• A questionable intentional grounding call near the end of the Washington-New Orleans game could have a lasting impact—all the way to the playoffs.
By Conor Orr
November 21, 2017

Washington fans digging in during Sunday’s tight finish against New Orleans may have been too focused on the prospect of overtime—and wrapping their minds around the fact that Washington led by 15 points with fewer than four minutes remaining in the game—to realize that it almost wasn’t necessary, thanks to a debatable intentional grounding call.

The call caused a somewhat delayed outrage late Sunday and into Monday. Former NFL VP of officiating Mike Pereira termed it a judgement call, while Dean Blandino, the most recent league officiating czar, said “Technically not a foul,” earlier in the week on FOX. Al Riveron, the NFL’s Senior VP of Officiating, chose to discuss a different play on his NFL Network ‘Official Review’ segment this week, adding to the feeling that this crucial call is being overlooked. 

For background: With the score tied at 31, quarterback Kirk Cousins lined up in the shotgun at the 34-yard line. He took the snap, immediately turned to his right side and fired the ball out of bounds. The nearest receiver, Jamison Crowder, was running diagonally up the field about 10 yards away.

Here’s what Joe Buck and Troy Aikman said about the call on the FOX broadcast:

Aikman: I think it’s a good call. There’s nobody lined up out here (circles the area where Cousins threw the pass). These guys are running slants, (the Saints) bring pressure off the edge, you see it and there’s nobody else around.

Buck: And you have to go back and ask the question—was that a case where Cousins and Crowder weren’t on the same page? Or did Cousins see everyone in his face and just get rid of it and, in essence, he gets caught?

From here, you know the drill: Washington was backed out of field goal range, Cousins was blasted by Vonn Bell on the next play and, without any timeouts, the game went to overtime and the Saints moved to 8–2.

However, the intentional grounding rule states that the call should only be made “if a passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion.”

The Saints were blitzing eight on the play, leaving behind a skeleton defense of three defensive backs. But Cousins, at the time of his release, did not have a single defender within three yards of him. After the game, Cousins said it was an audibled run play, which would explain why Crowder looked like he was going to block.

Via the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

“We had a run play called, and basically the defensive look they were giving was going to be a tough run to get, and then we were going to have to (spike) it, and then hope for the field goal. We were hoping for a few more yards, so it would be a more makable field goal. I looked to the sideline out of the corner of my eye and saw the coaches saying throw it. They wanted, potentially, an audible, to get to an actual pass play. I thought they were saying if you just throw it by Jamison, in the general area of Jamison (Crowder), there's an eligible (receiver) in the area and there's no penalty.

“So what I didn't understand was, had Jamison turned around and looked at me, and the ball had been thrown past his head up and away out of bounds, would that be a penalty? Is it just that he wasn't looking at me, he was looking to go block somebody, that made it a penalty? I don't know. I thought if he's in the area of where the ball is thrown they wouldn't flag it. I can understand why the flag was thrown in the sense that it appeared he wasn't trying to catch it, so it looks like I'm throwing it to nobody.”

The NFL would not comment on this USA Today report:

Washington also deferred all comments to the NFL.

What the NFL did say, via head spokesman Joe Lockhart, was the following during a conference call Monday morning: “Speaking more broadly than just that Redskins’ call, it is a very common occurrence when a team disagrees with a call, particularly an important call in a game, for them to make their views known. There is conversation back and forth. That conversation is confidential, so I’m not going to speak to any conversation that went on between a club and our officiating staff. I can say on the call that the rule in question—which we’ll be happy to share with you—is clear that the quarterback must be ‘facing an imminent loss of yardage under pressure from the defense.’ That is a judgment call, and the judgment of the referee here was that he was, and he threw the flag.”

When asked specifically if the call was right, Lockhart said: “The judgment lies with the referee.”

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Unfortunately, this seems to be a critical game that boiled down to officiating. Washington (4–6) is now the projected 11th seed in the playoffs, behind Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta, Green Bay and Dallas. They have a fortuitous end of season schedule, which includes a Thanksgiving date with the two-win Giants followed by the Ezekiel Elliott-less Cowboys in Dallas, the 4–6 Chargers, the Blaine Gabbert-led Cardinals, the led-by-who-knows Broncos and the Giants once again at MetLife Stadium. A win over the Saints, in addition to being a tremendous emotional boost, could have spring-boarded them into the advantageous slate.

Instead, they are left wondering ‘what if?’ And whether they’ll get dinged for a simple miscommunication again.

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