NFL officiating made itself part of the story during Wild Card Weekend. At one point things got so bad it prompted Fox’s rules expert and the league’s former VP of Officiating, Mike Pereira, to publicly call out the men wearing stripes.
“Horrible way to start the playoffs. I hate to say it but this was not a good performance by the crew. Teams and fans deserve better,” Pereira tweeted Saturday night after the Titans’ controversial 22-21 victory over the Chiefs.
It’s worth pointing out that across four games, officiating wasn’t all bad. Some mistakes are inevitable. Unfortunately, it only takes one controversial call to bring a world of scrutiny to the refs.
The worst performance of the weekend came on Saturday in what will forever be known in Kansas City as “the Forward Progress game.” Let’s start there.
Mariota’s mysterious forward progress
The trouble started with a Marcus Mariota fumble that wasn’t ruled a fumble because Jeff Triplette’s crew ruled that Mariota’s forward progress had stopped.
Mariota took a brutal sack from Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. He lost the ball in the process, and it was cleanly recovered by Kansas City.
Triplette had a quick whistle on the play, blowing it dead almost immediately.
“The ruling was forward progress, therefore it is not reviewable in that situation. The defender hit him and he was driving him back,” Triplette said after the game.
Here’s what the NFL’s rule book says about forward progress:
The Forward Progress of a runner or airborne receiver is the point at which his advance toward his opponent’s goal ends and is the spot at which the ball is declared dead by rule, irrespective of the runner or receiver being pushed or carried backward by an opponent.
If, as the refs ruled, Mariota’s forward progress had stopped, the ball is dead. You can’t fumble a dead ball. The problem is that it doesn’t look like Mariota ever moved forward. He drops back, he’s scanning for an open receiver, and then he braces himself when he sees Johnson bearing down on him.
Mariota is going to the ground on first contact with a defender. That’s an unusual way of defining forward progress. The gray area is that he doesn’t fumble it on the initial hit by Johnson. He fumbles it as he’s going to the ground after being hit.
Forward progress is not reviewable, which made Triplette’s quick decision that much more controversial.
By some interpretations it was the right call.
And "forward progress" does not mean that the ball carrier is GOING forward, but that he gets credit for the forwardmost point prior to being pushed back— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) January 6, 2018
To make things worse for the Chiefs, the Titans turned the possession into a field goal.
The NFL’s former head of officiating, Mike Pereira, called the officiating in Titans-Chiefs “horrible.” And Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was understandably upset after his team’s 22-21 loss.
“I don’t really have anything good to say there so I’m just going to stay away from any comments about those guys. I don’t want to get fined. It’s not worth it. Whatever,” Reid said via Pro Football Talk.
It wasn’t the only iffy call in that particular game, and there were several more throughout the weekend.
That wasn’t even the only forward progress controversy in that game.
Forward progress wipes out the Chiefs’ two-point play
The Titans scored a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter to take a 22-21 lead, and followed that with a two-point conversion attempt. After the snap, safety Daniel Sorensen shot into the backfield and got a hold of Mariota, spinning him around a couple times before bringing him down.
That’s when the ball came out of Mariota’s hands. Linebacker Frank Zombo picked it up and ran it to the end zone to give the Chiefs two points and retake the lead.
Except another quick whistle blew before Mariota went down and the ball came out — forward progress.
“Forward progress. He turned him around once and turned him around a second time and kept driving him back” Triplette said of the play after the game. “You just rule forward progress at that point. Play is over.”
That one’s a little easier to make the case for than Johnson’s fumble recovery above, but that’s not going to make Chiefs fans feel any better about the way things went down in this game.
After the game, it was reported that Triplette plans to retire, so at least the Chiefs have that.
Refs ignore a Travis Kelce fumble
Travis Kelce went down with a concussion after taking a violent hit from a Titans defender. He fumbled the ball in the process.
Kelce was clearly concussed, and his health has to be the biggest priority here. But the Titans recovered the ball, and the refs missed it entirely.
They got it right on Marcus Mariota’s touchdown pass to himself, but ...
Mariota threw the ball, which was deflected by a defender. It bounced right back into Mariota’s hands. He dove into the end zone for a touchdown.
Part of Mariota’s foot was behind the line of scrimmage when he threw, so it’s legal. But the official announced that Mariota was an eligible receiver because he took the snap in shotgun. That’s not the case.
Because an opponent touched the ball, any Titans player on the field is an eligible receiver. So the outcome was correct, but the reason behind it wasn’t.
Refs missed Sammy Watkins being blatantly held in the end zone
The Rams had a fourth-and-goal from the Falcons’ 5-yard line, and Jared Goff targeted Sammy Watkins in the end zone. Watkins might have been able to haul it in, except that Falcons linebacker Deion Jones was hanging all over him.
This is blatant as hell, and it came at a crucial time in the game.
Officials gave LeSean McCoy a ridiculously good spot
Officials were feeling generous on Sunday when they gave LeSean McCoy a first down even though he was clearly stopped short of the marker by Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack.
Officials are human, and the angle this ref had of the play makes it a challenge to see exactly where McCoy should be marked down here. Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone shares some blame for this one. The play happened right in front of him, and he didn’t challenge the spot.
They didn’t review Mike Adams’ interception
The Panthers got hit hard by some dubious calls late in their loss to the Saints on Sunday. The first was safety Mike Adams’ interception of Drew Brees on fourth down with just under two minutes to play. The play wasn’t reviewed, and it’s possible Adams didn’t complete the catch.
Adams pulls it in, but Saints running back Alvin Kamara fights him for it, and Adams fumbles the ball out of bounds. With the NFL’s catch rule being what it is, there’s a very good chance this one wouldn’t have stood on review.
Typically, the Panthers would want an interception to stand. But in this case, it lost the Panthers 16 yards of field position in crunch time. An incomplete pass would have been much better for Carolina.
The intentional grounding call on Cam Newton raises questions
The refs weren’t done with the Panthers. After the Panthers took possession, Newton was forced to heave one out of bounds thanks to pressure from the Saints’ pass rush. He didn’t have a receiver in the vicinity, and he was flagged for intentional grounding.
Technically, the case can be made for this call — unless Newton was outside of the pocket. It’s close, but it looks like he probably was.
Greg Olsen said after the game that other officials didn’t even agree with the call.
Olsen says other officials tried to argue with head official that Cam Newton was out of the pocket and not grounding but head ref stuck with the call.— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) January 8, 2018
It cost the Panthers 13 yards, giving them a third-and-23. Devin Funchess lost Newton’s next shot at the end zone in the Super Dome lights, and it went incomplete. On fourth down, Vonn Bell sacked Newton, forcing the Panthers to turn it over on downs. The intentional grounding call wasn’t the reason the Panthers lost, but it sure did hurt their chances.
Being an official isn’t for the fainthearted. When they get things right it’s taken for granted. They’re roasted whenever they do make a mistake. But they seemed to get more things wrong than usual this week.