The San Francisco 49ers didn't argue that referee Ed Hochuli was responsible for their 17-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and subsequent elimination from playoff contention on Sunday afternoon, but they would be right in contending that one call swung the action in Seattle's favor. With 14:15 left in the game and the Seahawks up 10-7, Russell Wilson took the snap at the San Francisco 15-yard line on third-and-5. Pressured by a blitz up the middle, Wilson threw an errant pass in the general direction of the right side of the end zone. Were things called correctly, the Seahawks most likely would have been limited to a field goal at that point, and the 49ers would have still had a one-score game. But Hochuli called roughing the passer on linebacker Nick Moody and that changed everything.
Buttressed by the extra yardage and automatic first down, Wilson threw a bullet to rookie receiver Paul Richardson two plays later, and the Seahawks' momentum carried them through. Upon review of the play, it appeared that Moody did everything he was supposed to do when tackling a quarterback. He had his head up, he wasn't spearing Wilson with his helmet, Wilson had just let the ball go when the hit happened, so he wasn't defenseless, and Moody didn't take Wilson to the ground with any extra vigor. In a league that is extra-touchy when it comes to quarterback contact, Moody's hit seemed like a textbook example of how to extract a negative play and still follow the rules.
Hochuli didn't see it that way, and he explained his findings in explicit detail after the game, as is his wont.
“I felt that he hit the quarterback in the chest with the hairline [of the helmet], and that’s a foul unless he has his face completely up and would hit it face-on with the facemask," Hochuli said. "It’s a foul, and that’s why I called it ... I’m differentiating between the crown. The crown is the top of the helmet. The hairline is up at the top of the forehead. That is a still a foul when you hit the quarterback with that part of your head.”
So, if a defender claimed that he hit the opposing player with the facemask, what would Hochuli's response be?
“What happens is that you hit, here, and the next thing that happens is your head slides up. That’s just the mechanics of the body. But, that’s not what the initial contact is.”
Here's the fundamental problem with Hochuli's intent in calling the penalty: as seen in the screencap below, he was actually behind Wilson, and he threw the flag without hesitation. He didn't consult with anyone else on his crew; he simply made the call, and the only way he could have done that was to react to what he thought he saw, not what actually happened. In other words, Hochuli most likely saw a hard, legal hit and erred on the side of caution. That's forgivable given the extent to which the NFL has programmed officials to be sensitive to plays like these, but it doesn't let Hochuli off the hook for either embellishing what he saw at the time of the play, or adding to what he didn't see with replay after the fact.
On Monday, VP of Officiating Dean Blandino made the announcement that was certainly too little, too late for the 49ers, who were eliminated from playoff contention with the loss, and their fans: the call was indeed erroneous.
"In looking at it, it was not [the correct call]," Blandino said, per NFL.com. "The rule protects a passer from two types of hits: Hits to the head or neck, or hits with the crown or forehead, which is just below the crown part of the helmet, and that's what the referee called.
"It's close, but when you look at it on tape, Moody's head is up, he hits with more of the side and the facemask to the body of the quarterback, and in our review, with the ability to look at it in slow motion, it's not a foul."
Moreover, Blandino confirmed that Hochuli shouldn't have made the call at all -- good or bad -- if he didn't actually see it. Which seems like a stupidly logical thing to assert, but these kinds of calls happen pretty frequently. Just ask Jason Worilds of the Steelers, who was flagged for a similarly innocuous hit on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan earlier in the day.
"Certainly, if he doesn't see the whole action, we don't want him to throw the flag," Blandino said. "Ed was getting into position and he saw him, or what he thought he saw ducking the head and making the contact, so he wouldn't throw the flag if he didn't see it, but it obviously happens quick.
"It's full-speed, and he doesn't have the benefit of the slow motion replays that we all do after the fact."
And that, in the end, is the point of all this. The 49ers should have had the benefit of a challenge on this call, but they didn't, because roughing the passer and many other judgment calls are not reviewable. Certain coaches, most specifically Bill Belichick, have been pressing every year for this to change, to give coaches the ability to challenge any penalty, no matter what it is. Not to have additional challenges, but to throw every possible call under the purview of review.
It seems the right thing to do, and it's fairly amazing that in their meetings every spring, the league's competition committee doesn't seem to see the need for this. Last March, Belichick was joined by Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, brother of Jim, in asserting that global replay was the way to go.
"Sometimes, we lag behind the technology a little bit," Harbaugh said at the owners meetings in March. "And we should. You should come to change slowly and do things for the right reasons. I think the league is right in doing that. But it's about time to recognize that when the fans have a better view of the game than the referee does, it's time to put the referee on the same playing field as the fans, and you do that through the technology. They have great ideas and ways to do it."
"I'm not proposing more challenges," Belichick added around that time. "I'm just saying that as a coach, if you want to challenge a play, I think you ought to be able to challenge it, and why does it have to be limited to the four or five pages in the rule book that can be challenged, and now this year there are more proposals to amend that."
The proposals were struck down. And there's no obvious imperative to enact new rules regarding replay. There is a command center in New York City, where Blandino and a team of spotters review plays as they happen, but unless a review comes in, and that challenge is for a penalty that is actually reviewable, there's not much good in it. With all that technology, it's still up to the vagaries of the human eye, the bang-bang play, and the official on the field.
And for a league that takes in more than $10 billion per year, and has protocol in place for seemingly any variant of violence on the field, that seems woefully behind the times.