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.
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