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Blame It On The Ref...Yeah, Yeah

NFL refs made two very controversial calls this weekend in the 49ers/Saints and Patriots/Pathers games, and both could potentially have major playoff implications. The old adage that you can't blame a loss on the refs is becoming less and less true, and it's time for the NFL to adjust.
After last night’s Patriots/Panthers game, one thing is blatantly obvious: the NFL has a problem, and it has nothing to do with concussions. Referees are increasingly under fire, and Monday night was a perfect example of why. Three seconds left, Patriots down four. The ball is spotted at the Panthers 18 yard line after a short pass to Aaron Dobson on the sidelines gained seven yards in just three seconds.

Now, it’s the last play of the game. Brady in shotgun, three step drop, steps up in the pocket, sends the ball over the middle of the end-zone for Rob Gronkowski. Luke Kuechly hugs Gronk like he’s an 11 year old little girl who just found Justin Bieber hiding in the closet while Robert Lester intercepts the ball. A flag is thrown, and Patriots have one more untimed down where Brady hooks up with Matthew Mulligan for the game winning touchdown and the GOAT chatter continues.

That’s how it could have/should have ended, but unfortunately the refs convened after the flag was thrown and decided there was no interference. Looking at the replay, did interference actually occur? It could be argued no, because the ball didn’t get to Gronk, but it didn’t get to him because he was being bear hugged in the back of the end zone. Gronkowski, Kuechly, and Lester were all at the same depth in the end zone when the ball was released. Kuechly persists to hold Gronk and pull him to the back of the end zone him while Lester breaks on the ball.

It could be argued that his path to the ball was interfered with, or it could be argued that he was held. Either way, the only argument that wasn’t valid was one that said that no foul occurred - which is exactly what the ref told us. In yet another potentially game deciding call, the refs put their tails between their legs to make sure that Team A can’t say their call decided the game, which is the lesser evil of Team B saying their non-call maybe did. And we, the fans, are treated to former refs on ESPN and Fox Sports telling us why the refs are right and we’re just stupid.

Once is an Accident, Twice is a Coincidence, But Three Times Is a Pattern

As time goes on, we continually see bad calls "potentially" – and I use that term loosely, because people will argue that only a loss as a result of a bad call on the last play of the game can be blamed on the refs, but let’s be honest here, refs can change outcomes – cost teams games. Look at the 49ers/Saints game on Sunday. Ahmad Brooks makes what Ray Lewis described as, “the perfect play.” He beats his man, gets to the quarterback, hits him hard in the chest and shoulder pads, and drags the quarterback to the ground while the ball is fumbled. Patrick Willis recovers the fumble, and the 49ers have the lead and the ball with just 3:18 left.

But, the ref threw a personal foul flag for hitting the quarterback in the neck. Brooks clearly hits Brees in his chest, his right hand grasping the shoulder pad, his arm bent at the throat area, and his head turned away so there is no helmet to helmet contact. The blunt force of the hit caused Brees’ head to jar forward and for a split second and his neck may have come in contact with Brooks’ arm, but that was not intentional and certainly not Brooks’ intention. Why is a defender at fault for a quarterback’s Stretch Armstrong neck? The Saints were given 15 yards and a first down. They tie it up with a field goal, and go on to win the game on the last play, potentially shaking up the entire NFC playoff picture in the process.

Again, we can’t definitively say this cost the 49ers the game. They did get the ball back with the game tied, they just couldn’t do anything with it. The Saints were assisted by some great clock management by head coach Sean Peyton – something you rarely see at any level of football any more– an absolute bone headed play by Colin Kaepernick where - on third and long - he scrambled out of bounds rather than forcing New Orleans to use their last timeout, and Kasim Osgood being the only man in America to not see Darren Sproles call for a fair catch.

Sure, the 49ers could have taken control of their destiny and drove down the field and scored. Sure, their Superbowl quarterback could have stayed in bounds and burned precious time off the clock, and sure, their special teams pro bowler could have paid better attention, but they didn’t. And why should they have to? Should it just be expected that teams have to overcome their opponents as well as the officials? Is that just part of the game now?

The call clearly improved the Saints win probability, and at the very least assisted in the win. Trent Dilfer said he was offended by the call, and Lewis said it was the most embarrassing call in the National Football League since the tuck rule. Hey, atleast Lewis said he’d pay half of Brooks’ fine.

It’s Your Fault, NFL

The NFL doesn’t want to be Major League Baseball. They don’t want a couple of teams trading off Superbowl wins while the rest of the league flounders because they don’t have the cash to compete. The NFL wants a league where, from season to season, literally any team can come through and make an appearance in the Superbowl. This philosophy keeps fans interested, which keeps them glued to the TV, which increases revenue, which helps the bottom line.

The NFL has taken painstaking measures to assure that parity is a major theme in the league. Their revenue is large, but their salary cap is hard - both vital to said parity. New rules are implemented to favor offenses so no lead is too big, and quarterbacks are protected like babies in the womb. All for one thing: hope. Every year fans from every NFL team have hope that their franchize can win it all, "Hey, look at the '99 Rams, anything can happen."

Football: America's New Past-Time

As a fan, if your team has multiple Superbowl wins, you’re considered very lucky. If that's happened in the salary cap era you’re not just lucky, you're part of an exclusive club.

Since the salary cap started in 1994, 21 NFL teams have appeared in the Superbowl, while just 17 different MLB teams have played in the World Series. In the Superbowl era, a whopping 28 NFL teams have played in the big game, whereas just 21 have played in the World Series. To top it off, just 11 different NFL teams have multiple Superbowl championships, while 15 have done so in baseball during the same time frame. Karl Marx would be proud, but Bud Selig? Not so much.

These steps to an even playing field brings more responsibility. The NFL wants the equality, which is fine, but it needs to step up the accountability. The NFL cannot have ultra-conservative refs who would rather not throw a controversial flag when one clearly should have been thrown, or guys who pick up a flag rather than create dissension.

A lot of NFL refs are approaching retirement age, one has to wonder if it’s time to start bringing in younger guys who were raised in the progressive era of football. Something’s got to change, and change soon, or the NFL is in danger of losing some of its fan base. Right now, it’s a locomotive with no stop in site, but it only takes chaffing a couple of loyal fan bases to slow that train down to halt.


Well, what are the solutions to such problems? Can we feasibly expect NFL refs to be perfect? Can we point fingers at them for losses and say they are the sole reason for it when mistakes like Steven Ridley’s red zone fumble or Kaepernick’s bad judgment could be just as much to blame? No, we really can’t. Can we say that there are improvements that need to be made? Yes we can. We can say that the NFL needs to do something to not only get the calls right for teams and their fans, but to take some of the heat off of refs. They are only human after all, and a love/hate relationship with millions of people have to take its toll. Mistakes are bound to happen, lets do what we can to minimize them.

Here are a few suggestions:
  • Extra challenge. Bang-bang plays happen often, so why not give an extra challenge to teams to use for judgment calls only? Yes, a judgment call is subjective and that’s what the refs are paid for, but they make mistakes. Pass interference sometimes looks like pass interference if the receiver just happens to fall down, or if feet get tangled up. Why not one challenge flag per game to revisit such a call? Give teams a chance to have the right call made, and let the refs redeem themselves if it in fact was a mistake. Don’t you think refs who realize mistakes after the fact would like to remedy them?

    There’s much less scrutiny on a penalty that gets reviewed. Sure, even reviewed penalties are screwed up once in a while, but they're almost always correct. It could be a blue flag for plays like pass interference or holding. Those two plays seem to cost teams the most because those are the two most common calls made during big plays, so why not allow them to be rectified at least twice a game? Sure, we could review every single play in a game, but one extra challenge per team would allow coaches to feel a little more pragmatic, and it would take some heat off the refs.
  • Penalties involving body parts are automatically reviewed. To this day, I don’t understand why any penalty that involves a body part isn’t automatically reviewed. These are black and white penalties that don’t involve judgment. We’re not talking about a ref deeming the defender to have interfered with a receiver. Either the helmets touched or they didn’t. It’s black and white, there is no gray area. How often do we see a helmet to helmet flag thrown when in fact the helmets didn’t touch, but instead a hard hit jerked a player’s body in one direction while moving their head in the opposite? Teams are penalized 15 yards and players are fined large sums of money on a knee-jerk reaction from what a ref saw in a split second. Same goes for hitting quarterbacks below the knee. We’re dealing with inches here in some cases, so why not allow these to be looked at? A correct call can be made with an automatic review from someone in the booth working with the ref, and they don't take long to figure out in replays. Have a guy in the booth to confirm. You don't need the ref to look under the hood at a black and white play like that.
The Home Team’s Dirty Little Secret

A little off topic, but I had to bring this up after Monday's game. It's something that's bothered me for years and NO ONE ever talks about. I sometimes think I'm in the twilight zone when I see it happen. I think to myself, "Did no one else notice that? These guys prepare for every minute detail but no one notices such a huge mistake?!"

I’m a clock Nazi. When I watch NFL games my eyes are constantly on the clock. As soon as a the whistle is blown, I stare at the clock to see if it's stopped at the correct time. Every Sunday, I see a clock operator fudge a few seconds here and there in favor of the home team. Last night it happened three different times. When Ted Ginn scored the final touchdown, he was in the end zone for three full seconds before the clock stopped (he also has crazy high ups). On the Patriots final drive, two separate times the play clock operator let the clock run for an extra second or two. The refs finally said something the last time it happened, and instructed the operator to add two more seconds to the clock. That took the clock from :04 to :06 left in the game. If the operators had done their job on the previous two plays, or during the Ginn touchdown, the Patriots would have one more play at the end of the game, regardless of the missed call.

I’m not sure why every single team in the NFL doesn’t have a quality control coach whose sole purpose is to watch the clock. Maybe they do, but the Patriots sure didn’t look like it. I couldn’t believe Belichick wasn’t throwing a fit over the time ticking away after the Ginn touchdown. With Tom Terrific under center, an extra second could be the difference between a win, a loss, a playoff appearance, or even a Superbowl.

So, now what?

Can we ever expect games to be called perfect without human error? No, it will always be a part of the game until the next Bill Gates invents software that uses 1,000 cameras on the field that watches every play from every player and throws up virtual flags. Until then, we should make our voices heard when mistakes are made.

The NFL is worth billions, and it mean a lot to most red-blooded Americans. When your favorite team loses either in part, or completely, because of a ref missing a call, it hurts. When it happens several times, it makes you question whether or not your emotional energy is well vested in the game you’ve loved since you could say, “GO NINERS!”

The NFL should take note of that.

Follow me on twitter: @NFLGary

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Seth Keysor
Nov 19 2013 11:14 PM

GREAT article.  I agree that in a sport where parity is king the refs become CRUCIAL. 


And I'm SO glad I'm not the only person who has noticed the clock issue.  I thought that was just me being crazy...

Gary Althiser
Nov 19 2013 11:18 PM
Appreciate it, Seth. Glad you agree. Refs need to be more accountable. They're just too conservative.

And the clock thing is just out of control. I can't believe it's NEVER talked about.
Seth Keysor
Nov 19 2013 11:32 PM

The funny thing is that this time last year everyone was screaming about how much more terrible the replacement refs were because they cost GB a game (which they did).


But in one week the refs cost 2 teams a game in pretty much just as blatant a way and no one says boo.  The replacement refs outrage was about as silly a cause as any I've ever seen.

    • Gary Althiser likes this
Gary Althiser
Nov 19 2013 11:56 PM

Something has to be done soon. If the 49ers or Patriots don't make the playoffs, it will be a tragedy. GB would have been the #2 seed last year if not for Fail Mary, and this is coming from a 49ers fan.

    • Seth Keysor likes this
No one is that upset because both calls were the correct calls according to the rules. You can disagree with the rule, I do many of them, but the refs made the correct call both times.
    • Gary Althiser likes this
Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 12:19 AM
No one is upset? Not sure if serious?

No one is upset? Not sure if serious?

Not like they were over the GB game no there not.
Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 12:41 AM

That one was more blatant of course, but these are still drawing a lot of criticism. The Monday Night Countdown crew devoted an entire six minute segment about the atrocity of the Saints/49ers call.

That one was more blatant of course, but these are still drawing a lot f criticism. The Monday Night Countdown crew devoted an entire 6 minute segment going off about the Saints/49ers call.

Of course they did. After seeing it in super slow motion and even then you can see Bree's get hit in the neck.

RT @NFL_ATL: Dean Blandino: Officials got controversial calls right that went against Patriots, 49ers: http://www.nfl.com/n....gn=Twitter_atl
Retweeted by Larry Holder

Blandino also broke down Week 11's other controversial play, a roughing the passer penalty on San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who had a sack and forced fumbled wiped off the board after officials ruled he had illegally hit New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Brooks was steaming about the call, which took away what could have been a game-sealing turnover for the Niners. Blandino again sides with the judgment of officials.

"You can't make forcible contact to the head or the neck area, even if the contact starts below the neck and rises up," Blandino explained. "If there's force to that contact, it's a foul. Watch the initial contact, maybe around the shoulder, but it rides up into the neck area and brings the quarterback down with force.

"That's why the flag was thrown for unnecessary roughness."








On top of the penalty being legit and completely within confines of the rule, it was Q4 with 3:18 left and we had all 3 time-outs plus the two munite warning. With the way our defense was owning you guys (the points don't show how well our D played, 17 of your points came off turnovers on our side of the field) I believe the outcome would've been the same.

Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 01:36 AM

Dean Blandino making excuses for the refs is exactly what I said would happen in the article.

The fact that the GB/SEA ruling couldn't be overturned was because the rules stated it couldn't, doesn't mean it was right.

Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 01:37 AM

And the force wasn't on his neck at all, the force was on his chest. When Brees gets up he isn't acting like he's choking to death, he's acting like he just got his butt beat.

Look at the gif. As he hits him, his arm moves up to his neck (which is against the rules, force or not) and his shoulder pads hit his helmet - also illegal. It's not about it being overturned, it's about it being the right call in the first place. Regardless, I am still confident that we would've won. Everybody talks about it like it was on our final drive and that it essentially gave us the win; as I previously stated it happened in Q4, 3:18 on the clock and NO had 3 time-outs. You should be more upset with your inability to do anything on a play that wasn't gift wrapped and handed to you in the form of a dropped 3rd down conversion, muffed punt, errant pass by Brees that got picked off, etc.

You scored 3 points that didn't come off turnovers, and I believe all 3 of your drives that you scored on from turnovers happened on our side of the field, with two of them being inside the 30. Your offense mustered a total of 196 yards. It was the right call, and on top of that your offense was sub par for the entirety of the game. Even if the Saints had to score a TD on their final drive because the call swung their way and they got the ball from the sack-fumble, we were on the 15 yard line killing clock. We drove 97 yards on your vaunted defense for a TD in the first half. Did that call really swing the game in our favor? Even if you don't argue the correctness (is that a word?) of the call, you can make the point that you likely would've punted the ball, or at the very most scored a FG. Are you confident that NO wouldnt've gotten into the end zone again for the win?
Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 01:55 AM

I'm very confident they wouldn't have got into the end zone. The secondary was doing a good job and Brees had one TD and one INT after torching the Cowboys the week before. Kaepernick stupidly going out of bounds when he should have stayed in and burned another 30 seconds, Osgood giving you a free 15 yards in the final drive, the bad call that not only have you the ball back, but gave you a first down and 15 more yards. Sure seems like the Saints are the ones who benefitted from mistakes rather than the 49ers.


The turnovers happened because we forced them. If that NO offense was a shoe in for the end zone, why did they have to settle for two FG on their final two drives? Plus, we lost our best corner, our stud guard, and didnt have our starting RE playing. Not even to mention no Crabtree.

Once again, there was 3:18 left and we had THREE TIME-OUTS. That didn't give us the win in any way, shape or form. Really. You forced Moore to drop the punt inside the 20? The 9ers really did, huh?


In case you didn't know, we lost our #1 corner, in Q1. Our SS (Vaccaro, playing lights out all season mind you) was out as well. Injuries are something you have to deal with. That doesn't even include Victor Butler, Peterson, Kenyan Coleman, etc. as far as injuries suffere this season to players. That's no excuse. Your offense got manhandled all game. Besides, earlier in the season wasn't Harbaugh crying that the league should be doing MORE to protect his QB? I know you're a die hard 9ers fan and all that jazz, but how can you watch the gif and say that it was a bad call. ANY contact with the head/neck = flag. It's cut and dry, that simple.

Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 02:22 AM

Brooks arm stayed in the same spot, Brees neck came forward. He didn't grab him by his neck and throw him down. And players are tackled by their heads constantly in the NFL - this is the first time I've ever seen that call. Ray Lewis said he's never heard of such a thing and said the call was an embarrassment to the league, and Trent Dilfer said he was offended by the call. Steve Young said he's been waiting for a call like this to cost a team a game because of the ticky tack calls made on defenders when hitting QBs.

The win probability for the Saints nearly doubled at the point of the call. These two calls are going to be the start of the tipping point for bad calls deciding games. The attention they're getting is starting a black eye on the league.

This league is built to protect the QBs, it's that simple. You may think it was a bad call, and all the guys on ESPN who played defense will absolutely crap all over the call, but it will get called 10/10 times. Pretty sure most Niners fans would have been screaming for a flag had the Saints hit Kaep like that. 


The Niners had a golden opportunity to drive down field and kick the game winning field goal and couldn't get a first down. Complain about the Saints getting lucky all you want, but the Niners had their chances, and blew it. Plain and simple. 

    • d3vanj likes this
Seth Keysor
Nov 20 2013 02:37 AM

The more I watch that gif, the more that looks like he hit him in the chest and let up a little as his arm slid toward the neck.

    • Gary Althiser likes this
You clearly don't grasp the confines of the rule. I don't like the rule, nor agree with it - this is football after all - but a QB against an incoming pass rush could duck his head down to his waist and get hit and the helmet and it be a flag. Just because it was the right call doesn't mean that the rule is right. I believe he hit him in the chest and his arm just went up to his neck because of the force of the contact he initiated with. It was a stellar play but that one mistake cost his team. Even incidental contact such as the arm sliding up to the neck is still a foul. Like I said, ticky-tack rule and I don't like it.

Either way, two fans arguing over what may-or-may-not have affected a game. It's speculation and contrition at it's finest. Me and you sitting here bickering and complaining back and forth doesn't change the rule. It doesn't give the 9ers above 196 yards of offense. It doesn't drop the Saints to 7-3. It's a pointless argument because neither of us will change our mind.
Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 02:49 AM

Again, he absolutely did not tackle him by the neck, nor did he use force on his neck to make the tackle. Brees turned into a Chris Bosh and his neck stretched from the force of the hit and ran into Brooks arm that stayed put. 75% of refs would have not called that.

NFL reps, former refs protecting their brethren, and Saints fans crying that it was a good call does in fact not make it a good call. Players who aren't quarterbacks get tackled by the head and neck ALL of the time and never, ever is there a penalty called on them. Brees happens to be a cash cow for the league and a big name so there was no way they weren't calling this.

The NFL just paid a billion dollars out from a lawsuit so they wanna be sure to cover as many bases as they can so in 2033 when they get sued again they have a good defense.

By the way, this is the same crew that officiated when the Saints blew a game to the Patriots. Tell me Saints fans, you were crying foul after that game, why not now?

It's plain as day: Brooks hits him in the collar bone area, grabs onto the shoulder pad, then takes him down. Brees neck comes forward from the force of the hit, but not for one second does Brooks use Brees neck to take him down, nor does the helmet touch. Like Ray Lewis said, it was a perfect defensive play and the call is an embarrassment to the league.

It's not about helmets touching or him initiating contact on his neck. His arm slid up to his neck. Flag. His shoulder pads hit his helmet. Flag.


It's really that simple. The rules suck and refs blow a ton of calls. That's the NFL. Saints got raped by the refs vs the Pats or we'd be 9-1 right now. That's football and human error. It happens. Agree with the call or not - the rule is clear as day and saying 75% of refs would not call that is fictional at best. It is a play that will get called 10/10 times.

Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 03:03 AM

 His arms and neck meet for a split second and no force was used in his neck. Brees is a 5'10 QB who got knocked in the dirt and the refs are conditioned to throw flags if you so much as fart next to a QB. The state of football is not in a good place and this flag football era where ridiculous calls like this are the norm drive fans away.

I think this guy on PFT summed it up best:

"That has to be the worst call the NFL has made! The might as well put Drew in a pink tutu and call this the powder puff league, not a tackle league. What ever happened to being able to hit a man in the chest while he is HOLDING the ball? Pathetic what the NFL has become, give up and watch the only two real games left, hockey and the UFC!"

As I said, two fans arguing back and forth about a call is nothing but opinion. You think it wouldn't get called a majority of the time, I think it'd get called 100% of the time. I've stated 100 times that I don't agree with tue rules, but you even said "His arms and neck meet for a split second..." That split second will, according to the NFL rules, draw a flag. How can you acknowledge that the arm contacted the neck during the hit and not say that it should draw a flag, per the rules.


Agreeing with the rule and thinking it was a good call per the rules are two completely different things. This is going nowhere fast. We're literally running in circles repeating ourselves.

Gary Althiser
Nov 20 2013 03:09 AM
The arm didn't contact the neck, that's the thing, the neck contacted the arm. If a QB is running around, sticks out his neck and runs into someone, should a flag be thrown?

Brees got crushed but his neck had nothing to do with it other than being an innocent bystander that got dragged along.

It was a terrible call just like last night, just like fail Mary, and just like the Superbowl.

A QB can duck and get hit in the head and it draws a flag. That's the rule and it sucks, but that's the way it is now-a-days. As I said, agreeing with a call doesn't equate to agreeing with the rule. I get infuriated at calls (ex; Corey White vs Jets) where the QB initiates the contact and ducks down into the defender and gets hit in the head. It happened twice vs the Jets and I was livid. The rule is garbage but it's still the rule and it's still a flag.

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