The Fine Fifteen: A Batty Way to Finish the Week
So many NFL rules are so complex, and so strange, and so arcane, that the players on the field have no idea what they are. That was the case late Monday night, when Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1b of the 2015 NFL rule book was the decisive factor, and a gut punch to the Detroit season, in the Seahawks’ 13-10 victory over the Lions at CenturyLink Field.
What happened to make the Lions ill: Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson was running toward the end zone with 1:50 left in the game and Detroit trailing 13-10. At the Seahawks’ 1-yard line, Seattle safety Kam Chancellor, from behind, punched the ball out of Johnson’s arm, and it went bouncing in the end zone toward the end line. Two yards shy of the end line, the ball was punched by Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright, and it went out of the end zone. Back judge Greg Wilson, an eight-year NFL veteran official, stared intently at the play from just a few yards away, standing at the back of the end zone. Wilson appeared to reach for his yellow flag on a very quick ESPN replay angle, but he didn’t pull it out.
Wilson should have pulled out his flag and thrown it.
As Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1b states: “It is an illegal bat if any player bats or punches a loose ball (that has touched the ground) in any direction, if it is in either end zone.”
Near midnight, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino went on NFL Network and said, “This is a foul for an illegal bat … You cannot bat the ball in any direction in the end zone. K.J. Wright batted the ball. Looking at the replay … it looks like he does take his right hand and he bats it intentionally.”
There is no question Wright batted the ball out of bounds. The back judge “in his judgment didn’t feel it was an overt act,” according to Blandino.
Wright batted the ball. It went out of the end zone. Would it have gone out of the end zone if Wright never touched it? Probably. But that’s not in the rules. The rule clearly states if the player strikes the ball, in the end zone, it’s illegal. If Wright tried to recover it, and in the act either lost the ball out of bounds or fell out of bounds himself, that would have been a touchback, with the ball placed at the 20.
In this case, the ball should have been placed at the Seattle 1-yard line, and then the illegal-bat penalty, a 10-yard infraction, would have been assessed half the distance to the goal. So Detroit would have had first-and-goal from the half-yard line, with two timeouts and 1:45 left in the game. The Lions could have taken three shots to score a touchdown, and then either taken a fourth attempt or tried a short field goal to tie.
The players knew none of that. Listen to the post-game verdicts from the three men closest to the play.
• Chancellor (at his press conference): “I don’t know anything about the rule.”
• Wright (to ESPN radio host Danny O’Neil): “I think they teach us to knock the ball out of bounds so I just wanted to make a smart play and it worked out for us.”
• Johnson, too, said he didn’t know the exact rule, interviewed by reporters at his locker.
So … the key players don’t know the rule on a play that could be the difference in making the playoffs or not. The nearest official clearly botches the play. The officials had a crew conference but came away on the rule that cannot be replay-reviewed, saying the bat was not overt and thus would not be a penalty. Seattle got the ball at the 20, ran out the clock, and took the win.
This play absolutely, unequivocally should be reviewable. Wilson just missed it, and there was no one from ref Tony Corrente’s crew with a better view to overrule him. Blandino saw it clearly in New York. And just because a back judge erred, and because of the rules over what can and can’t be reviewed, Blandino had to sit in the replay command center in midtown Manhattan and throw his hands in the air as he saw a potentially grievous error being made. Had the play been called correctly, Detroit would have had four chances to get 18 inches to win a game.
Instead, the Lions, and the sport of football, lost on Monday night.
Now on to the ranking at the four-week mark:
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1. New England (3-0). Back on Labor Day, Games 4 and 5—at Dallas, at Indianapolis—looked significantly more troublesome than they do now.
2. Green Bay (4-0). Packers are plus-11 in sack differential (17 by the Green Bay defense, six on Aaron Rodgers), which bodes well against the voracious rush of the Rams coming into Lambeau Field on Sunday.
3. Denver (4-0). Narrowly over the Bengals here. I’m bullish on the Broncos’ D, and I maintain that Peyton Mortal Manning—I think he’s starting to believe that’s his middle name—will get better and learn the limitations of his right arm as the season goes on.
4. Cincinnati (4-0). We all know the Chiefs are exceedingly disappointing on offense—no touchdowns on Sunday at Cincinnati—but what we saw was a Cincinnati defense that chewed through the Kansas City offensive line like it was whipped cream. I like Cincinnati at home Sunday against Seattle, because the one thing the Seahawks absolutely are unable to do is protect and keep the pocket clean for Russell Wilson.
5. Arizona (3-1). Still dominant in lots of ways, including the 66-26 second-half scoring differential. But what would worry me if I were a Cardinal is the great second half Todd Gurley had for St. Louis on Sunday. Sometime in the next two weeks—at Detroit, at Pittsburgh—the Cards’ run defense could hurt them.
6. Atlanta (4-0). Since taking over the starting running back job nine days ago, Devonta Freeman has run for 209 yards with six rushing touchdowns. Now the Falcons get Washington and New Orleans in a five-day span starting Sunday, and it’s a big chance for Freeman. Washington’s run defense is anonymous but very good.
7. Carolina (4-0). Touchdowns by Josh Norman: two. Touchdowns, combined, by leading rusher Jonathan Stewart and leading receiver Greg Olsen: two. Norman has all this bye weekend to study how to make life miserable in the secondary for Russell Wilson when the two teams play in Week 6.
8. Seattle (2-2). Takeaways from of Monday night: The offensive line is worse than anyone thought—and no one thought it was going to be even mediocre … Where is Jimmy Graham? Anyone seen him? … That defense against the Lions reminded me of the Seahawks at their 2014 best: just suffocating.
9. New York Jets (3-1). The defense is lethal, obviously. And now Sheldon Richardson, possibly the best man on the front seven, returns after a four-game suspension. I don’t know about you, but I’m sort of looking forward to the Oct. 25 game at New England. Interested to see what Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels (the Pats are averaging 39.7 points per game) have up their sleeves for the stingiest scoring defense in the league (13.8 ppg).
10. Minnesota (2-2). Watched a lot of the Vikings-Broncos game. Three thoughts: Teddy Bridgewater is good, in part because he’s unafraid of even the kind of relentless rush Denver poses for a quarterback. Adrian Peterson is back. And Anthony Barr is a dangerous, smart and instinctive force at linebacker. Not many linebackers can bait Peyton Manning, but Barr did on an interception.
11. New York Giants (2-2). Winning at Buffalo by two touchdowns was done, in part, by the undoing of the Bills, who are seeing yellow flags in their dreams, and rightfully so. But Eli Manning is making Reuben Randle a factor in the offense, which he has to be if New York’s going to be a serious contender in the division.
12. Dallas (2-2). Anticipatory, largely. Returning this week: Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain. Returning after the bye, Oct. 25, possibly: wide receiver Dez Bryant. Not so hopeless for the Cowboys as it appeared Sunday night after that bad loss at New Orleans.
13. Washington (2-2). If Kirk Cousins makes more plays for his team and not the foe, as he did in beating the Eagles, Washington’s defense is good enough for this team to contend into December in a flawed division. Road tests at the Falcons and Jets in the next two weeks will help decide that.
14. St. Louis (2-2).
15. Baltimore (1-3). But the Ravens need another receiver. Should be interesting to see Baltimore try to get back into contention against the Browns and Niners over the next two weeks.
Also Receiving Votes
16. Indianapolis (2-2). Good for Matt Hasselbeck, winning at 40 years, 10 days (as he did against the Jags), but that was as much a Jags loss as Colts win. There a big benefit to being in the AFC South.
17. Pittsburgh (2-2). Free Mike Vick. Let him make some plays.
18. San Diego (2-2). Steelers Monday, at Packers six days later. Not a comfy stretch.
19. Buffalo (2-2). Bills are better than this, and I am sure they will rise in time. But they just play too stupid, too often.
20. Oakland (2-2). Raiders flew home from their painful loss at Chicago Sunday thinking: Man, if we had just hung on today, King would have put us in his Fine Fifteen! Then, in unison, 53 men cried.