Anatomy of a Play  

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A controversial end to an instant classic

  • By Greg Smith NFL Films
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In defense of one of the greatest games I've ever witnessed, I want to take the space of this article to discuss NFL officiating -- not just in the Cardinals' 51-45 overtime victory over the Packers, but NFL officiating in general.

Rules:
There is no sport better conceived, organized and structured than football. No sport has more players on the field, going as fast, and in as many directions. As a result, no sport has more rules.

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In the NFL, the rules govern the movement of 22 highly-paid, finely-tuned athletes in any given circumstance that could occur during a game. They exist to add structure and order, while enhancing the audience's viewing pleasure and protecting the players' safety.

Defensive pass interference -- helps the passing game (viewing pleasure)
Offsides/False Start -- ensures every player starts at the snap (structure/order)
Roughing the passer -- protects the quarterback (safety/viewing pleasure)

Coaches/players:
In the NFL, bending the rules isn't a bad thing. Pushing the boundaries of legal/non-legal hits, holds, push-offs, grabs, and twists are what allow the game to go on in its state of controlled mayhem.

It's the coaches' jobs to train the players to perform at the highest possible level within the guidelines of the rules -- or to the point where a penalty won't be called.

Coaching an offensive lineman to slyly hold, a receiver to subtly push off, or a punter to dramatically flop are all ways to bend the rules. They're also examples of good coaching.

That's where the officials and fines from the league office come in to play.

Officiating/fines:
In-game officials and post-game fines serve the same general purpose -- to help enforce the rules. Garnering a 15-yard penalty hurts now, while receiving a $10,000 fine hurts later. But both help in keeping the players and coaches in line.

Where does Packers-Cards rank?
Take a look, in chronological order, at 10 of the most memorable wild-card games ever played and chime in on where the Cardinals' 51-45 OT victory over the Packers ranks. More ...

The key word is help. Officials and fines help enforce the rules.

On a 57,600-square-foot playing surface, officials are outnumbered 22 to 7, meaning each is responsible for watching more than one player over the course of a down. They are, more often than not, the only eye-witnesses to an infraction that occurs under their jurisdiction.

It stands to figure that penalties committed will always outnumber penalties witnessed.

Expecting every foul to be enforced is like expecting a ticket to be issued every time someone speeds, or expecting a parent to justly discipline their children every time there's a "he-said, she-said."

To see every penalty would take 22 officials. Would that really enhance the viewing pleasure of the audience? Would that help bring order? Or would it create disorder?

I read an article this week suggesting that penalties should be reviewable. Great idea, if you want the game to last six hours.

Packers-Cardinals
There were dozens of penalties not flagged in the wild-card game, on both teams, but two non-calls have come under heavy scrutiny. They occurred on two of the game's final three plays.

While they were bad breaks for Green Bay, the Packers can only blame themselves.

The official responsible for seeing the helmet-to-helmet hit on Aaron Rodgers on the game's third-to-last play was busy watching and calling the blatant hold on Packers left guard Daryn Colledge. If Colledge hadn't been beaten so badly and holding on for dear life, the official would have seen the roughing the passer foul.

On the final play, the now-infamous "missed facemask," the official responsible was busy watching the fumble/no-fumble, pass/no-pass scenario that was occurring simultaneously. If the Packers had blocked the blitzing Michael Adams or Rodgers had not held on to the ball so long, the fumble wouldn't have happened.

Here is an excerpt from the rulebook on the duties of the Head Referee, who was the governing official, in both cases:

On pass plays, drops back as quarterback begins to fade back, picks up legality of blocks by near linemen. Changes to complete concentration on quarterback as defenders approach. Primarily responsible to rule on possible roughing action on passer and if ball becomes loose, rules whether ball is free on a fumble or dead on an incomplete pass.

While the referee was watching Colledge's hold, he didn't see the roughing. While he was watching the pass/fumble, he didn't see the facemask.

Were the non-calls unfortunate for Green Bay? Yes.

Was it bad officiating? No.

Outstanding scheme and execution by the Cardinals, combined with miscues by the Packers, are what decided the outcome of the game -- a game that should be remembered for the historic performances by Kurt Warner and Rodgers, not for what the officials didn't see.

Our Anatomy of a Play segment dissects the final play of the game, and nowhere do we mention Adams' hand on Rodgers' facemask.

As my mother always said, before the gavel came down on my brother or me, "I call 'em as I see 'em."

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