Even if you don't subscribe to the Yinzer Conspiracy Theorist Weekly, as a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers - or at least of fair and equal officiating in the NFL - you may want to fasten your seat belt before you go through the roof.
Dean Blandino, VP of officiating for the NFL, filmed his weekly Tuesday segment for NFL Network's Total Access on Christmas Eve. The events following the Steelers block of a Green Bay Packers field goal gave him plenty of subject material for this episode.
Blandino began with an explanation of the 'illegal batting' penalty against Pittsburgh's Ziggy Hood, who swatted a loose and live football out-of-bounds in the aftermath of the blocked kick.
As described by Blandino, the ball never crossed the line of scrimmage, nor was it ever touched beyond the line of scrimmage by the Steelers. Because the ball never crosses the line, it is a live football and can be recovered by either team at any time, and any recovery can be advanced - as opposed to muffed punts recovered by punting teams which cannot.
In essence, a blocked kick which never crosses the line of scrimmage is equivalent to a fumble by a ball carrier. The only difference with a blocked kick is the kicking team cannot advance the ball if it at any point crosses the line of scrimmage. Any return by the kicking team after the line has been crossed is ruled dead at the spot of possession.
Blandino illustrated through a replay the events which transpired once the kick was blocked, eventually circling a 'potential recovery' by Steelers safety Ryan Clark. The replay then shows the loose ball continue through William Gay and eventually be knocked out of bounds by Hood.
Upon further review, Blandino employs an alternate angle of the play which illustrates Clark controlling the ball and attempting to lateral the ball to Gay.
According to Blandino, "He'€™s going to gain control, and it actually looks like he throws a backward pass, so had this been reviewable, I think we could have overturned this."
He concludes by pointing out had the officials on the field ruled Clark possessed the ball, the batting penalty by Hood would still have been enforced - because he batted it towards his opponent's endzone - but possession would have been maintained by Pittsburgh.
Blandino does point to the issue of possession not being reviewable in such an instance as a possible focus for the competition committee in future deliberations. However, the committee has already addressed this issue in previous years. Their decision up until this point has remained that such instances should not be reviewable. Even with Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin holding a seat on said committee, there are no guarantees of positive changes for the future.
Interestingly enough, Total Access host Amber Theoharis clarifies the confusion as lying in the 'illegal batting' penalty - possession aside - because it is a rarely made call. Blandino confirms. Segment moves to next issue.
Not so fast, Blandino. We're not done with you yet.
For being a man who is responsible for representing the league in its maintenance of the integrity of the game, and the officials who preside over its games; he fittingly overlooks certain important aspects of the play which demanded attention.
The first unfortunate oversight comes during Blandino's recognition of Clark's possession of the football. While Blandino hypothesizes the outcome of the penalty based on Clark's possession, he neglects to acknowledge the fact Clark would have been ruled down by contact before the attempted lateral to Gay. By nature and definition of the rules, batting a dead ball out of bounds in either direction is not a penalty unless an official decides it was done in an 'unsportsmanlike' manner.
What prevents the 'down by contact' issue from seizing the forefront of the story is the inability of either coach or the replay official to challenge possession in such an instance. Because the replay was never reviewed, 'down by contact' is tossed to oblivion with Clark's possession because the official's on the field ruled the ball remained live from the moment of the block.
Had the officials ruled the Steelers ever possessed the ball, Tomlin could have challenged whether or not Clark had possession of the ball when he would have been ruled down by contact - even though as Blandino described, "The ruling on the field of whether Clark possessed it or not is not a reviewable aspect."
The competition committee will have plenty to discuss this off-season, from repairing the crumbling image of their officiating crews to the double-entendres created by their flawed replay policies.
All turnovers are automatically reviewed without coach's challenge, as are all touchdowns - both instances which revolve solely around possession of the football. Coaches are granted two challenges for all other plays except those instances which are deemed 'not reviewable'. If a coach wins both of his challenges, he is granted a third and final challenge.
The idea of limiting a coach's number of challenges was rooted in preventing teams from using the replay process to create time-outs for their team - thus the reason why some plays have to be deemed 'not reviewable'. The league admits the humanity of their officials and grants the use of replay to prevent critical calls which affect the outcomes of games from being missed or made incorrectly.
While in the NFL's mind, the outcome was not marred by botched ruling on the field or flawed replay policy because the Steelers won the game. Unfortunately, this was not the league's stance when the same Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 13 - a.k.a. Tomlin's sideline dance party.
It didn't take long after Tomlin's involvement in a long Jacoby Jones kick return before reports of possible consequences involving a fine and possible draft pick loss grabbed national headlines. The loss of draft picks was justified by the effect Tomlin's involvement may have had on scoring related tiebreakers had Jones actually scored a touchdown on the return.
The official who ran behind Tomlin but did not flag him for interfering with the play - as the league's later ruling insinuates Tomlin did - was reportedly downgraded by the league for not penalizing the coach on the field -- an act which would most likely have awarded the Ravens a TD on principle alone. No fines our specific punishments were announced.
Fast-forward to the middle of the third quarter when the Packers were awarded the ball and an automatic first-down on the Steelers two-yard line. Green Bay scored a touchdown on an Eddie Lacy run on the following play.
No one is suggesting either the Packers' or Steelers' final scoring totals for post-season tie-breaking formulas were affected -- even though in this case actual points made their way on the board, while the points denied the Ravens remain hypothetical.
Tomlin's fine cannot be compared to this situation. The league has not taken strong measures like six-digit fines or suspensions against officials in recent memory, and they are unlikely to begin any time soon. It is admirable of the league to want to save the face of their officiating crews, but to what extent is acceptable? NFL officials are paid between $44,000 and $130,000 based on their years of service. They are required to make a certain amount of money outside of the NFL to insure integrity, but the only money the NFL can actually tap is their officiating income.
Tomlin's $100,000 fine for altering the outcome of a game would be more than most officials' income for an entire year. Officials have no draft picks to forfeit, nor playoff seedings to protect. The crimes are similar, but the punishments are anything but.
At some point, precedent has to equal precedent. Either blunders on the field affect the outcomes of games and need to be penalized to the full letter of the law, or they are isolated incidents of human deficiency. Either points resulting from blunders affect the entire league and must be dealt with, or they don't. Either it's a big deal, or it's not.
Either way, the quality of officiating is in a steep decline, and the league must find a way to stop the bleeding before they hemorrhage any and all credibility.
The NFL could have sought to address the situation as sincerely, and as immediately, as they did during Tomlin's crucifixion; instead, they sent Dean Blandino onto a scarcely watched segment buried in a Christmas Eve broadcast to define an 'illegal batting' penalty.
Coach Tomlin admitted in his press conference Monday he has not been a 'hands-on' member of the competition committee in his first year on-board. Expect his level of involvement to expedite this off-season.
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