When things go wrong …
… They really go wrong. One of the good things about a Thursday night game, and about NFL Game Rewind, which I’d like to buy stock in, is that it’s easy to go back in the next day or two and watch the game in-depth, to see what really happened. And the great thing about NFL Game Rewind is being able to toggle between the TV feed of the game and the coaches’ video, so you can see—for instance—how utterly awful Ed Dickson was for the Ravens in the season opener.
I went back originally to try to judge whether Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was right in contending that NBC didn’t show a replay of the Wes Welker trapped catch before Peyton Manning snapped the ball in the third quarter on a vital series of the game. (Truth in journalism here: I also work for NBC. So you’ll have to take my findings with that understanding, but I wanted to be clear about that before we start here.)
But what I discovered was not just something illuminating about that play. I found out that, in a 10-play sequence, the Ravens did enough to hand the game to Denver, and the Broncos didn’t need Peyton Manning to be at his all-time best for Baltimore to suffer an embarrassing defeat.
Ten plays. Four minutes of the third quarter.
Play 1. Denver trails 17-14 with 14:13 left in the third quarter. Manning throws low to Welker, who appears to trap it. The officials call it a catch. Cornerback Corey Graham immediately motions to the ground that it bounced. Now, keep in mind that each coaches’ booth in every NFL stadium is equipped with a TV monitor that shows the exact feed that is shown in the replay booth; the only difference is the coaches cannot run a play back and forth the way it can be done in the replay booth. But the replay shown by NBC, with Welker clearly trapping the catch, comes either 10 or 11 seconds before the snap of the next play by Manning. (I was using the sweep hand on my watch, so it’s not precise.) And in the first half, when Harbaugh challenged almost exactly the same kind of trap by Demaryius Thomas, the Ravens threw the challenge flag six seconds after the first replay of the Thomas trap. So, unless there was a blackout or a TV malfunction in the Ravens’ coaches booth, the replay was shown up there in plenty of time for Harbaugh to have been told he should throw the challenge flag. The coach upstairs blew that one.
Play 4. Jimmy Smith, the Baltimore cornerback drafted in the first round in 2011, lets journeyman receiver Andre Caldwell get around him and then get a step on him, and Manning throws a 28-yard strike to Caldwell. Touchdown. Denver takes a lead it would never relinquish.
Play 6. Baltimore ball, 2nd-and-12 at its 18. Joe Flacco has Dickson with a step on linebacker Danny Trevathan and throws it on target to a diving Dickson. It hits him in the hands and goes right through. Dickson’s got a reputation for bad hands, and he added to that in this game. This was one of at least three balls he should have caught from Flacco.
Play 7. After Michael Oher is lost with an ankle sprain, fifth-round rookie Ricky Wagner gets schooled by outside linebacker Shaun Phillips. Wagner tries to push Phillips outside, but the vet is too fast for him and sacks Flacco for a four-yard loss, forcing a punt.
Play 8. The Ravens line up to punt. I’m no kicking game guru, but I do know this: When each punt team gunner is not double-covered (and the Baltimore gunners were each covered by one man here), there’s a pretty good chance the rush team is going to try to block the punt. And the punter, Sam Koch, shouldn’t be directionally punting when there’s a good chance there’s a block on, because it’s going to be tough for the Ravens to stop all the men who look to be coming. But Koch tried to punt to the left, Denver safety David Bruton overpowered rookie linebacker Arthur Brown, and Bruton got a hand on the punt to block it. Denver ball, threatening to blow it open now, at the Baltimore 10.
Play 10. You know the old saying about an offensive player having the edge on a slippery field because he knows where he’s going and the defensive guy doesn’t? Graham, who tormented Manning with two interceptions in the Ravens’ divisional playoff win eight months ago on the same field, slipped covering Wes Welker on a short out pattern. Easy touchdown for Welker. Denver, 28-17, and the rout was on.
A nightmare series of 10 plays, out of 155 in the game. But there was enough bad—on the part of both the high-pick and marginal players, rookies in their first game and coaches—for the Ravens to chew on for days. The 10 plays exposed weaknesses at tight end (a major problem), offensive line depth, and replay communication from upstairs to the head coach. It won’t be a comfortable week for anyone in Owings Mills as the Ravens get ready to play Cleveland next Sunday.
Calling all ref nerds.
What you need to know about new rules and points of emphasis for the 2013 season, in the order of significance (well, my order of significance):
A new crown-of-the-helmet rule. Amazing this didn’t get marked off once in 65 preseason games. No player outside the in-line tackle box can lower his head and deliver a blow with the crown of the helmet. “Players are adjusting,’’ new officiating czar Dean Blandino said. I hope he’s right. We’ve seen this most often over the years by an offensive player, usually a running back, using the crown of his helmet as a battering ram against a defender to push him backward and gain more yards. But it’ll be possible for a defender to get one of these penalties too. And Blandino said there could be an instance where there will be offsetting penalties called, if both the ballcarrier and defender lower their heads and strike the other with the crown of the helmet.
The Tuck Rule, redefined. Formerly, a quarterback could be in the act of throwing the ball, in the act of pulling his arm back or in the act of bringing the ball back after starting the throwing motion—any of those, and losing them all would not be considered a fumble. Now the rule’s been rewritten. Now, it will be a fumble if the quarterback stops a pass attempt, and begins to bring a pass back to his body, and fumbles. If the quarterback loses the ball—if there is any subsequent loss of control of the ball after his pass attempt ends—it will be ruled a fumble. Blandino said there were four instances last season when a replay didn’t overturn a tuck-rule call on the field that, in 2013, would result in a fumble.
Video review when it wasn’t formerly allowed. AKA the Jim Schwartz Tweak. After scoring plays or turnovers, replay reviews upstairs are automatically done. Formerly, if a coach threw a challenge flag when one of the automatic reviews was going to happen, the review got cancelled and the coach got called for unsportsmanlike conduct. In other words, it was killing a gnat with a sledgehammer. Now, if a coach throws a challenge flag after a scoring play or turnover, he’ll lose a timeout but the play will still be reviewed.
A read-option clarification. No rule was changed here, but a murky interpretation was made clear. Let’s define a key tenet of the read-option. When a quarterback has his hands on the ball and has the ball stationed in the running back’s gut, it’s called “riding the running back.” When a quarterback is riding the running back, he is eligible to be hit as hard as a defender can within the rules—just not in the helmet. And when he pulls the ball back from the runner and takes off running, he is treated exactly like a running back. But if he pulls the ball back and is in the act of throwing, he gets all the protections of a quarterback. He must clearly be in position to throw the ball to be treated as a quarterback; otherwise, he’s a runner and can be hit as one. Last year, there was confusion about whether defenders could hit a quarterback when he was riding the running back; now there should be no murky area here.
A hurry-up offense clarification. The ball can’t be snapped until the official who places the ball down for the offense—the umpire or the referee—is in position to call the next play. This will prevent offenses from quick-snapping in this no-huddle era, but shouldn’t come into play very often. Even the most ardent no-huddle teams (Denver, Philadelphia, New England) aren’t snapping the ball with 33 seconds left on the play clock. They’re snapping in the teens, simply staying out of a huddle to hold sway over a defense and prevent opponents’ substitutions.
There are a couple of other changes—on peel-back blocks and pushing into the line on extra points and field goals—but those are the biggies.