The Fine Fifteen: Blowing the Whistle on NFL Officiating

The men in stripes stole the spotlight on Monday Night Football. But the Patriots still held on to the top spot in our power rankings
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A few weeks ago, while I was speaking with Arizona coach Bruce Arians, he was adamant that the NFL should have full-time officials. He said the officials could work team practices during the off-season and during game weeks, and study their craft on other days. I’ve heard other people in the league say the NFL could invent simulators or virtual reality systems that could be used the way some quarterbacks study defenses.

I can’t argue that full-time officials would make officiating in the NFL worse. But I’ve never been convinced that it would drastically improve the quality of officials’ work either.

There’s sure to be a more strident call, and from more corners of football, about having full-time officials after some of the gaffes this season. One of the most bizarre mistakes was made Monday night, and it’s a good thing for Gene Steratore’s crew that the Patriots came back to win— and win handily at the end, 20-13—because New England would have been rightfully steamed if Buffalo had pulled off a victory.

• A TRENDING PROBLEM: Can anybody call this game? Last week the NFL said officials erred on a borderline call at the end of Ravens-Jaguars, but on bigger issues—what constitutes pass interference? what the heck is a catch?—the league remains disturbingly silent

What happened: On a first down early in the third quarter, Tom Brady rolled out and, near the right sideline but clearly still inbounds, lofted a pass 24 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to Danny Amendola, who also hadn’t stepped out of bounds. As the ball neared Amendola’s hands—perhaps just as it touched his hands—an official inadvertently blew his whistle. Problem was, Amendola caught the ball at the Buffalo 45-yard line and had nothing but open field before him. He would have gone for a big gain and maybe even a touchdown.

Once the play was blown dead, the officials gathered to discuss it. It was clear that a whistle had been blown, and it was clear that neither Brady nor Amendola was out of bounds during the play. So what happened? Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, said after the game on the NFL Network that line judge Gary Arthur “lost track of the football and he blew his whistle inadvertently. That's a mistake.”

In the NFL’s 2015 Digest of Rules, the rarely called play is addressed thusly: “When an official sounds his whistle erroneously while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately. If the ball is in player possession, the team in possession may elect to put the ball in play where it has been declared dead or to replay the down.”

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So if the whistle was heard before the pass hit Amendola’s hands, the ball should have been returned to New England’s 31-yard line and the down should have been replayed. But the officials ruled that the play would stand, feeling that the whistle didn’t blow until the ball was in Amendola’s possession.

I reviewed the play several times, with the sound up, and if I had to bet, I’d bet that the whistle blew just before the ball hit Amendola’s hands. But it would have been virtually impossible for a crew to rule exactly when the whistle blew with the game being played at full speed. It would have been a judgment call only.

The Patriots ended up not scoring a touchdown on the drive—or a field goal. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 54-yard attempt.

For those wanting full-time officials, or an eighth official added to every crew, or for coaches to be able to challenge any call via instant replay, this inadvertent whistle was another brick in the wall. The league will be under great pressure this off-season to either tinker with or overhaul officiating. What I believe the NFL should do? Allow every play to be challenged in the first 28 minutes of each half. That would fix more wrong calls than full-time officials would.

Now for the Fine Fifteen:

1.New England (10-0). Short week. Thanksgiving. Travel to Denver. Very good defense. Brock Osweiler. Not Manning. Gary Myers in mourning. Can’t see the Broncos scoring enough to win.

2. Carolina (10-0). Two-game lead for top seed in the NFC playoffs, and I can’t see the remaining schedule knocking the Panthers out of that slot. Toughest game will be Thursday afternoon in Dallas.

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3.Arizona (8-2). John Brown, a third-rounder from Pittsburg (Kans.) State in 2014. J.J. Nelson, a fifth-rounder from Alabama-Birmingham in 2015. Where does GM Steve Keim find these guys? And how does coach Bruce Arians get the gumption to play middling prospects so early in such big spots?

4. Cincinnati (8-2). Encouraging Sunday night for Andy Dalton and the Bengals in Arizona after the debacle of a loss the previous Monday to Houston.

5. Green Bay (7-3). Even when things weren’t perfect, the Packers, on the road at formidable Minnesota, proved NFC North supremacy still belongs to the Green and Gold.

6. Denver (8-2). This is what’s amazing about the Fine Fifteen this week: Denver improved a spot, moving up from No. 7 last week, with Brock Osweiler playing quarterback Sunday in Chicago—and preparing to play this week against New England. Strange days, minus Manning.

• DRAMA BUILDS IN DENVER: Brock Osweiler’s performance puts the pressure on the Broncos to make a decision on the ailing, aging Peyton Manning

7. Pittsburgh (6-4). How fun will the matchup of Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant versus the Seahawks’ secondary (in Seattle) be on Sunday?

8. Minnesota (7-3). For as great a back as he is, Adrian Peterson fumbles too much. Period.

9. Kansas City (5-5). The Chiefs are not only going to make the playoffs. They’re going to win a playoff game—this season.

10. Seattle (5-5). Thomas Rawls has learned well from Marshawn Lynch—and that is no cliché. Lynch has spent time telling Rawls to be a more serious student of the game. Rawls responded on Sunday with the most productive game, in terms of total yardage (255), by an NFL back in three years.

• ESSENCE OF SEATTLE: Famously silent, Marshawn Lynch has always let his play speak for itself. But a subpar, injury-plagued season has Seahawks fans talking about the 29-year-old’s future and his true value for a struggling team

11. New York Giants (5-5). Pretty tough five weeks coming up: at Washington, Jets, at Miami, Carolina, at Minnesota. I think the Giants win the division if they traverse that span 3-2.

12. Indianapolis (5-5). Chuck Pagano needs to go on the post-game speaking tour this off-season. Seriously. That man can speak for a very long time at a high decibel level, and you could swear you’re listening to a cross between Billy Graham and Lou Holtz.

13. Buffalo (5-5). It wasn’t a win Monday night, of course. But the Bills got a bit of a moral victory. Did you notice Tom Brady snapping at Bills linebacker Preston Brown late in the first quarter after Brown whacked him on a blitz—and then Brady sniping at his offensive line for being so leaky when he got to the sideline? Revealing camera work by ESPN.

14. Houston (5-5). How lucky Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are to be on J.J. Watt’s team.

15. Tampa Bay (5-5). Bucs are 4-2 over their last six games, and just beat the Eagles in Philly by 28. They’re good a year earlier than expected.

Also receiving votes:

16. Chicago (4-6). Don’t fall off the non-turnover bandwagon now, Jay Cutler.

17. Dallas (3-7). Cowboys are 3-0 when Tony Romo starts. He’ll start Thursday against the unbeaten Panthers. Something’s gotta give.

18.St. Louis (4-6). Man, talk about a team being weighed down by not having a quarterback.

19. New York Jets (5-5). Team desperately needs to run. Team can’t run.

20. Atlanta (6-4). Disagree with my colleague Andy Benoit. I’ve lost faith in the Falcons.