far to get too worked up about any one call, though there did appear to be an imbalance. Dallas was called for four Offensive Holding penalties, with more than one looking like the "there is holding on every play" variety, while New England was only flagged for that call a single time despite some seemingly more egregious blocks that seemed to call for a penalty. The one call that really stood out: a Hold against Tyron Smith in which he simply had his arm posted on the left shoulder of the DE and had him so dominated that the guy turned as if held. It's a shame that Smith executed a top-grade block only to emerge with a negative grade based on the ruling on the play. Overall, most of this is too subjective by itself individually, but it did appear to have enough of an overall lean (akin to what Dallas had to play through in 2016-2017, a time when there was a notorious differentiation between the holding calls/non-calls for and against the Cowboys) to be fair to mention.

Beyond the line play, the most standout ruling of the night came on Dak Prescott's third-down plunge into the end zone that was ruled short (see here for the video of the play). In the same way that NFL Officiating has always lied about the application of the catch rules at the time to the "Dez caught it" play (the rule called for control, two feet, and then a football move, it was originally ruled a catch, and on replay he most certainly did not definitely fail to meet those elements, rendering an overturn completely unjustifiable except by those who want to cover their tushies), anyone can claim that replay of this video isn't "definitive", but that's nothing more than dishonesty. Watch the linked clip and analyze objectively, and you'll see that Prescott's knees are not down a good four seconds in, and you can also see how far his upper body has traveled up to that point. While we can't know exactly how far he went, we don't need to - he absolutely brought some portion of the football across the beginning of the goalline, unless the laws of perspective have been rewritten.

Between the blocking lean and the outright wrong call on the Prescott sneak, the margin of the game was shifted about 14 points - not coincidentally, roughly the difference between how the two teams played in the game versus how the scoring actually went. Funny how that works!

The most standout questionable ruling against the Patriots was a hit on a defenseless receiver that sure looked like it crossed the line to a penalty in real time. Again, some tried to use that to argue the officiating results in the game were balanced, but in that case the Patriot drive still ended up going for a touchdown, meaning no net cost to New England. The facemask non-call would of course have been huge, but again by rule it was not automatically a penalty and in practice it "should" not have been called either, though the refs would have been within bounds to throw the yellow laundry anyways. At first glance (I welcome if I missed anything), questionable calls did not cost the Patriots to the same degree that it did the Cowboys.

Final Note
: I'd like to the thank the valuable members of the community who took issue with me offering up the full rulebook interpretation on that last call, as if I were making it all up (you now have seen the full story here loud and clear). Clearly, I was being a Cowboy homer on these matters, even though I agreed on the non-call on the would-be Intentional Grounding and even though I said it would not have been "wrong" to call that Facemask. Thanks for working keeping me honest, whether I need it or not ;-)

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.