Two takeaways from Monday night's epic NFL showdown: The Carolina Panthers absolutely are for real, and the New England Patriots were the victims of a terrible call by officials. My thoughts on both, plus your mailbag questions
First and foremost: Carolina is a very good team. There will be no “but” in this column, no, Carolina’s a very good team, but the Patriots got jobbed. None of that. Carolina doesn’t deserve that, and no one will ever know if the flag that was picked up in the end zone after the last play of the game would have led to the winning touchdown. Would the Patriots have scored from the 1-yard line on an untimed down against a defense that had been on the field for 29 plays in the final 17 minutes? We’ll never know.
Carolina scored on drives of 80, 57, 81 and 83 yards, and Cam Newton was every bit the match of Tom Brady on Monday night in Charlotte. Newton consistently knew when to run and when to hold back and look for his secondary receivers, as he did on the winning touchdown pass, a 25-yard strike-and-run by Ted Ginn Jr. The promise GM Marty Hurney saw in Newton in the months before the 2011 draft is coming true, and the patience of offensive coordinator Mike Shula is paying off. Newton knows he doesn’t have to win games by himself now, and he can play the John Stockton role happily when the situation calls for it.
The Panthers (7-3) are in the driver’s seat for the fifth seed in the playoffs, and Monday’s win means they likely will enter the home-and-home series with New Orleans in December with a chance to win the NFC South—and win a bye in the first round of the playoffs. That’s a long way to come for a team that looked so lost at 1-3, one month into the season.
Now about that call …
If you haven't seen the play, watch it here. The following is my interpretation. With three seconds left in the game and Carolina leading 24-20, New England had the ball at the Carolina 18-yard line. Tom Brady went back to pass and threw for tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. The pass was short. As the pass floated, Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, in coverage on Gronkowski, draped himself on Gronkowski about four yards deep in the end zone. Kuechly had his back turned to the ball, and he was not playing the ball when it was in the air, but he was in contact with Gronkowski. Backup safety Robert Lester stepped in front of Kuechly and Gronkowski and picked off the ball about five yards deep in the end zone. Had not Lester picked it off, the ball would have landed somewhere between a foot and a yard from the feet of Gronkowski, but the combined momentum of Kuechly and Gronkowski was taking both men further back into the end zone at the time Lester intercepted it.
Immediately, a flag came flying from the back of the end zone. It was thrown by the back judge, Terrence Miles. He immediately conferenced with his fellow officials, and after a few seconds, they apparently determined that, in their opinion, the ball was uncatchable. Referee Clete Blakeman turned on his mike and said to the crowd: “There is no foul on the play. The game is over.’’
After the game, Blakeman spoke to pool reporters and said he believes the crew got the call right. Blakeman’s statement, in part, was this: “It was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.” His words, obviously, were not cleaned up. But he’s saying the officials in or near the end zone ruled Gronkowski couldn’t have caught it.
Four thoughts on what happened:
1. Blakeman blew it. A ref’s job on a play of that magnitude is not only to make the call his officials see fit, but to explain it. It’s not Blakeman’s call. Blakeman was a good 25 to 30 yards away, watching Brady in the pocket, when Miles’ flag flew, and Blakeman, as any referee does, has to rely on the officials on the scene to tell him the correct ruling in their area. Blakeman’s job in the deciding and highly controversial play in any NFL game is to explain why there was no foul on the play, so the thousands in the crowd and the millions watching on TV can understand why the flag was being picked up. He didn’t do that. With as big as the NFL is, with as much interest as there is in the game, there's no way Blakeman can get away without explaining why he made one of the biggest calls of the season. If you’re going to be subjected to 10 or 15 Number 62 is reporting as an eligible receiver calls in some games, or Please reset the game clock to... two or three times a game, you owe it to the fans (and the affected coaches and players) to explain why the game is over.
2. Then Gerry Austin blew it. Austin, the ESPN officiating consultant, kept defending the call on the ESPN post-game telecast. In essence, he said if the ball is uncatchable, you can’t have interference. Jon Gruden argued with him and said: “The pass interference starts four yards deep in the end zone, and that’s where the ball ends up being thrown … It should be a penalty on Kuechly.” In Austin’s logic, a defensive player can drape his arms over a potential receiver and push him away from the ball, and if the ball is underthrown, it’s not interference. That, quite frankly, is insulting to any football fan’s intelligence. In the 2013 NFL Digest of Rules, under Article 2 of pass-interference penalties, one of the acts that defines interference is: “a) Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch.” Luke Kuechly made contact with Gronkowski while not playing the ball, and it restricted Gronkowski’s opportunity to make the catch.
3. The ball would have been catchable, if Kuechly hadn’t been hanging on Gronkowski. Watch it again. Gronkowski wouldn’t have been able to get back to the ball because Kuechly was all over him. Had Kuechly not been there, Gronkowski could have stepped up and competed for the ball. Kuechly’s interference materially affected Gronkowski’s ability to compete for the ball. As Steve Young said later on ESPN: “How can you compete for the ball if you’re being held from the ball?”
4. The NFL should force officials, after a game-ending play of that magnitude, to explain it to the two head coaches. What happens after a complicated replay review is you see members of the crew go the benches to explain the call while the referee announces it. Don’t you owe the coaches the same explanation after a game-deciding call as you do after a second-quarter catch/no-catch ruling?
I hope league officiating czar Dean Blandino cleans up some of the communication issues that marred the end of a thrilling game—quite possibly the game of the year. And I hope the Competition Committee clarifies language and mandates a call of interference anytime a receiver in the same area code as a thrown pass is illegally blanketed by a defensive player.
Now let's head over to Page 2 for your email...
BAD TRADES? Based on recent and past history, can we finally come to the conclusion that giving away a king's ransom in exchange for the ability for teams to acquire certain players is a futile act? The cumulative win total of both Washington and Atlanta currently stands at 5. Coincidentally, both teams gave away significant draft stock in order to get Robert Griffin and Julio Jones. I believe you have heaped praise upon Thomas Dimitroff in the past for the Jones pick. Is your opinion different now and do you think that teams will be more cautious in the future with draft picks?
—Andrew, Palm Coast, Fla.
It’s hard to knock a trade for Julio Jones, when the only reason that this trade looks bad is because he is hurt. Julio Jones has been a worthy acquisition for the Falcons, and I don’t think in the middle of his third year, at age 24, is a very good time to make final judgment on whether or not a trade was a good idea in his case. Put another way, if I told you that you were going to make a significant trade for a receiver that involved two first-round draft choices, but this receiver at age 23 would catch 11 balls for 182 yards and 2 TDs in a conference championship game (something Jones did last year), I think it would be pretty hard to say that the trade was a bad idea.
Regarding Robert Griffin III, I think it’s similarly tough to judge the winner or loser of a trade when the guy is 23 years old and coming off ACL surgery. You couldn’t have found anyone a year ago today that would have knocked that trade for Washington. That’s why these trades need time to breathe.
QUARTERBACKS WILL BE PROTECTED. Regarding the Saints-Niners game, Peter, let’s deal in facts, and not hyperbole. Ahmad Brooks tackled Drew Brees, and Brees fumbled. Brooks cannot help that Brees is 5-10 and squatted down right as he was being hit. That judgment call penalty by the officials cost the 49ers the game. Why couldn’t you just have written that? Nope, instead you parrot the NFL homer line, and say the ref got the call right. To you it was obvious; to the rest of the watching world it was questionable at best, and another example of the NFL going towards a 2-hand touch league. I usually like your pieces, but please don’t become a sheep. Better question, is that a penalty called against any other QB not named Brady/Manning/Brees?
For anyone who hasn't seen it, here's the play in question. I’m not saying that is such an egregious foul that the call jumps off the screen. What I am saying is that if you watch football—and the development of protection of the quarterback in the three years since the NFL started getting very tough on helmet-to-helmet hits and aggressive hits on quarterbacks—this call is a no-brainer.
Let’s look at it a different way. If a defensive player strikes a ball-carrier with his helmet in the upper chest, and the helmet rides up to strike the offensive player either in the face mask or the helmet, officials are going to call that as a foul. This has nothing to do with whether it’s Drew Brees or Matt McGloin playing quarterback. When the NFL reviews officials calls each week and grades officials, they do not have a different standard for Peyton Manning than they do for Scott Tolzien.
I’m working on a story now that will be out in a couple of weeks that I believe will explain things a little bit better. But in this case, what I saw was a defensive player who contacted a quarterback in the upper sternum/shoulder area, but in the process of finishing the play, Ahmad Brooks’ forearm made contact with Drew Brees’ neck. That play is going to be called as a personal foul by the officials. If they don’t call it, no matter who the quarterback is, the officials will get marked down by league officiating supervisors.
CONSISTENT MEDIOCRITY. Peter, as I read through your Fine Fifteen, I couldn't believe your selections. Arizona? The Giants? Green Bay showing what life is like without its superstar QB at 15?! I took a look at the standings and schedules, hell-bent on challenging your list and realized it's not so much that you're spot-on as it is that the league has developed such a soft mushy middle this year. The word parity gets thrown around a lot in NFL analysis, but I wonder: should we be talking about mediocrity this season?
—Steve D., Toronto
That’s a good question. Whenever anybody asks me a question like this, I always want to look at history. One of the things we see is that what’s happening this year is really not all that much different than seasons in the past. For instance, I'm looking at my MMQB column from Week 11 in 2011. I have Miami 15th; the Dolphins finished 6-10. I had Oakland 14th; the Raiders finished 8-8. I had Cincinnati 13th; the Bengals finished as a bad Wild Card team at 9-7. I had the Giants 12th and they went on to win the Super Bowl. Chicago was 8th that week, and the Bears went on to finish 8-8 and out of the playoffs, largely because of an injury to a quarterback. I guess my point is that every year, there is a soft underbelly near the bottom of the Fine Fifteen, along with one or two teams that you think might cause some damage in the playoffs. I might be wrong, but I just don't think that this year is very much different in that regard.
GLAD YOU BROUGHT THIS UP. I faithfully read your article each week for a number of years now. I know you have moments where you speak positively on the Steelers, but I feel you pick and choose which team you want to talk about and when to talk about them with no real basis on their performance or story for the week. For example the only mention of the Steelers this week was in your 10 things I think I think and all three points were about the jerseys (which I agree are not a great throwback) and nothing of their performance. You mention how great Calvin Johnson is earlier in the section, but I feel Antonio Brown out-performed him in this game. I would have even taken a comment in regards to how Jekyll and Hyde the Steelers are by looking at how much the Steelers defense gave up to the Lions in the first half and how they shut them in the second while actually having an offense that showed up. I have also seen similar story opportunities with other teams I don’t follow, so it’s not just a bias Steelers fan talking. I come to your article to get a nice overview of the storylines of the week. Just my two cents. Thanks for listening.
Thanks for writing. My column on Monday is not meant to address every team’s high points and low points. I simply don’t have time to write something definitive and thoughtful on 32 teams. That was a good day for the Steelers on Sunday. On a day that the Steelers play well and have a good win against a division leader, I understand your frustration when all I write about is how ugly their throwback uniforms are. But I write things based on what I see during the course of a day. I also don’t have two hours at night to watch the highlights to say whether one player who I didn’t really see, had a great day.
This column takes the temperature of eight or ten topics around the league each week. It is not meant to be an exhaustive, thorough look at 32 teams. To be that, and then be edited and posted by 9 a.m. on Monday, would take more than one person to do. So I do appreciate you writing, and I hear your complaint, and it is valid. But I’m sorry to say that there’s not very much I can do about it.
MEA CULPA. Peter, you criticized CNN—“Headline someone at CNN would like to have back after the state of Illinois was ravaged by more than 50 twisters: 'Tornadoes touch down in Illinois; Bears game interrupted.”’—but did you not do the same thing with your “The NFL needs more games like this one” sub-head? And you end the story with “The more the NFL can hark back to a simpler day, a muddier day, the better.” Loved the mud and rain myself (I’m older than you, Peter) but the rain and mud were the result of horrific storms that took lives and homes. Not sure the NFL needs more games like this if it takes such tragic weather to produce such games.
—Anthony Grasso, Flanders, N.J.
You are absolutely right. That was insensitive on my part, and I apologize for it. I appreciate you pointing it out to me.
STILL TOO COLD. I was surprised to hear you romanticizing the Ravens-Bears Mud Bowl. Does your newfound love for the NFL's relationship with the elements mean you've finally come around to seeing why a cold weather Super Bowl is a great idea?