Something weird happened this week during “Monday Night Football.”
The Detroit Lions had the ball on the first drive of the game. On first-and-10 from Detroit’s 43-yard-line, quarterback Jared Goff faked a handoff to running back Jahmyr Gibbs, then turned around to find Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Robert Spillane closing in for a sack. Goff threw the ball away — well over Gibbs’ head and nowhere near any other Lions player.
ESPN analyst Troy Aikman and rules analyst John Parry, a former NFL referee, both agreed that the play looked like intentional grounding, but no penalty was called.
Nine minutes later, after the Lions kicked a 44-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead, ESPN went to a commercial break. When the network came back from the break, it showed a replay of Goff’s incomplete pass, then cut to Walt Anderson, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, in the league’s New York command center — a room so dark it looked more like a command cave. Anderson, harshly lit with the camera light reflecting in his glasses, explained why the officiating crew had not flagged Goff.
“The intentional grounding rule allows for a lot of flexibility for the quarterback to get rid of the ball as long as he is doing so in the direction and vicinity,” Anderson said. “Detroit quarterback threw the ball right over the head of the receiver number 26 (Gibbs) — he probably could have reached up and touched it — so we feel this was both in the direction and the vicinity and was properly not called a foul.”
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Anderson’s in-game live explanation of the non-call didn’t make for very compelling television, but to me this was groundbreaking. From my living room in Chicago, I started furiously firing off texts to reporters, team sources, agents and others who closely study NFL officiating: Has anyone ever seen the VP of officiating join a live broadcast to discuss a decision?
Nobody could remember another instance. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio called it “unprecedented.”
The league has officiating personnel available during every game to take questions from the broadcast network partners and help inform their analysis. Often, you’ll hear the rules analyst present the point of view of the officiating crew, and that’s because the league asks them to do that. On Monday night, neither Parry nor Aikman presented the officiating crew’s take on things. Could that be why the league chose to crash the broadcast at this otherwise inconsequential moment?
An NFL source said certain league officials can join broadcasts directly if they deem it necessary to speak directly to a viewing audience. The broadcast truck has a direct feed into the command center that can be activated at a moment’s notice. ESPN declined to comment when asked about Anderson’s Monday appearance.
Sunday was a tough day for NFL officiating. One club executive called it, “the worst day I can ever remember,” via text. “Officiating is not in a good state right now,” said a staffer for a different NFL team.
The Steelers-Jaguars game was particularly bad for rookie referee Alan Eck’s crew, which has a replacement down judge after the previous down judge was lost for the season with a Week 1 injury. A rare offsides call on Steelers right guard Isaac Seumalo negated a field goal just before halftime of a 20-10 Pittsburgh loss and drew the ire of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin after the game.
“I hadn’t seen that called in 17 years of standing on sidelines — offsides, lined up offsides on a guard on a field goal protection,” Tomlin said. “It didn’t matter what they said. I’ve never seen that.”
“They was calling some stupid stuff,” Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson said. “They should get fined for calling bad, making worse, terrible calls and stuff like that. That’s how pissed I am. They cost us the game. I don’t care what nobody says. They cost us the game.”
Another situation from Sunday didn’t make as many headlines because the team that suffered ultimately won the game. On first-and-goal at the end of the second quarter of the Bengals–49ers game, Cincinnati tight end Irv Smith Jr. caught a short pass, then coughed up the ball as he was tackled by several San Francisco defenders. Before the Niners recovered the ball, a whistle signaled the play dead.
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“Did somebody blow a whistle?” CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz asked.
The officials huddled to determine if one of them blew an inadvertent whistle, in which case Cincinnati would maintain possession. Here’s what the NFL rulebook says:
When an official sounds the whistle erroneously while the ball is still in play; If the ball is a loose ball resulting from a fumble, backward pass, or illegal forward pass, the team last in possession may elect to put the ball in play at the spot where possession was lost or to replay the down.
“I don’t know if I heard a whistle or not, but (referee) Ron Torbert announced that the ruling was a fumble on the field recovered, which it definitely is,” said CBS rules analyst and former NFL referee Gene Steratore. “You have to take your time on these plays until they are finished.”
“Let’s listen to Gene’s point,” Nantz said. “Was there a whistle? Let’s listen.”
On replay, there it was again, clearly trilling before the 49ers jumped on the loose football. An inadvertent whistle is not a reviewable play, but under the league’s replay assist rules, the replay official could come in to help the crew determine what happened. Instead, Torbert didn’t address the early whistle and gave the ball to San Francisco.
“Well, Gene, you saw that,” Nantz said.
“I’m hearing that little tweet,” Steratore said. “I didn’t know if it was (a whistle) or not, Jim, it was a little faint for me.”
Back to “Monday Night Football.” Of all the poor officiating decisions to chime in on this weekend, this one seemed pretty unimportant. What probably should have been a 10-yard penalty on the first drive of the game wasn’t going to stick with anybody for too long.
If anything, Anderson’s explanation prompted a whole new set of questions. How was the ball in the vicinity of Gibbs when it landed well past him? Sure, Gibbs could have maybe jumped up and tipped the ball, but he was lunging at Spillane, not running a route or looking for a pass.
But ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck declined to point out the contrast between Parry’s take and Anderson’s defense. “OK, thank you, Walt,” Buck said. “And we’ll leave at that.”
(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)
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