NFL Nation: Inside Slant

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

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.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
AP Photo/Mike RoemerPanthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was ejected for making contact with back judge Steve Freeman in Carolina's game in Green Bay.
Plays: Two linebackers, Erik Walden of the Indianapolis Colts and Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers, were ejected for making contact with an official.
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.
For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

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.
The Buffalo Bills' defense celebrated for about two seconds before realizing the irrelevance of its reaction. Cornerback Nickell Robey had broken up a third-down pass, seemingly stopping the San Diego Chargers' offense at the Bills' 32-yard line. At best, the Chargers faced a long field goal on a windy day in Week 3. Instead, they were soon rolling after a gifted first down.

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.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 6 QB Report

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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.

Jay Cutler
Chicago Bears
WEEK 6 vs. ATL: W, 27-13
NEXT: 10/19 vs. MIA
CMP: 26
ATT: 38
YDS: 381
PCT: 68.4
TD: 1
INT: 0

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.

Joe Flacco
Baltimore Ravens
WEEK 6 vs. TB: W, 48-17
NEXT: 10/19 vs. ATL
CMP: 21
ATT: 29
YDS: 306
PCT: 72.4
TD: 5
INT: 0

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.

Carson Palmer
Arizona Cardinals
WEEK 6 vs. WAS: W, 30-20
NEXT: 10/19 at OAK
CMP: 28
ATT: 44
YDS: 250
PCT: 63.6
TD: 2
INT: 0

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.

Tony Romo
Dallas Cowboys
WEEK 6 vs. SEA: W, 30-23
NEXT: 10/19 vs. NYG
CMP: 21
ATT: 32
YDS: 250
PCT: 65.6
TD: 2
INT: 0

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.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks
WEEK 6 vs. DAL: L, 30-23
NEXT: 10/19 at STL
CMP: 14
ATT: 28
YDS: 126
PCT: 50.0
TD: 0
INT: 1

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.

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN).

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.

[+] EnlargeRoddy White
Todd Kirkland/Icon SportswireRyan Mundy wasn't penalized for this hit Sunday on Roddy White.
The assumption is that helmet-to-helmet contact causes a head-snap. On cue, Anderson's crew dropped a late flag. But after discussion, Anderson waved it off and said there was no foul because the "contact was with the shoulder."

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.
One of the fashionable criticisms of NFL officiating is to suggest that it's now illegal to "play football" the way most of us conceive of the game. Physical play, violent contact and now even pancake blocks at times appear fair game for penalties.

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 editor Brett Longdin for the fancy upgraded graphic.)

Brian Woods began jotting down a business plan last summer, hoping it could one day fill football's need for a domestic developmental league. When NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent unexpectedly opened the bidding in April, Woods scrambled into action.

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.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
AP Photo/Chris SzagolaThe new FXFL will give players who are within three years of draft eligibility, such as Tajh Boyd, a chance to continue to develop and audition for NFL teams.
If all goes as (somewhat chaotically) planned, the FXFL will provide a viable platform for marginal players to receive "live" training, ultimately giving NFL teams better-prepared in-season roster replacements. Woods hopes that 25-30 percent of FXFL players return to the NFL this fall, boosted by schematic guidelines that will maximize their in-game reps. NFL teams will be able to monitor players in real time via a television schedule that will reach nearly 100 million homes by funneling 14 regional broadcasters onto ESPN3.

"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.

Tom Brady
New England Patriots
WEEK 5 vs. CIN: W, 43-17
NEXT: 10/12 at BUF
CMP: 23
ATT: 35
YDS: 292
PCT: 65.7
TD: 2
INT: 0

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.

Drew Brees
New Orleans Saints
WEEK 5 vs. T: W, 37-31
NEXT: 10/19 at DET
CMP: 35
ATT: 57
YDS: 371
PCT: 61.4
TD: 2
INT: 3

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.

Joe Flacco
Baltimore Ravens
WEEK 5 vs. IND: L, 20-13
NEXT: 10/12 at TB
CMP: 22
ATT: 38
YDS: 235
PCT: 57.9
TD: 0
INT: 1

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.

Brian Hoyer
Cleveland Browns
WEEK 5 vs. TEN: W, 29-28
NEXT: 10/12 vs. PIT
CMP: 21
ATT: 37
YDS: 292
PCT: 56.8
TD: 3
INT: 1

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.

Kyle Orton
Buffalo Bills
WEEK 5 vs. DET: W, 17-14
NEXT: 10/12 vs. NE
CMP: 30
ATT: 43
YDS: 308
PCT: 69.8
TD: 1
INT: 1

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.

For the past two years, I've tried to shed some light on the world of NFL officiating through a penalty database provided by ESPN Stats & Information. Now, it's time to expand our look into specific calls that often carry the postgame discussion on Monday and Tuesday.

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)."

[+] EnlargeArizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (93) leaves the game against the Denver Broncos during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, in Denver. ()
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyCalais Campbell suffered an MCL injury when he was chop-blocked by Broncos tight end Julius Thomas.
Play: Unnecessary roughness penalty, blindside block, on Patriots defensive lineman Dominique Easley.
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.
A few of you came along last year on our season-long journey to document what appeared to be inferior football on Thursday nights. But as hard as we tried, finding supporting facts proved vexing.

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.
There was a time -- oh, about a year ago -- when the NFL wanted no part of a public discussion about officiating. And except in rare occasions, the only reaction it provided to controversial calls was a copy of the applicable rule.

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.
Way back in 1996, when Adam Vinatieri entered the NFL, a practice session for kickers was a relative breeze. It included an attempt or two in the 20-yard range, a few in the 30's and 40's and -- if the coach was feeling frisky -- a moonshot from beyond 50 yards.

This summer, on a day I visited with Vinatieri at the Indianapolis Colts' training camp, things were a bit different.

"If I were to go back and look at all of my camp distances," Vinatieri said, "I bet I'd find only a couple that were in the 30's. Right away, we jump back to 40-plus and work back. If I have seven kicks, three of them will be from beyond 50. We'll have one from 50, one from 55 and yesterday I hit one from 60. It was 50, 55 and 60 versus the days of hitting 30-yarders. You have to be able to hit that long ball to play in this league now."

Football has transformed during Vinatieri's 18-year career, and not just in the explosive rise of passing offense. There has also been a dramatic rise in kicking accuracy, especially from long distances. As recently as five years ago, 50-plus yard attempts were a 50-50 proposition. In 2013, NFL place-kickers converted 67.1 percent of them, and the rate has risen to nearly 72 percent during the first quarter of 2014.

In other words, place-kickers are converting 50-yard attempts at a higher rate than quarterbacks are completing passes.

"Even 10 years ago, a 50-yarder was a very big deal," Cincinnati Bengals place-kicker Mike Nugent said. "A guy would hit a 50-yarder and it was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's a big thing.' ... But now, you just expect it. The 50-yarder isn't, 'I hope it goes in.' It's more expected now."

Go back to 1996, when Vinatieri was beginning his career with the New England Patriots. That season, the 30-team NFL attempted a combined 58 field goals from 50 yards or beyond. This season, the league's 32 teams have set a pace to nearly triple that figure; through four weeks, they have already attempted 32 from at least 50 yards.

OK, so we know the situation. Place-kickers are far more accurate, and coaches much more confident, from distances once considered bleak. Now, let's start the process of understanding why.

As part of my summer camp tour, I quizzed kickers about how their profession got so good so fast. Why is the NFL scrambling for ways to make it more difficult, via longer extra points? And why did a Super Bowl-winning coach get rewarded for playing for a 61-yard game-winning field goal last season? (See Harbaugh, John, Week 15 of the Baltimore Ravens' 2013 season.)

Theories revolved around three areas: Youth emphasis, honed techniques and physical growth. We're not going to author the definitive study on this evolution today, but let's at least take a quick sample of each idea:
  • Colts punter/kicker Pat McAfee: "A big thing now is that you get a chance to go to the kicking camps that happen across the globe. Parents are sending their kids to them because there's less danger [kicking rather than playing another position] and there's a chance of getting a scholarship. So you have people trying to get into these positions. Whenever you have kids starting earlier, working harder, younger, you're going to get better."
  • Crosby
    Green Bay Packers place-kicker Mason Crosby: "It comes down to specialized training. When I first started kicking, it was just kind of line up, get in a spot you feel comfortable in, maybe watch what some of the guys did in the NFL or college. But now it's like golf. Everyone is a little bit different and you have to kind of own that, but guys are realizing that they need to repeat the same thing every time. Take your steps back, your steps over and be in a position that is repeatable every time. Every time you get in your set up, you must feel comfortable that you're going to execute my kick."
  • Nugent: "It's funny. I could attribute it to the same thing we talk about with other positions. What's a nose tackle today compared to a nose tackle in, say, the '80s? He's bigger and stronger. That's across the board."

Where will this take the game? Can the 60-plus-yard kick, attempted four times last season and eight in 2012, become the new 50? Rules returning the ball to opponents at the spot of a kick following a miss might discourage coaches, but accuracy over time could shift convention.

"Everything is moving back," McAfee said. "It used to be that a 40-yarder was a long one. Now, if you're missing 40-yarders, you're not even in the Arena League. So with more practice and more technique perfection, it could happen."

At this rate, of course, we'll be asking in a few years if 70 could be the new 60.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 4 QB Report

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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.

Blake Bortles
Jacksonville Jaguars
WEEK 4 vs. SD: L, 33-14
NEXT: 10/5 vs. PIT
CMP: 29
ATT: 37
PCT: 78.4
YDS: 253
TD: 1
INT: 2

A high completion percentage that can be traced to a majority of high-percentage throws. Bortles threw 25 passes that traveled 5 or fewer yards downfield, completing 21 of them. Only three of his 37 passes traveled 15 yards or more downfield. (One was complete.) Overall, Bortles' average pass traveled 4.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, the sixth-lowest average for a quarterback in a game this season. He did complete 5 of 7 passes from outside the pocket and had a 99.0 QBR on third down after completing all eight of his attempts. (Five converted first downs.) The Jaguars' 9-for-14 performance on third down far exceeded their 9-for-37 figure in their first three games under Chad Henne. Against the blitz, Bortles completed 8 of 9 passes but for a total of only 63 yards.


The Jaguars gave Bortles a menu of modest difficulty in his first start. It made sense to keep it short and get him outside the pocket when possible. Sometimes that is what a rookie needs.

Teddy Bridgewater
Minnesota Vikings
WEEK 4 vs. ATL: W, 41-28
NEXT: 10/2 at GB
CMP: 19
ATT: 30
PCT: 63.3
YDS: 317
TD: 0
INT: 0

Bridgewater accumulated 246 of his 317 yards on passes over the middle and that's where he connected for seven of receiver Jarius Wright's eight receptions. Bridgewater also benefitted from 193 yards gained after the catch, including 99 by Wright. Play-action worked well; Bridgewater completed 9 of 13 such attempts for 151 yards -- better than all but four NFL quarterbacks' single-game performance on play-action this season. The Atlanta Falcons blitzed him rarely (18.2 percent of his dropbacks), and when facing four or fewer rushers, Bridgewater completed 16 of 24 passes for 228 yards.


Bridgewater's success between the numbers didn't answer pre-draft concerns about his arm strength and ability to drive balls outside the numbers. But that can wait for another day. Overall, Bridgewater performed with efficiency and accuracy within a game plan that played to his strengths and his inexperience.

Nick Foles
Philadelphia Eagles
WEEK 4 vs. SF: L, 26-21
NEXT: 10/5 vs. STL
CMP: 21
ATT: 43
PCT: 48.8
YDS: 195
TD: 0
INT: 2

Foles attempted a career-high 15 passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, but he completed only two. Two others were intercepted. Of those 15 throws, 10 traveled at least 21 yards downfield. All 10 were incomplete. The Eagles struggled to protect him amid a series of offensive line injuries and he completed only 48.6 percent of his passes (18 of 37) against the San Francisco 49ers' standard pass rush. His two interceptions on such throws were a career high. Finally, Foles over- or underthrew 14 of his 43 attempts, the highest single-game total for a quarterback in Week 4.


Foles' struggles on downfield throws were in stark contrast to his 2013 performance, when he led the NFL with a 52.2 completion percentage on throws that traveled 15 or more yards downfield. His inaccuracy is also a concern; he leads the NFL with 41 over- or underthrows this season.

Mike Glennon
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
WEEK 4 vs. PIT: W, 27-24
NEXT: 10/5 at NO
CMP: 21
ATT: 42
PCT: 50.0
YDS: 302
TD: 2
INT: 1

Of his 302 yards, 81 percent (245) came in the second half. He completed 6 of 9 passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, including 3-for-3 in the fourth quarter, and also completed 7 of 11 passes on third down. Six of those throws converted first downs. Although he completed only two of his 10 red zone passes, one was the game-winning touchdown pass. He struggled against the blitz, completing just 6 of 18 passes for 63 yards and an interception, but diced up the Steelers' standard pass rush for 239 yards and both of his touchdown passes.


Glennon made his best throws count, and the analysis supports what the visual indicated. Glennon performed well late in the game under intense pressure, one of the most difficult tasks for a young quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers
WEEK 4 vs. CHI: W, 38-17
NEXT: 10/2 vs. MIN
CMP: 22
ATT: 28
PCT: 78.6
YDS: 302
TD: 4
INT: 0

Rodgers' career-high 99.0 QBR tells you Sunday's romp over the Chicago Bears was one of the best overall games. The Bears tried to beat him with the standard pass rush that limited him in Week 3 at Detroit, but Rodgers reversed both that trend and several others. Facing four or fewer pass-rushers on 71.4 percent of his attempts, Rodgers completed 18 of 20 such passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns. (He completed only 58.3 percent of such passes in Week 3.) He also hit all six of his attempts that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, for 163 yards and a touchdown, after completing only one against the Lions. For good measure, Rodgers completed all seven attempts on third down, accounting for two of his touchdowns, and went 10-of-12 on play-action plays, even as the Packers struggled to run the ball (56 net yards).


It was folly to believe the Lions exposed a 2014 antidote to Rodgers via rushing four and playing coverage against him. We must blame the Bears' defense a bit -- it only put Rodgers under duress on four of his 30 dropbacks -- but Rodgers was sharper than he has been in some time. Only five of his 28 passes were judged off target. The rest? Money.

Over the years, I've noted how the considerable heftiness of the NFL rulebook has inevitably left officials struggling to keep it all on quick recall. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight added some data to the idea last month, noting its 70,000 words is nearly three times the length of FIFA's rulebook, more than twice that of the NBA's and considerably larger than what Major League Baseball and the NHL use.

The latest consequence took place last Sunday in Cleveland, when referee Bill Leavy's crew failed to recognize that a Cleveland Browns trick play violated league rules. Leavy was bailed out when his crew caught an unrelated Browns penalty, but absent that, the Browns would have gotten credit for the kind of "hideout" play that the NFL's competition committee wants to eliminate.

A quick synopsis: Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel jogged toward the sideline after a play but stopped just short of the white line, as if he were talking to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Manziel stood at the 38-yard line with his back to the line of scrimmage.

The Baltimore Ravens didn't realize Manziel was in essence a wide receiver for the ensuing play, and at the snap, he took off downfield under Shanahan's direction. Running back Terrance West wasn't set at the snap, however, and Leavy's crew called an illegal shift penalty.

But as designed, the play was illegal -- as Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 informs any inquiring mind that wants to search for it. Offensive players can't line up within five yards from the sideline when in front of the team's "bench area," which is defined as between the 32-yard lines. For this play to have been legal, Manziel would have needed to be farther away from Shanahan -- where the Ravens would have been more likely to spot him -- and the Browns would have needed the line of scrimmage to be inside the 32.

Otherwise, the NFL considers the trick play to be unsportsmanlike conduct. You can debate among yourselves whether that should be the case, but the point is that it wasn't intuitive enough for Leavy's crew to process Manziel's position and make the connection.

To me, this is not inexcusable. It's the result of 70,000 words scrambled inside the human brain, and as you might recall, it's not the first time Leavy's crew has missed or misapplied a rule in recent years.

Moving on, this post contains two charts.

The first, to the right, is our weekly look at penalty frequency among the NFL's 17 officiating crews. You'll see that the range remains notable. If Clete Blakeman's crew has your game, you've seen less than half the average penalties as Ronald Torbert's, Tony Corrente's or Carl Cheffers' (not including Thursday night's game at FedEx Field).

The second chart updates how each crew has reacted to three major points of emphasis this season. Again, through three weeks, the range is significant. When one crew has been more than four times as active on a group of penalties as another, as the chart indicates, it's worth noting.

A 245-pound linebacker who hasn't missed a game in nine seasons powers through the line, chases down the quarterback and records the 13th sack of his career. The Detroit Lions' Stephen Tulloch is so excited that he jumps as high as his battered body will take him, bending his legs to maximize the effect. When he lands, the ACL in his left knee snaps, ending his season.

The same day, a tight end who has spent much of the past year engaged in hip-strengthening exercises catches a screen pass with no defender near him. The Baltimore Ravens' Dennis Pitta stumbles as he begins to run. His body jerks to the right and he crumples to the ground. His right hip is dislocated, a rare and severe injury that threatens his career.

[+] EnlargeStephen Tulloch
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiStephen Tulloch had been a model of durability until a freak injury on Sunday during a sack celebration.
By now, most football observers accept that injuries are unavoidable amid such a violent game. When strong men collide at high speeds, something has to give. That understanding, however, makes it more jarring to see serious noncontact injuries result from the simplest of movements. How can this happen? Are they preventable? Or does it mean the injuries were fated to happen regardless?

I reached out to a couple of medical experts to better understand what happened in each instance. As it turns out, the injuries to Tulloch and Pitta are different on almost every level. There are some interesting theories that could explain Tulloch's mishap, but Pitta's case likely relates to a similar injury he suffered last year.

Tulloch was one of the NFL's most reliable players before Sunday, having appeared in 131 consecutive games since the Tennessee Titans drafted him in 2006. Previously, he played in 34 consecutive games at NC State and hadn't missed a game of any sort since 2003. So it was confounding to see his left leg bend awkwardly upon descent from his jump. Watching the replay, Dr. Bryan Kelly -- the chief of sports medicine and shoulder service at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City -- was reminded of an injury that occurs often in another sport.

"In women's basketball, this is one of the most common injuries," he said. "You see players land after they jump and tear their ACLs. … There is some thought that there is a mechanical difference in the way [women's] knees are formed that affects the geometry of the knee. The notch where the ACL is might be [different]."

Kelly hasn't examined Tulloch and couldn't speak specifically to the structure of his knee. Kelly did, however, point out that noncontact ACL injuries are more common in football than most people realize. According to statistics released by the NFL in January, 25 percent of torn ACLs (31 of 124) during the past three seasons occurred with no contact. (The figures don't include offseason work or practices.)

ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell believes it's possible that Tulloch's body wasn't as braced during the sack celebration as it otherwise would have been during a play.

[+] EnlargeDennis Pitta
AP Photo/David RichardDennis Pitta's serious hip injury threatens his career.
"When we're training athletes to come back from injuries," Bell said, "we talk about neuromuscular patterns, muscular control and dynamic muscularization. You're focused on the movement task. At some point, they reach a level where they're no longer thinking about it. The athletic firing habits become ingrained into the whole neuromuscular coordination system.

"This could all have been blind, stupid bad luck. But it's something that pops into your mind. He wasn't engaged in an athletic task. He was just being silly. You wonder if there is a delay in the reaction pattern [within the body] that makes it easier for it to happen. I'm sure some people would say that's ridiculous, but other people would say that's a component."

Pitta, meanwhile, dislocated his hip about 14 months after suffering a similar injury. Kelly consulted with the tight end last summer and thus couldn't comment specifically on the case, but he said in general that dislocated hips are "pretty rare" in sports because the hip socket is tightly built. He noted that the most famous of such injuries -- to multisport star Bo Jackson in 1991 -- occurred when the leg remained planted in the ground as Jackson was tackled from behind.

Pitta wasn't touched on Sunday when his hip buckled after a hard step upfield.

"It's rare once," Bell said. "It's really rare twice. For him to do it twice would suggest that there was some kind of mechanical issue left over from the first time. I look at that injury and see it as a perfect storm of the position he was in, with the integrity of the joint after the first injury, and some bad luck sprinkled on top."

Football is a game of violent collisions, but as we saw Sunday, sometimes there is no avoiding a random, noncontact calamity. They are unexpected -- but not necessarily inexplicable.



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