NFL Nation: Inside Slant
Recently, a loyal reader we'll identify as "Brett L." protested an assumed consequence of the NFL's 2014 emphasis on a handful of penalties. The resulting spike of defensive calls, discussed in this post last week, had led to some laborious stretches of games.
"Brett L." wondered how much time these penalties had added to games. So did I. In this case, however, perception has not matched reality.
According to the league, the average time of game through seven weeks this season (3 hours, 6 minutes, 1 second) is more than a minute and a half shorter than the 2013 17-week average (3:07:37). Yes, games are running shorter this season than when NFL officials were calling about 25 percent less defensive penalties than they are now.
Those figures might be surprising, but when you dig deeper, there are some logical explanations. Penalties have undoubtedly interrupted the rhythm of some games, but the league has balanced and/or sped them up in other ways. Here are three of them:
- Although defensive penalties have increased, the total number of penalties per game has not. In fact, according to the NFL, the 2014 figure through Week 7 (15.9) is a bit lower than the seven-week figure for 2013 (17.2). Our database at ESPN Stats & Information doesn't break down penalties per game, but what I can tell you is that a few penalty categories have dropped in frequency this season. There have been 27 fewer calls for unnecessary roughness, 23 fewer calls for defensive offsides, 17 fewer for illegal shifts, and 14 fewer for illegal formation.
- An important but perhaps overlooked timekeeping practice changed this season. The game clock no longer stops after a sack outside the two-minute point of either half. According to the ESPN Stats & Information database, there have been 397 sacks this season that have fallen into that category. That's 397 fewer stoppages of the game clock in seven weeks of games.
- Replay reviews are moving more quickly after a series of mechanical changes this offseason. Most notably, the referee is now communicating with members of the officiating department in New York City who often begin reviewing the play ahead of him. Partially as a result, the NFL has shaved about half a minute off the average review stoppage (3 minutes, 33 seconds) this season as compared to the full season average in 2013 (3:59). So far, there have been 278 reviews, either coaches' challenges or from the replay official, this season.
These figures are not meant to excuse an intentional change that has without question impacted the flow of some games. Before I looked into these figures, I would have guessed that games were running longer as well. We will see if they bog down as the weather turns, but to this point, they have been no worse than last season.
Note: As always, the bar graph accompanying this post displays the overall frequency of penalty calls from each of the league's 17 officiating crews. We are continuing to see about a 43 percent difference between the most (Carl Cheffers) and least flag-happy crews (Clete Blakeman).
Earlier this week, the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions boarded evening flights bound for London. They flew through the night, on schedules known as "red-eyes" for their impact on sleep, and arrived the following morning (London time) to begin preparations for Sunday's International Series game at Wembley Stadium.
The trip's duration -- seven hours for the Falcons and more than eight for the Lions -- represents the biggest logistical obstacle to placing an NFL franchise in London, as the league appears determined to attempt. There is, however, a potential long-term fix, one once reserved for sci-fi fans and other dreamers: worldwide supersonic flight.
Economic and bureaucratic challenges suggest a 15- to 20-year timeframe for development and implementation, according to Tom Irvine, NASA Aeronautics' deputy associate administrator. But that period could roughly match the implementation of a London franchise, meaning a team could travel to London from the East Coast of the U.S. in less time than the Seattle Seahawks spent last week flying to St. Louis.
"This is not an insurmountable problem," Irvine said recently.
I know you don't come to this space to break down aviation theory, and in truth, the NFL will plow ahead on international expansion whether or not supersonic flight is available. The league is dealing with travel obstacles in other ways, most notably giving teams a postgame bye week to recover. Another prominent idea for a (pre-supersonic) London franchise is to play a "pod" schedule that will include blocks of games at home and stateside (while practicing at an East Coast satellite facility) to limit transatlantic travel.
Still, the idea of faster and more efficient travel has permeated more than one discussion I've had with NFL people about European expansion over the years. It's not like the idea is unprecedented. For more than two decades, after all, British Airways and Air France flew the Concorde from London to New York in three hours, 20 minutes.
The Concorde was decommissioned in 2003 for two basic reasons: (A) it wasn't fuel-efficient enough to provide profits for its carriers, and (B) its sonic boom was deemed too loud to travel over land, limiting its use and routes. But the dream has never died among aviation enthusiasts. In fact, during a forum hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics earlier this year, NASA released renditions of a next-generation supersonic aircraft that would address both problems. (Thanks to the AIAA for its assistance with this post.)
NASA has requested funding from Congress to build a prototype that, Irvine said, would "have a barely perceptible sonic boom on land" because of its unique shape. It could also use low-carbon-emission fuels, either biofuels or synthetic alternatives, to provide for a cleaner-burning and less expensive jet engine.
Irvine estimates that research, design and development of the prototype could take five or six years. (Independently, a company called Aerion has recently teamed up with Airbus for similar efforts.) The next step would be to convince the Federal Aviation Administration and its international counterparts to allow supersonic flight over land, a process that could take a decade on bureaucracy time.
If all goes according to plan, Irvine said, the likely "first adopters" will come in about 15 years via companies such as Gulfstream that specialize in private business jets and cater to customers for whom "cost isn't as much of an imperative." They will be intrigued by the idea of transportation at Mach 2.5, which at 1,600-1,800 mph could move a plane from New York to London in 2 1/2 hours.
Such business jets wouldn't be large enough to carry an entire NFL football team, but a fleet of planes that seat 50-70 passengers is a reasonable expectation, Irvine said, and multiple aircraft could be used rather than one.
The most recent estimates for an NFL expansion to London, according to NFL.com, is the 2022 season. Assuming a delay or two -- see the 20-year search for a team in Los Angeles -- the NFL's timing could mesh with NASA's supersonic projections.
"If we're able to do these flight experiments," Irvine said, "in 10 years it would be clear what the impact will be on regulations, whether the aircraft can go over land and that sort of thing. In 10 years, the situation will be much clearer. I think we'll know if this makes economic sense then. So we're basically 10 years out from understanding if this will work on a large scale."
Faster travel to London wouldn't alleviate all the uncertainty surrounding a London franchise. There's nothing it could do about the time change, for instance. But there's no doubt it would make the idea more palatable for the participants, and it's an option that isn't as fantastical as you might think. Strap yourselves in and enjoy the ride.
There is only one county in the entire state of New York where Jets fans outnumber Giants fans. Cortland County -- home of the Jets' annual training camp -- take a bow.
Nearby Hamilton County, meanwhile, owes us an explanation. It houses more New England Patriots fans than those who root for either of the New York teams.
That's all according to Twitter, of course, our modern-day source of truth and justice. The social media behemoth has released an interactive map of counties across the country, one that quantifies the number of Twitter followers for each NFL team.
Of those who use Twitter in Cortland County, for example, 19.94 percent follow the Jets' official handle (@nyjets). In Hamilton County, 16.27 percent of Twitter users follow the Patriots (@Patriots).
Obviously, the decision to follow a team does not necessarily require allegiance, nor does every football fan user Twitter. But as Boon said to Otter, "Forget it. He's rolling." ("Animal House," circa 1978.)
In a broader sense, it's easy to see the Cowboys' dominance over the Texans in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico. You might be surprised, however, to see them pop up in Montana's Powell County, Idaho's Cassia County and a host of counties throughout Virginia, which is supposed to be Redskins country.
It's tough to miss the range of Broncos fandom, ranging from eastern Nebraska to western Nevada with -- randomly -- an outpost in Jefferson County (Washington). Seahawks country!
Go ahead and explore the map yourself. Check out your county. Compare your team and its most hated rivals. Argue! Debate! Decide, once and for all, who is better!
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg via ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see ESPN.com's QBR page.)
Through three quarters of a 27-0 loss to the Colts, Dalton averaged a staggering 1.96 yards per attempt (49 yards on 25 attempts). He converted only one first down via pass (on 11 attempts) and his third-down QBR was 3.9 (out of 100). And the Bengals went three-and-out on each of their first eight drives, the highest consecutive total in a game since 2011, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Why did this happen? It's likely that Dalton missed receiver A.J. Green -- he completed only two passes of at least 10 yards downfield, his lowest total of the season -- but this might be one occasion where we credit the opposing defense. Of Dalton's 20 incompletions, nine were pass breakups by the Colts, tied for second-most in a game this season. The Colts also managed to put Dalton under duress on 29.3 percent of his dropbacks, his most in a game in the past two seasons, even though they blitzed less frequently than usual (33.3 percent versus 39.8 percent). Finally, the Bengals managed a season-low 1.0 yards before contact per rush against the Colts' defense. First contact came at or behind the line of scrimmage on six of their eight first-half rushes. In other words, the Colts beat the Bengals up front.
Surely this game wasn't Dalton's finest moment and he could have played better. But more often than we care to admit, it's not just about what you did. Based on these numbers, the Colts deserve much credit for Dalton's bad day.
Total QBR was designed to provide more context and breadth to a quarterback's evaluation than simply passer rating. So it's worth digging into why Luck had a 105.7 passer rating after a 344-yard day but only an average 49.2 QBR. Nearly two-thirds of his yardage total (215 of 344) came after the catch, and 38 of his 42 attempts traveled less than 15 yards downfield. In fact, 28 of Luck's passes traveled 5 yards or less downfield -- one short of his career high. So when you look to dish out credit for those yards, a majority should go to Luck's receivers. QBR also attaches weight to individual plays, and both of Luck's touchdown passes came in the second half -- during which the Colts maintained a double-digit lead thanks to their defense. In the first half, meanwhile, Luck had thrown incomplete on all four of his third-down attempts. He took two sacks on third down as well.
By no means did Luck play poorly Sunday. But not every 344-yard performance is the same. In this case, QBR leads us in different directions than simply the quarterback when digging deeper into the reasons for the Colts' success.
The Chargers turned away noticeably from what has worked best for them in 2014, a contributing factor in their loss to the Chiefs. Rivers threw the fewest number of passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage -- eight -- in any game this season. He completed five of them, also a season low. All told, those passes represented a season-low 25.8 percent of his total attempts, and Rivers averaged 2.5 yards per attempt on them. The latter was his lowest figure in a game in seven years. Meanwhile, Chargers receivers, who have excelled after the catch, were stymied by the Chiefs' defense. They totaled 28 yards after the catch, the second-fewest in a game this season and the second-fewest by a Chargers team since at least the start of the 2006 season. How did the Chiefs accomplish this relative shutdown? They blitzed on only 9.1 percent of Rivers' dropbacks, the smallest percentage he's faced in a game since the start of the 2012 season, and played coverage the rest of the time.
It would be premature to suggest the Chiefs "solved" the Chargers' efficient offense. But their approach made sense and kept Rivers from getting into his usual rhythm.
Rodgers' 19 completions in 22 attempts translated into an 86.4 completion percentage, his career-best mark in a start. And on the strength of a 59-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jordy Nelson, Rodgers also averaged 11.6 yards per attempt -- the third-highest mark in his career for a game he threw at least five passes. After the Nelson touchdown, Rodgers didn't throw another pass that traveled at least 15 yards downfield until his final throw of the game. Two throws of 15-plus yards in a start are tied for the second-fewest in his career. Since telling Packers fans to "R-E-L-A-X" prior to Week 4, Rodgers leads the NFL with 13 passing touchdowns and a 93.2 QBR. His completion percentage jumped from 62.7 to 70.6 during the past four weeks, in part because he has cut back on under- and overthrows. He averaged 6.7 inaccurate throws prior to "R-E-L-A-X" and 4.25 since. Rodgers has an NFL-high nine passing touchdowns in the red zone since that point and also has been more successful in targeting receiver Randall Cobb. They connected for a completion on 14 of their first 21 targets this season but have now hit on 20 of their past 25, for 320 yards and five touchdowns.
Rivers and Peyton Manning have received most of the quarterback headlines this season, but for the past month, neither has played as well as Rodgers. Sunday's game capped a remarkable four-week stretch even by his standards.
Much was made of Tannehill opening the game with 14 consecutive completions. He finished the first half with a 93.3 completion percentage, the highest for a quarterback in a game this season. But it's worth pointing out that all but one of those 14 completions traveled less than 15 yards downfield. Overall, Tannehill attempted just three passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield -- his fewest in a game this season. In other words, Tannehill and the Dolphins were on board with an NFL trend that recognizes how easy it can be to complete short passes. Tannehill was accurate in his own right, however; only two of his incompletions were judged in video review to be over- or underthrown. That's the lowest such figure of his career. The Dolphins gained 84 rushing yards on 17 zone-read plays, including a 30-yard run from Tannehill on fourth-and-1. That success helped Tannehill complete 11 of 13 play-action passes. He had entered the game with the eighth-lowest completion percentage (60.8) on play-action throws in the league.
Tannehill had an accurate day and the Dolphins provided him a smart game plan. The Bears' defense has been atrocious at times this season, and Tannehill's 15-for-18 performance against their standard rush is a strong indicator of the Bears' ineffectiveness. Regardless, this type of quick-hitting passing game should be one Tannehill can sustain against other opponents as well.
Play: No official review after the St. Louis Rams were ruled to have recovered their own fumble on the penultimate play of their 28-26 victory against the Seattle Seahawks.
Referee: Brad Allen
Analysis: Rams running back Tre Mason fumbled after converting a game-clinching first down. Teammate and tight end Cory Harkey fell first on the ball, but a large pileup soon formed. Allen's crew ruled a recovery by the Rams, who then quickly lined up for a final kneel-down before replay official Jim Lapetina -- who has complete control over instant replay in the final two minutes -- could initiate a review.
This type of play became eligible for review this season under the so-called "NaVorro Bowman" example. (Bowman's apparent fumble recovery against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game was not reviewable at the time.) The NFL's official play-by-play credits Harkey for the recovery, but a replay broadcast before the Rams' final kneel-down made clear he lost control of the ball prior to the pileup. The ball was last seen underneath Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who told reporters he maintained possession under the pile and assumed he would be credited with a recovery that would have given the Seahawks' offense one final chance to win the game.
In the end, none of the angles shown on the Fox broadcast provided indisputable evidence of the recovery. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tweeted that he reviewed the call in New York and that there was "no evidence of who recovered the ball."
It doesn't appear that the outcome would have changed had Lapetina initiated a review, but watching the sequence of events live suggested the NFL was more fortunate in this case than it was efficient. Did Lapetina know in real time that there was no angle to support a credible review? I suppose it's possible. Still, I don't think many of us would have argued against a 60-second stoppage of play to evaluate a game-changing call at the end of a two-point game just to make sure.
Referee: Gene Steratore for Walden and Jeff Triplette for Kuechly
Analysis: Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(h) prohibits "unnecessary physical contact with a game official." It leads to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a disqualification.
Walden's infraction occurred when umpire Bruce Stritesky was separating him from Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham. Walden used his right arm in what appeared an attempt to ward off Stritesky from pushing him away. The contact was gentle by football standards, but Stritesky immediately threw his flag.
Kuechly, meanwhile, had been at the bottom of a pile attempting to recover a fumble by the Green Bay Packers' Eddie Lacy. Packers tight end Richard Rodgers pulled Kuechly out of the pile, which appeared to anger Kuechly, and back judge Steve Freeman grabbed Kuechly from behind to prevent a confrontation.
Kuechly wriggled his left arm to free himself from Freeman, only afterward realizing it was an official rather than another player who was restraining him. Freeman, who appeared to take an arm to his face, immediately threw his flag.
The structure of the rule allows officials some leeway by including the word "unnecessary." It implies the existence and possible acceptance of inadvertent contact, which surely applies in Kuechly's instance. There didn't appear to be any intent to make contact with an official on his part, and either Freeman or Triplette should have let it go.
On the other hand, there is little doubt that Walden's contact was deliberate. Again, officials have some leeway. The contact in this case was hardly forceful. But delineating the power behind contact would seem to compromise the larger goal of demanding respect for officials. Walden certainly didn't get his money's worth, but the physical contact was in fact "unnecessary" and merited a penalty.
Play: San Francisco 49ers defender Dontae Johnson collided with umpire Mark Pellis on the goal line, opening up Denver Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders for a touchdown.
Referee: John Parry
Analysis: Many of you will recall the 2010 change that moved umpires from their traditional position behind linebackers to a safer, less-trafficked spot 12-15 yards deep in the offensive backfield. So why was Pellis standing on the "O" of the "BRONCOS" end zone lettering on third-and-goal? Because of an NFL rule exception, of course.
A few months after the initial rule change, the NFL circulated a memo that described several instances where the umpire would move back to his original spot. One of them was in cases like Sunday night's, when the offense is at or inside the 5-yard line. According to the memo, as reported by The New York Times, the league deemed it "useful for the umpire to be operating in close proximity to the line of scrimmage."
The exceptions were developed after complaints came from teams that ran no-huddle offenses, particularly the Colts, led at the time by Peyton Manning. Theoretically, getting the umpire closer to the line of scrimmage would allow teams to snap the ball more quickly.
Four years later, the re-positioning helped another Manning-led team. As the Broncos lined up at the 3-yard line, Pellis stood 8 yards away in the defensive backfield. He took two steps forward at the snap, then tried to backpedal -- apparently trying to move out of Sanders' way -- but slipped.
Sanders stayed upright and continued running, but Johnson collided with Pellis and toppled to the ground. The 49ers had no recourse; the umpire is part of the field, and falling over him is no different than slipping on a divot. The only call was to signal a Broncos touchdown.
This week, I tweeted a request to nominate a defensive penalty that changed the course of a game this season. I used the responses to inform Thursday's post on the connection between those calls and passing efficiency, but enough of you were so outraged by a particular call against an offensive player that I couldn't resist addressing it in the Week 7 Officiating Report.
By now, it's likely you've seen the play. Referee Craig Wrolstad's crew called St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook for offensive pass interference (OPI) late in the second quarter of the Rams' eventual 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The penalty, an under-discussed point of emphasis by the NFL this season, wiped out a 21-yard gain that would have put the Rams in scoring position just before the two-minute warning.
The league's intent in emphasizing OPI is to eliminate potential receiving targets from pushing defenders away at the top of the route, a common technique that developed over the years from big receivers and tight ends. When you watch the replay, however, you see Cook's only motion was to swipe away a jam attempt from 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox. Cook did not extend his arms, and Cox remained in tight coverage after Cook cut to his left.
Appearing this week on the NFL Network, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino acknowledged the call was wrong. Referring to back judge Lee Dyer, Blandino said: "He's got Cook extending his arms into the defenders and, in his judgment, pushing off to create separation. ... That's not the case when you look at the sideline angle. [Cook] is jammed by the defender and used his hands to get release. That's legal."
Leaguewide, officials called 48 OPI penalties through six weeks. At that rate, the NFL will experience nearly double the OPI penalties it had in 2013. Such is the price, at least in the short term, for top-down attempts to root out a particular technique -- much as the league has tried to minimize helmet-to-helmet contact in previous years. Penalty figures go up and, occasionally, over-attentive officials see violations when there are none.
If you're a team with big receivers and concerned about OPI, you will want to avoid the referee crews of Ed Hochuli (7) and Bill Leavy (5), who have called the most OPI penalties this season, per the penalty database maintained by ESPN Stats & Information. On the other hand, the crews of Clete Blakeman, Gene Steratore and John Parry have called one apiece.
So it's not surprising to see the size of the four NFL receivers who lead the NFL with two OPI penalties after six weeks this season. In addition to Cook, who is 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds, the list includes the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240), the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones (6-3, 220) and the New England Patriots' Brandon LaFell (6-3, 210).
(LaFell leads the league with three OPI penalties after receiving one in Thursday night's Week 7 opener.)
Overall, the San Francisco 49ers were hardest hit by this emphasis through six weeks, having been flagged five times. The Rams, Patriots and Houston Texans had four apiece. (The Patriots have five through seven games.)
Note: As always, the bar graph accompanying this post displays the overall frequency of penalty calls from each of the league's 17 officiating crews.
On the other side of the field, in an area quarterback Philip Rivers never looked because of a strong pass rush, Bills safety Duke Williams had been flagged for defensive holding. Williams briefly had placed his right hand on the back of Chargers tight end Antonio Gates' left shoulder and his left arm on the front. Gates' torso swiveled slightly toward Williams, enough to draw a penalty under the NFL's 2014 emphasis against impeding the movement of eligible receivers.
"That would not have been called a few years ago," CBS announcer and retired quarterback Steve Beuerlein intoned on the broadcast. "By the rules, that is a penalty, no doubt about it. But it's only being called nowadays."
And so it has gone for the first six weeks of the 2014 season. Officials are carrying out a mandate to emphasize three defensive penalties, infractions the NFL's competition committee believed were not being enforced: holding, illegal contact and illegal hands to the face. As the ESPN Stats & Information chart shows, there have been 619 defensive penalties overall this season, up 26.6 percent over 2013 and 41 more than the previous high for any six-week total during the past 10 years.
The penalty spike has coincided with a significant rise in passing efficiency, a trend we explored in last week's Hot Read on Rivers' MVP-caliber start to the season. At least one question remains unanswered, however: To what extent, if any, is there a connection between the surge in penalties and the elevated passing numbers?
I discussed the issue with Rivers during a visit to Chargers practice last month. He noted the Bills' holding call as an example of officiating in 2014, but questioned whether there have been enough such penalties -- minor contact far away from the ball -- to indicate a sea of change. The bigger impact, Rivers suggested, might come in the way defenses ultimately adjust.
"I don't know if you can tell yet," Rivers said. "I think of Buffalo, when we got one where there was a little tug on Gates and it was away from the play. They tugged and they got caught. I felt like, 'Wow, OK. You hadn't seen that as much.' I think it's too early though to know for sure.
"You do wonder if it's allowed for some things to come up cleaner, because defensive players are playing more cautious [so that officials] are not going to call it. It's hard to document. I haven't seen to where I've said, 'Hey, they're calling this thing different.' I haven't seen it yet."
That answer represents a middle ground the NFL hopes to occupy with this emphasis moving forward: Influencing defenders away from certain techniques without changing the fundamental flow or outcome of games. In Buffalo, for instance, the Chargers' second chance led to a short field goal to take a 10-0 lead in an eventual 22-10 victory.
During a recent interview with the Associated Press, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said the increase in penalties has not surprised him. "We're in a good place," Blandino said, and added: "I don't see a diminished product on the field."
That might be a difficult sell for fans who already are inclined to be skeptical of officiating or are simply annoyed by the extra stoppages in play. As an example, the Bills-Chargers game included 20 penalties (accepted and declined), but its 184-minute duration was about average for an NFL game during the past decade.
As we noted in the Rivers story last week, there are plenty of other explanations for the rise in passing efficiency this season. The most significant is a clear trend toward shorter passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage. They are easier to complete, less likely to be dropped and reduce the risk of sacks. Importantly, they occur within the range where one of the emphasized rules -- illegal contact -- still allows defenders to touch receivers.
In the end, it's fair to include this season's points of emphasis as part of a larger story with multiple tentacles. It is by far the most emotional of the contributing factors, but its existence is much easier to document than its impact.
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg via ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves.
You might not have realized it, but entering Week 6, Cutler was having a down year getting the ball downfield. He had completed just 23.3 percent of passes traveling at least 15 yards downfield, second-lowest in the NFL. His 11.8 QBR on such passes was the league's worst. On Sunday, however, Cutler completed 5 of 7 downfield throws for 191 of his 381 yards. Included in that group was a 74-yard pass, one that traveled 50 yards in the air to receiver Alshon Jeffery. How did Cutler turn it around in this game? Mostly through balance with tailback Matt Forte, who rushed for 80 yards on 17 carries and also caught 10 passes (in 11 attempts) within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That gave Cutler a big opening for play-action, and he responded by completing 10 of 13 such throws for 174 yards and a touchdown. In terms of completions and yards, it qualified as Cutler's best day in play-action since joining the Bears in 2009. Finally, Cutler handled the Atlanta Falcons' pressure well. He was put under duress on 13 of his 43 dropbacks, a higher percentage than all but one of his starts this season. But he completed 6 of 10 throws in those situations for 111 yards. Five of those completions led to a first down or touchdown.
It's only fair to note the Falcons have played atrocious downfield passing defense this season; they've allowed an NFL-worst 8.56 yards per attempt. But Cutler gave us a glimpse of what many think the Bears' offense should be, given the speed and size of receivers Brandon Marshall and Jeffery.
Flacco entered the game with three red zone touchdown passes and a Total QBR of 2.4 when in the red zone, third-worst in the NFL. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he completed 5 of 8 passes in the red zone -- including four for touchdowns -- to exceed his season performance in the first quarter alone. For the game, his QBR in the red zone was 99.99 (out of 100). He completed all seven of his first-down attempts, averaging 13.4 yards per attempt, and completed 6 of 8 on third down, including three for touchdowns. Three of his touchdown passes came on throws that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, nearly matching his season total of four such scores. Flacco completed all six of his play-action attempts, the second-most in a game for him without an incompletion, and was exceedingly accurate. Only three of his eight incompletions were judged to be over- or underthrown, tied for his second-fewest in a game during the past five seasons. Finally, all five of Flacco's touchdown passes came when the Buccaneers sent four or fewer pass-rushers, the first time that has happened in an NFL game in three years.
It was difficult to find indicators of anything but a near-perfect performance. It should be noted that the Bucs' defense has given up 15 touchdown passes in six games, tied for the league high. But Flacco exceeded any reasonable expectation against a porous defense, throwing five touchdown passes in the first 16:03 of the game -- the fastest a quarterback has reached that total in a game since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Palmer was efficient on shorter throws, completing 20 of 27 attempts that traveled 10 or fewer yards downfield. Of his 17 throws that traveled farther than 10 yards, only eight were complete. Both throws of more than 20 air yards fell incomplete. Entering Week 6, the Cardinals ranked second in the NFL by averaging six throws of more than 20 air yards per game. Getting Palmer back in the lineup was a boon to receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who set or tied season highs with six receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown. Four of his six receptions converted first downs. Palmer handled the Washington Redskins' blitz better than their standard pressure. Against four or fewer pass-rushers, Palmer completed 18 of 31 passes for 149 yards. Against the blitz, he connected on 10 of 13 throws for 101 yards.
It's likely that Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians dialed back his downfield passing offense to compensate for the nerve issue Palmer has had in his shoulder. Whether Palmer had his usual zip on the ball is a subjective evaluation, but there's no doubt he worked the shorter parts of the field more frequently -- and dabbled deep far less often -- than normal.
The Dallas Cowboys' offensive line not only limited the Seattle Seahawks to one sack, but it gave Romo more time than he usually has -- and more than the Seahawks usually give. Romo took an average of 2.92 seconds before releasing the ball, his highest average in a game this season and the highest the Seahawks have allowed. Entering Week 6, opponents were averaging 2.42 seconds before the throw. As a result, Romo dominated at the most important times. He completed 10 of 15 third-down throws for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Nine of those passes converted first downs, the highest total against the Seahawks' defense since the start of the 2013 season. Among the throws was the third-and-20 conversion pass to Terrance Williams, a play that caused the single-largest swing in win probability (15 percent) of a play in Week 6. Romo's QBR on third down was 96.2, raising his figure this season to 92.8, second only to the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers. Romo became the first quarterback since 2012 to complete three passes of at least 20 air yards in a game against the Seahawks, as most of his success came through the short passing game. He completed 16 of 19 throws that traveled 10 yards or less downfield, totaling 120 yards and two touchdowns.
Romo has had games in which he has completed more passes for more yards and touchdowns. But given the level of difficulty in this game, combined with the way he dictated the tempo, you would have to consider it one of the best performances of his career.
Wilson encountered roadblocks on most of his usual highways against the Cowboys. He threw eight play-action passes but completed only three, for zero net yards, his lowest total in a game this season. He completed all four of his screen passes, but they netted minus-4 yards. And when he tried to get the ball downfield in the fourth quarter to secure a victory, he completed just 1 of 9 passes that traveled at least 10 yards downfield. Overall, his 18.2 completion percentage on such passes was his lowest in that category in a game during his career. Why the trouble? The Cowboys' pressure impacted Wilson in a way it normally does not. He was put under duress on 48.4 percent of his dropbacks (15 of 31), his highest rate of the season, and he completed only 4 of 12 attempts in those situations. That performance included three completions in eight attempts against the blitz. Finally, Wilson was contained in the pocket a week after he rushed for 122 yards in a victory over the Redskins. He scrambled only once for 3 yards and in total rushed only twice for 12 yards.
A game without successful play-action, screen passes or designed runs is a formula for a long day when Wilson is your quarterback. The Cowboys denied him the usual comfort zone and he couldn't adjust to connect on enough deeper throws.
Play: No flag for a helmet-to-helmet hit by Chicago Bears safety Ryan Mundy on Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: As Matt Ryan's pass approached White, Mundy took a textbook 2014 approach, initiating contact with his right shoulder and first striking White's left shoulder. At live speed, however, White's head snapped back -- a tell-tale action that routinely draws flags against modern NFL defenders.
Watching the play in slow motion revealed that, after the shoulder contact, the crown of Mundy's head struck the lower left side of White's helmet. White qualified for defenseless player protection under NFL rules -- "a receiver attempting to catch a pass" -- and Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(b) prohibits "forcibly hitting [the] head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder even if the initial contact is lower than the player's neck."
A note added to that rule states it "does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or helmet in the course of a conventional tackle."
The past few years have conditioned us to expect a penalty on this kind of hit, even though it was once a standard part of legal defensive play. White was defenseless, Mundy made at least some contact with the helmet and White was slow to get up.
But was the contact "incidental?" Former NFL vice president of officiating, Mike Pereira, thought it was and indicated as such on the Fox broadcast. Former NFL referee Jim Daopoulos, on the other hand, tweeted that the hit "is a foul and the flag should not have been picked up."
Anderson's explanation indicated he hadn't seen any helmet-to-helmet contact, so it's difficult to know whether he considered the "incidental" exception. Based on the rules cited, you can make an argument for "incidental" contact even if it wasn't at the root of Anderson's decision. Still, Mundy and the Bears should consider themselves fortunate. These days, any contact forceful enough to cause a head-snap usually leads to a penalty.
Play: Offsetting penalties overturn a Minnesota Vikings turnover against the Detroit Lions
Referee: John Parry
Analysis: Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels fumbled after a 14-yard return in the second quarter. The ball was recovered by the Lions' Tahir Whitehead.
After the play, Parry's crew sorted through three separate penalties. Two were on the Vikings: holding by Shaun Prater and an illegal block on a player Parry announced as No. 47. (There is no 47 on the Vikings' roster.) In addition, the Lions' Julian Stanford was called for illegal use of hands.
The NFL rule book has an entire section devoted to offsetting penalties on a change of possession. The end result was a replay of the down, even though the Vikings had committed two of the three penalties and the Lions had recovered Sherels' fumble.
Why the inequity? The two-word answer is "clean hands."
Here is what Rule 14, Section 5, Article 2 says about a double foul with a change of possession: "[T]he team last gaining possession will keep the ball after enforcement for its foul, provided it did not foul prior to gaining possession ('clean hands'). If the team last in possession does not have "clean hands" when it establishes possession, the penalties offset, and the down is replayed on the previous spot."
In other words, the Lions didn't keep the ball because Stanford committed his penalty before Whitehead recovered the fumble. The Lions didn't have "clean hands" prior to gaining possession, and it was irrelevant to this rule that the Vikings had committed two penalties to the Lions' one. Here's hoping for better hygiene next time.
Play: Unsportsmanlike conduct on Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes for … what?
Referee: Walt Coleman
Analysis: In the first quarter, the Bills' defense stopped New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley for no gain on third-and-1. Hughes celebrated with teammates, at one point reaching over the pile to slap teammate Ty Powell's helmet as Ridley rose from the ground.
Coleman called Hughes for unsportsmanlike conduct, with no further explanation, to give the Patriots a first down. (The extended possession did not result in points.) Why would a player be penalized for hitting his own teammate's helmet? There are a few possibilities, although none are immediately apparent when watching the replay.
Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(b) prohibits "using abusive, threatening or insulting languages or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials or representatives of the league." Did Hughes use a word or phrase toward Powell that Coleman's crew interpreted as "abusive, threatening or insulting?" In addition, Article 1(c) prohibits "using baiting or taunting acts or word that engender ill will between teams." Hughes' helmet blocks any visual view of whether he was saying anything, let alone something that qualifies here.
Meanwhile, Article 1(d) prohibits "prolonged or excessive celebrations or demonstrations," defined as a player continuing "to celebrate after a warning from an official." If Hughes was warned for what seemed to be a short-lived celebration, it's not visible on the replay.
Ridley had to redirect himself slightly to get around Hughes' arms as he rose from the ground. Was that enough to qualify as an "abusive" gesture? I would think not. Nor should it qualify under Article 1(a), which prohibits "throwing a punch, or a forearm, or kicking at an opponent, even though no contact is made."
Absent a more specific ruling from the NFL, the likeliest explanation: Coleman's crew thought Hughes either smacked Ridley's helmet or was trying to. Otherwise, the call is difficult to explain.
That was the sense many of you had Monday night when referee Jeff Triplette's crew called Seattle Seahawks guard James Carpenter for unnecessary roughness, wiping out a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to receiver Percy Harvin. When you watch the replay, you see Carpenter blocking Washington Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker to the ground and then diving on top of him in what seemed a standard finish of the block.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll initially termed the penalty "outrageous" and complained to the league about it. Presumably, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told Carroll the same thing he said this week on the NFL Network. Did you know that a player on the ground is considered in a "defenseless posture," thus making his head and neck area off limits to contact? Carpenter didn't, Carroll didn't and I'm guessing most of us in the audience did not, as well.
As part of its effort to increase player safety, the NFL lists 10 definitions of a defenseless player in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a). No. 5: "A player on the ground." Article 7(b) notes that prohibited contact against a defenseless player includes "forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder ..."
As a result of Carpenter's block, Baker was on the ground. By NFL rule, Carpenter needed either to leave him alone -- a difficult request for an offensive lineman during a live play -- or "bury" him with contact to an area other than the head or neck. (Carpenter's forearm appeared to hit Baker high, intentionally or otherwise.)
I think we can agree that this penalty isn't called on every occurrence. What's surprising is that Triplette's crew has called what I term "behavior penalties" relatively infrequently this season.
The ESPN Stats & Information chart below compiles all calls, accepted or declined, for personal fouls, roughing, taunting, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct. These penalties all require some level of subjective judgment, as opposed to, say, false starts -- which either happened or didn't.
Triplette's crew called a total of five through the first five weeks of 2014, placing it near the bottom of the league's 17 crews. Based on these figures, which most NFL teams monitor as well, you're more likely to get away with a hit on a defenseless player with crews led by Triplette, Walt Coleman, Bill Leavy or Pete Morelli than you are with the crews of Gene Steratore or Jerome Boger. Steratore has called more than six times the number of these penalties than those at the bottom of the list.
Meanwhile, at the top of this post is our weekly look at frequency of all calls from each crew. (Thanks to ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin for the fancy upgraded graphic.)
In a span of six months, Woods has mobilized the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) from thin air, signing hundreds of players and about 25 coaches to split among four teams for a six-week season that opens Wednesday night. Most coaches have NFL connections on their résumés and the player pool is comprised primarily of those players released during or after the NFL preseason this summer. Officials will be culled from a Division I pool that feeds the NFL officiating development program.
"I'm most proud of the fact that we've mobilized in such a short period of time," Woods said. "The gestation period of a pro sports league, I assure you, is normally more than six months. We're very pleased with our progress in such a short time in an abbreviated time period we had. Overall, we're in a good place."
What is this?
I've chronicled the FXFL's progress a few times this summer, but here are the basics for newcomers: Teams will be based in Brooklyn, Boston and Omaha, Nebraska. A fourth team, originally intended for Miami, is instead a roving "all-star" team that will play all its games on the road. There are 120 players under contract now, 40 per team, but Woods estimates that 250 will cycle onto the field at some point during the season.
They will earn about $1,000 per week playing in either minor league baseball stadiums (Omaha, Brooklyn) or college facilities (Boston). For context, consider that an NFL rookie earns $17,823 weekly to be on the 53-man roster and $6,300 weekly on the practice squad. Still, the FXFL has attracted a handful of 2014 NFL draft choices, most notably Boston quarterback Tajh Boyd, a sixth-round pick of the New York Jets.
The frenetic run-up to this season, however, has belied a simple and foreboding fact:
Every alternative football league -- from the United States Football League to the Xtreme Football League to the United Football League to NFL Europe -- has failed for economic reasons. Woods has said the league has enough financing to play out the 2014 season, although he won't comment on the source or extent of it.
The FXFL's television contracts are barter-only, generating no revenue but for a share of advertising, and game tickets went on sale just three weeks ago. By Woods' own admission, the league's future likely is tied to arranging a formal affiliation with the NFL.
Woods has been in regular contact with team executives who are monitoring the FXFL's progress and, in some cases, requesting roster spots for specific players who remain on their radar.
"My discussions have been really good in that regard," Woods said. "I have been in contact with several team front office people and gotten phone calls from coaching staffs in the NFL. Right now, I have a very good relationship with the member clubs, but our goal is still to achieve a formal partnership with the league itself."
What it will look like
Is it possible to pull together so many people so quickly and produce a meaningful product? I spoke this week with Terry Shea, a longtime NFL assistant and independent quarterback tutor who is head coach of the Boston franchise, to get his early impressions. Shea compared the exercise to preparing for a college all-star game.
"It's a similar approach where you're dealing with players for a few days before they play their game," he said. "In this case, we've had four or five more days than an all-star game. I'd say we probably have double the amount of volume for these players."
Teams have been practicing for about two weeks, in fact. Shea's players typically meet from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., have a 45-minute walk-through in the early afternoon and then practice for up to two-and-a-half hours in the late afternoon. "It's about teaching these players how to set up a routine that they can use if they get back to the NFL," Shea said.
Shea's team will run the "three-digit" offensive scheme popularized by Don Coryell and still run by about a half-dozen NFL teams. Woods has mandated some teams play a 3-4 defense while others use a 4-3 to ensure experience against both alignments, and he has also adopted a series of suggestions from retired special-teams guru Mike Westhoff to ensure a maximum challenge on special teams.
Extra points will be kicked from 35 yards out, and all kicks will come from a wide hashmark to increase difficulty. Kickoffs will be set at the 25-yard line to reduce touchbacks and increase coverage opportunities. However, the returning team will be required to line up eight of its 11 men between the 35- and 45-yard lines in an experiment aimed at reducing the possibility of high-impact collisions.
"I really sense there is a need for a league like this," Shea said. "We certainly don't have a lack of players that are jumping at the opportunity to play for us, nor is there a lack of skill. The skill level of many of these players is on an NFL level, not necessarily to go in and start, but to have a chance to earn their way onto a 53-man roster. They just need some help. I think from an interest category and skill level, we've got a good chance to be successful."
The NFL will be watching.
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg via ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves.
The Cincinnati Bengals hit or put Brady under duress on 13.2 percent of his dropbacks, a notable reduction from a figure of 20 percent in Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs. In other words, Brady had a cleaner pocket to throw from in Week 5. Not surprisingly, he had his most accurate downfield passing game of the season, completing 6 of 9 passes of at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage for 128 yards and a touchdown. (In his first four games, those numbers were seven completions in 32 attempts for 128 yards.) His first-quarter QBR of 99.0, powered by seven completions in eight attempts for 144 yards and a touchdown, set the tone for the game. Previously, his first-quarter QBR was 38.4, the fifth worst in the NFL.
The real concern about Brady in recent weeks has been that inconsistent pass protection had left him skittish even when not pressured. Sunday night's game seemed to refute that theory. He threw well when given the opportunity.
A clear downturn when tight end Jimmy Graham departed because of a shoulder injury. Prior to that point, Brees had completed 12 of 18 passes for 176 yards (9.8 yards/attempt). After the injury, Brees completed 23 of 39 passes for 195 yards (5.0 yards/attempt) with three interceptions. During that stretch, he completed just 3 of 10 passes that traveled 15 or more yards downfield. In the end, the Saints relied on their screen play to get back in the game and force overtime. Brees completed all eight of those throws, including one for a touchdown to Pierre Thomas.
There have been some questions about Brees' arm strength and overall performance in the Saints' shaky 2-3 start. But their problems Sunday, at least, are more likely traced to Graham's injury.
The second-worst QBR of the weekend (16.0) was driven largely by Flacco's ineffective performance against the blitz and pressure. He missed on 10 of 17 passes against the Indianapolis Colts' blitz, and when he was under duress -- when the blitz got home -- he completed just 1 of 7 passes. In his previous two games, Flacco had completed 9 of 13 passes when under duress. An 11-yard sack on fourth-and-1 at the Colts' 3-yard line was particularly damaging, dropping the Ravens' win probability by 12.9 percent. It's no surprise that Flacco struggled to get downfield, completing just 2 of 7 passes that traveled at least 15 yards. None of those targets were to receiver Steve Smith. Finally, Flacco's QBR on third down was 2.1 after he converted a first down on only 1 of 9 attempts.
Left tackle Eugene Monroe's absence (knee) had a dramatic impact. The Ravens' passing game had its worst game of the season.
Hoyer had excellent accuracy and production on passes thrown outside the numbers and downfield. He missed on only 4 of 15 throws toward the sideline, totaling 161 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner. Throwing in between the numbers, Hoyer completed just 10 of 22 passes. He connected on 11 of 17 passes thrown at least 11 yards downfield, gaining 238 yards, while completing only 10 of 20 passes thrown 10 or fewer yards in the air. He also completed seven passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, a single-game career high.
If you're going to lead the greatest road comeback in NFL history, as Hoyer did, you're going to have to make big throws. Efficient midrange passes won't erase a 25-point deficit. Hoyer quickly has gained a reputation as pressure performer. His QBR in the fourth quarter this season is 75.4, eighth highest in the NFL, and he has two fourth-quarter comeback victories. Of his five career victories, three have featured fourth-quarter comebacks.
A low 30.1 QBR could be traced in large part to a second-quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown. Otherwise, Orton played a strong fourth quarter as the Buffalo Bills scored 10 points to overcome the Detroit Lions. A 4.8 QBR through three quarters gave way to a 93.4 QBR in the fourth. (Former starter EJ Manuel has a 10.4 QBR in the fourth quarter.) Most of Orton's success came against standard pressure (24 completions in 30 attempts, 267 yards). Against the Lions' blitz, he completed 6 of 13 passes for 41 yards. He also completed 7-of-12 and had a 99.5 QBR on passes that traveled at least 11 yards downfield; Manuel had completed 13 of 39 such passes this season.
Orton was hardly perfect, but the numbers show he was a clear upgrade over Manuel for this game.
My goal isn't simply to criticize officials for poor calls or praise them for good ones, but to expose the gray area involved -- both in the individual decisions and the entire exercise of officiating at large. Feel free to tweet play nominations or other suggestions my way at @SeifertESPN. In this inaugural attempt, I'll shut it down after a round number of three.
(@SethSimonson suggested culling everything from the active night of referee Jerome Boger in the New England Patriots' 43-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, but I'll branch out a bit more than that.)
Play: Unnecessary roughness penalty on New York Jets linebacker Quinton Coples
Referee crew: Ronald Torbert
Analysis: Two different plays occur when reviewing this instance: one in live view and another in replay. Initially, it appeared that Coples -- after reaching the San Diego Chargers' backfield unblocked -- knocked down running back Ronald Brown with an arm to the chest, a legal play. Upon review, however, it's clear that Coples' left biceps struck the left side of Brown's helmet and part of his face mask as well.
The force not only upended Brown for a 2-yard loss, but it also dislodged his helmet and caused a concussion.
The NFL doesn't specifically outlaw "clothesline" tackles in its rule book. Officials inconsistently call it, but in this case, Coples' contact to Brown's helmet seemed a fair penalty prompt. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12(c) states: "All players are prohibited from striking, swinging at or clubbing the head, neck or face of an opponent with the wrist(s), arm(s), elbow(s) or hand(s)."
Referee crew: Boger
Analysis: The block occurred during a nebulous moment; officials were late to blow the whistle after an incomplete pass to Bengals receiver A.J. Green. In the live view, it appeared Green might have caught the pass and fumbled, prompting safety Patrick Chung to scoop the ball and begin returning. (The back judge threw a bean bag, seemingly noting a change of possession.)
As the whistles blew, Easley approached Bengals running back Gio Bernard and knocked him down with a forceful block on the back of the left shoulder. Boger penalized Easley 15 yards for the hit, stating: "After the play was over, unnecessary roughness with a blindside block."
Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 (8) states that a "defenseless player" is a one who receives a 'blindside' block when the path of the offensive blocker is toward or parallel to his own end line, and he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side."
Another complicating factor was that, technically, the block came after the play was over. Chung's apparent return was not live. The play ended when the ball fell from Green's hands. The rule book doesn't explicitly state that such penalties are limited to "live" occasions, but it stands to reason that a block can't happen when there is no return. Former NFL officiating supervisor Mike Pereira was among those who put forth that argument.
Play: Chop-block penalty on Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas
Referee crew: Bill Leavy
Analysis: Generally speaking, a chop-block occurs when one player hits a defender low and the other hits him high. In this case, Thomas cut-blocked Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell with contact to his right leg, causing Campbell to suffer an MCL injury. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians declared it the dirtiest play he had seen in 37 years.
It's not entirely clear, however, whether the play was even illegal, much less dirty. (Update: The NFL confirmed Monday that it was an illegal chop block.) The player who ostensibly blocked Campbell high was left tackle Ryan Clady, whose only contact with Campbell came as Campbell fell into him. One interpretation suggests this was still an illegal "lure block," described in an example within Rule 12, Section 2, Article 3 of the rule book: "A1 [Thomas] chops a defensive player while A2 [Clady] confronts the defensive player in a pass-blocking posture but is not physically engaged with the defensive player."
Did Clady "confront" Campbell? It's true that he faced Campbell in a pass-blocking stance. Did Campbell turn away from Thomas to focus on beating Clady? This is the gray area where so many officiating decisions lie. In the NFL, a "confrontation" can occur without physical contact. If this play doesn't reflect the intent of the "lure block" rule, I would like to know what does.
In 2014, however, we appear to have a smoking gun. All five Thursday night games this season have been blowouts, with an average scoring margin of 29 points. And while short preparation times are a reasonable explanation for one team's ineptitude, I do think it's important to step back and examine the larger history of Thursday night football.
Between 2006-13, as the chart shows, there was minimal difference between scoring margins for Thursday games and those played on other days. If the quick turnaround to Thursday night were the cause of this season's blowouts, don't you think that trend would have emerged at some point during the previous eight years?
What's more likely? That Thursday night games suddenly have a different impact on NFL players and teams? Or that this year's experience is an outlier and, based on history, is unlikely to sustain itself for the entire season?
Believe me, I'm don't support Thursday night football anymore than you do. I just think if we're going to call for its ouster, we need to find support more tangible than the fact that we just don't like it or that it doesn't feel normal.
Some of you would note that the Minnesota Vikings could have had quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the lineup if Thursday's game at the Green Bay Packers had been played on Sunday. Instead, the Vikings were forced to start Christian Ponder in 42-10 loss. But that seems more of a singular event than a well-worn theme that applies to all Thursday games.
The bottom line is that the NFL seems unlikely to move away from these games, for which CBS is paying it a reported $275 million this year, unless there is clear and obvious documentation of an inferior product. To this point, we just don't have it.
That reticence has softened in 2014, most recently during a rare public exchange with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) over a pair of disputed calls. Generally speaking, more officiating talk is better, and we're getting it frequently from vice president of officiating Dean Blandino. (Not coincidentally, both Blandino and executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent recently become active on Twitter as well.)
Officials have noticed, and this week they prompted an important admission into the public sphere. Specifically: Call accuracy isn't nearly as binary as you might think. To "right" or "wrong," the NFL also adds "we understand."
At issue was a blindside block on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles in Week 3 and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah on Monday night. Washington Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker was ejected for the hit, but in explaining why it didn't draw a league fine, Vincent said it was a legal block in the first place. A league spokesman, meanwhile, quickly issued a statement Tuesday morning announcing that Abdullah -- who went to the ground to pray after returning an interception for a touchdown -- should not have been penalized.
According to the NFLRA, however, neither of the officials who made those calls were downgraded in their weekly postgame evaluations by the league. That prompted an obvious question: Why was the league offering implied public criticism that countered its internal judgment? Retired referee Scott Green said in a statement that "it seems there is a disconnect between what the Officiating Department expects from officials and the public statements being made by league executives."
The NFL's response, I thought, was revealing. From Thursday's statement:
"As part of evaluating the performance of our game officials, the officiating supervisors recognize that for an incorrect call on a close judgment play the official may have used appropriate reasoning. On such a call, the official is not downgraded."
Regarding the hit on Foles, the league went as far as to say: "While not a correct call, we understand why it was made."
Officials have long accepted that fans and media members will dissect their decisions, but it's relatively rare for the league to weigh in on the public debate. You might view this exchange as internal posturing, or the NFL crafting a middle ground to extinguish a public flare. Regardless, however, the end result was important to our understanding of officiating in the NFL.
As we've noted many times, officials must apply the NFL's thick and complex rulebook in split-second intervals during live action. Some calls are simply missed, and officials are downgraded accordingly. But in others, the league acknowledges it can't demand that the right call be made. So it goes.
As always, accompanying this post is our weekly look at the frequency of penalty calls among the NFL's 17 officiating crews. You'll see that the range remains substantial; an average game called by Carl Cheffers' crew has had twice as many penalties as one by Clete Blakeman's.
9:30 AM ET Detroit Atlanta 1:00 PM ET St. Louis Kansas City 1:00 PM ET Houston Tennessee 1:00 PM ET Minnesota Tampa Bay 1:00 PM ET Seattle Carolina 1:00 PM ET Baltimore Cincinnati 1:00 PM ET Miami Jacksonville 1:00 PM ET Chicago New England 1:00 PM ET Buffalo New York 4:05 PM ET Philadelphia Arizona 4:25 PM ET Oakland Cleveland 4:25 PM ET Indianapolis Pittsburgh 8:30 PM ET Green Bay New Orleans