Guest column by Matthew Furtek
On January 14, no one knew who Pete Morelli was. No one knew he was a high school principal. No one cared enough to throw a rock through one of the windows of his house. Now he'll forever be remembered as just another poor referee, grouped together with Phil Luckett, Jeff Triplette, and Ron Blum.
The NFL provides us with stats on players so we can verify that Curtis Martin is declining, Steve Smith is Super Mario, and Ben Roethlisberger is better than Eli Manning, but there is no way for the public to gauge how well the officiating crews are doing. I decided to undertake an effort to grade Morelli and his crew throughout the whole year. I watched tape from three games I have of his crew in my collection, Week 1: Dallas @ San Diego, Week 9: New York Giants @ San Francisco, and Week 11: Carolina @ Chicago, and attempted to grade his performance. To evaluate games I can't watch, I used open internet sources (mainly the Football Outsiders open game discussion and Google) to look into complaints in games Morelli's crew officiated. I figured any egregious officiating blunders would be discussed in some corner of the internet.
I graded the officials in four general categories:
- Line play -- how consistently they call holding, hands to the face, and other penalties among the internal maulers
- Secondary play -- how well does the crew call pass interference and illegal contact
- Special teams plays -- punts and kicks, and
- Intangibles, which includes personal fouls and spotting of the football
A call is defined as any type of ruling by an official. That includes penalties, non-penalties, ball spotting, anything an official impacts. Calls were judged as either "good," "easy," or "bad." I've wavered between ruling plays "erroneously bad" or "subjectively" bad, but I settled on just judging them as "bad."
The crew was graded as pass-fail based on the four categories and overall. Rather than saying "If the crew has 5 'bad calls' it's a failure," I had to judge if the quantity and severity of the bad calls ruined the game.
Week 9: New York Giants @ San Francisco
On their first drive, while in San Francisco territory, the Giants were allowed to hold twice without any penalty. On one running plan, the hold occurred away from where the run was. On a passing play, Manning threw an incompletion. This began a general trend I noticed in offensive holding throughout all the games: on runs, holding is called if it occurs at the point of attack; on passes, holding is more likely to be called if the play results in a first down or completion.
|Line Play Breakdown|
|Number||Result of plays||Number||Result of plays|
|Uncalled Holds||6||3 rush 11 yards
0/3 0 yards
|1||1/1 24 yards|
|Offensive Holds||3||1 rush 5 yards
2/2 52 yards
|4||1 rush 3 yards
1/3 31 yards
|Defensive Holds||1||(SF) 1 rush 0 yards||1||(NYG) 1 rush 14 yards|
The line-play officiating in this game was very good and consistent. In fact I only found one erroneously bad call. On a Tiki Barber run to the line, Giants center Shaun O'Hara held nose tackle Anthony Adams, who fell down and knocked over tackle David Diehl. The officials called a defensive holding penalty on Adams for the contact made on Diehl.
Initially I failed the crew for their uneven enforcement of holding on the initial drives of both teams. The Giants were allowed to hold twice, while the 49ers were penalized on their first offensive play, on what I thought was a marginal holding call. But the rest of the game was very well called. The uncalled holding on a 24-yard pass play was committed by a running back blocking a delayed-blitzing linebacker and grabbing onto his jersey. I considered it a good non-call because the hold occurred as the ball was coming out.
There wasn't much action going on in the secondary on this day, but there was a bad non-call on Gibril Wilson for pass interference against Brandon Lloyd. With five minutes to-go in the second quarter, San Francisco had a first-and-10 near midfield and took a shot deep to Lloyd. Lloyd was behind Wilson and tracking the ball, and Wilson was tracking the ball then looked to find Lloyd. As Wilson turned back for the ball, he bumped into Lloyd, throwing him off the route. It appeared to me as if Wilson looked at Lloyd, and then when "looking at the ball" intentionally bumped Lloyd off the route. The back judge originally threw the penalty flag which would have given the 49ers the ball in the red zone in a tight 3-0 game, but the flag was waved off due to "incidental contact." I would agree with the call if Wilson didn't take his eyes off the football.
On another play later in the game, Lloyd was bumped by Will Allen, sending Bill Maas into a "Where's the flag?" frenzy, but it looked like that pass was behind Lloyd and uncatchable. It could have been an illegal contact.
The good/easy calls were a pass interference call on the Giants' Curtis Deloatch and a correctly ruled incomplete pass that Burress bobbled.
Surprisingly, for a game that included eight kickoffs and 12 punts, there were only two special team penalties called.
There are three other bad calls that stick out from this game:
- After the 49ers' first field goal, Willie Ponder ripped off a 52 yard return. It was negated by a phantom hold.
- On New York's first touchdown drive, the Giants attempted a play action pass to Jim Finn, and he bobbled the ball incomplete. Finn protested the call by walking up to the official with arms open and then spiking the ball down, hitting the official in the knee. That official had every right to throw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and could have thrown Finn out of the game.
- The head scratching call of the game came on a play in which the 49ers were flagged for defensive holding along the line. The play resulted in a Tiki Barber gain of 14 yards to the Giants 46. I figured the Giants would decline the penalty and take the result of the play, but the officials tacked five yards onto the end of the run. Huh?
There was a replay review of a Jeremy Shockey touchdown catch, where he fell short of and rolled into the end zone. The on-field official ruled it as a touchdown, and they wanted to make sure Shockey was not touched before the ball broke the plane.
The officiating was good overall, but I can't help but think how the uncalled pass interference would have changed the game. It happened at 3-0 in a tight contest, and would have set San Francisco around the 8-yard line. This is what I would consider a typical run of the mill passing grade for the officiating crew.
Week 11: Carolina 3 @ Chicago 13
In this game the Bears defensive line completely outmatched the Carolina line. Watching this happen made me wonder how much officials study each team in anticipation of which matchups along the line will be trouble. This day Chicago defensive end Alex Brown was giving Carolina tackle Travelle Wharton fits. Carolina was not called for holding on seven plays â€¦ because those plays still yielded four sacks and one Delhomme scramble. The crew called three holding calls during the game, correctly. This performance by the officials was a gold star quality job.
|Line Play Breakdown|
|Number||Result of plays||Number||Result of plays|
|Uncalled Holds||7||0/1, 4 sacks, -21 yards, 1 FF
1 scramble, 6 yards
1 rush, 5 yards
|3||0/1 0 yards
2 rush 5 yards
|Offensive Holds||2||2/2 33 yards
2/2 52 yards
|1||1 rush -1 yards|
There were eight secondary plays during the game, and the officials did just okay. Good calls include not throwing a flag on Ricky Manning Jr. when Muhsin Muhammad was fighting him for a jump ball and a correct "catch and fumble" ruling on a bang-bang play to Steve Smith. One pass interference call might have been marginal, with Muhammad running a slant and Marlon McCree jamming him off the line of scrimmage. It was a borderline call.
The really bad play that stands out in my mind came on an 18-yard pass to Justin Gage. Gage caught the ball on the sideline, got one foot down, double clutched the ball, and got the other foot down. The ruling on the field was a catch with two feet and possession. Carolina challenged the play, and when Morelli came back he had this to say: â€œAfter reviewing the play, the receiver maintained control of the pass. It is a forceout and a catch.â€? Notice he said nothing of Gage getting both feet down. Force-out is one of those judgement calls on the field that is not reviewable.
This may be one of those Catch-22 items, where the correct and right call on replay is not exactly able to be overturned by replay. A similar play would be one where a receiver catches the ball and fumbles, the defense recovers the ball, and the play is ruled incomplete. If the offense challenges the play, and it is clear the receiver caught the ball, they would be allowed to retain possession even though on â€œcontinuationâ€? the defense would keep the ball.
The third bad call was a pass to Gage, who caught the ball, was hit instantly, and dropped the ball. It was ruled a catch on the field. It was not reviewed because it happened on a third down and Gage didn't run his route far enough, so the Bears had to punt.
Out of six kickoffs and 14 punts, there was one penalty called (and it was the correct call).
There were a couple shaky calls, and one that is hilarious in hindsight. The shaky calls were a Chicago false start called after Peppers jumped across when Orton motioned to the backs, and the officials missing Carolina calling timeout with the play clock expiring.
The most hilarious play occurred in the second quarter. The game log reads:
1-10-CHI 47 (9:53) 18-K. Orton pass to 87-M.Muhammad to CAR 41 for 12 yards (23-K.Lucas, 52-C.Draft).
It should read:
1-10-CHI 47 (10:00) 20-T. Jones center to CAR 47 for 6 Yards.
On first-and-10 from the Chicago 47-yard line, Thomas Jones indeed took a handoff and romped for six yards to the Carolina 47. Near the end of the play, the umpire threw a flag and was blowing the play dead. Morelli came on and said, "We have blown the whistle, we will do the play completely over. First down Chicago." That's right fans, Morelli set his own precedent for a do-over in the regular season! I believe the real reason the umpire blew the whistle is because the play clock had gone down to :00, and a delay of game penalty should have been enforced.
They officials did a great job calling the offensive lines, and an average job in the secondary. The big red flag was the do-over play. I'm stunned that I saw it happen to Morelli's crew during a regular season game as well. It would be nice if I knew for sure that on replay a forceout can be called. Since defenses cannot challenge a forceout ruling, it makes sense an offense cannot challenge it either. I would give the crew a pass for this game.
Week 1: Dallas 28 @ San Diego 21
Once again, the officiating crew watching the line did an effective job. In this game, no defensive holding penalties were called. The quibble I have with the officiating is that they let San Diego hold on a couple of plays that went for first downs. The holding did not occur at the point of attack, but on both plays a pursuing defensive player was held up and couldn't make a stop before first down. One drive led to a touchdown.
|Line Play Breakdown|
|Number||Result of plays||Number||Result of plays|
|Uncalled Holds||1||0/1 0 yards||4||4 rushes 24 yards|
|Offensive Holds||4||2 rushes 26 yards
0/1, 1 sack -7 yards
|2||2 rushes 17 yards|
During one of Dallas' touchdown drives, the tackle false started a hair before the snap. Normally it wouldn't be a big deal, except a similar thing occurred to San Diego and was caught by the eagle-eyed line judge. While watching the game I didn't feel the line calling was bad, but on paper allowing San Diego 24 yards on plays that should be called back for holding makes me want to fail the crew.
Fans like their officiating crew like Fox News, "Fair and Balanced." This game made a lot of press for Quentin Jammer because he was called for two penalties in the fourth quarter, one that extended the Cowboys' game-winning touchdown drive. The first penalty was correctly called. The second seemed more like a bail out call. On third-and-16, Jammer jammed Dallas slot receiver Patrick Crayton within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The ball was thrown and completed on an out route to Terry Glenn. Jammer was called for holding, but I couldn't see the hold, and Crayton released off the jam. The call gave Dallas a first down because Glenn didn't gain 16 yards.
To add insult, when the Chargers came roaring back at the end of the game with a first-and-goal on the 7, Anthony Henry held Keenan McCardell on a pass to the end zone with his back turned to the ball. If the officials aren't afraid to call a game-changing play at one end, they shouldn't be scared to call it at the other end. Based on this inconsistency I give the secondary a failing grade.
The other two bad calls were a marginally questionable pass interference on Aaron Glenn for going over the back of Eric Parker on Brees' last pass into the end zone, and a stop-and-go route to Parker during the same drive where it looked like Terence Newman tripped him up or held him.
Good calls included correctly ruling a Terry Glenn completion, a penalty assessed on Henry, and a correct spotting on a Parker completion where he came back for the ball and caught it while airborne.
On five punts and 10 kickoffs there were no penalties.
There was one other penalty that made the papers the following morning. In the third quarter Luis Castillo sacked Bledsoe, and hit him rather hard in the helmet. Watching the play, Morelli didn't throw the flag but the umpire did. I know it's technically a correct call, but I always thought roughing the passer couldn't be called unless the quarterback actually threw the ball ... wouldn't it be "roughing the ballcarrier" otherwise? Marty Schottenheimer in the post-game news conference had this to say: "The thing I did find ironic is there was no penalty flag thrown at the outset. The play was well over before somebody decided to throw a flag. Maybe it was at the behest of one of the Cowboys. I thought that was very interesting." Overall Dallas was the beneficiary of six of the eight "bad calls."
For this game Morelli's crew failed. I'm not a Chargers fan, but I think they have three legitimate gripes: (1) the late flag on Castillo, (2) drive-extending holding penalty against Jammer, and (3) not making the same call against the Cowboys when San Diego was about to score with less than two minutes left. I can understand the rationale behind â€œlet them play,â€? but penalties need to be enforced with consistency.
In the three games I watched, I found the officiating to be average. The line-play calls were very good, and I would consider them the strength of the crew. The hardest call on the line to make is holding when a defensive end is pass rushing against a tackle. If the defensive end gains an advantage around the corner, the tackle will try to get his hands up and work to push the inside shoulder of the end. His hands will be around the opening of the neck area shoulder pad, and it's hard to tell if he has a hold there.
Secondary-wise the crew is hesitant to call pass interference on long passes. This can be good in some cases where there is no interference, but in cases such as the Lloyd- Wilson play, it's bad. In the secondary they also call a lot of borderline penalties on legal jams within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
For intangibles and other calls, I witnessed a "we incorrectly blew the whistle and threw a penalty flag â€¦ do the play over" play, some spurious officiating that benefited one team, a completed pass ruled forceout on review, and maybe an incorrectly spotted penalty (now I'm not so sure after seeing the officiating crew do the same thing during a playoff game in Denver). I can't tell if it's a lot of mistakes for a crew to make, but I wasn't exactly impressed. The good line-play calling is negated by weak secondary and other plays. At least Morelli's crew doesn't call many penalties on punts and kickoffs.
Comments on Other Games
In order to get a feel for how his crew played through the year I searched the internet to find out if they were involved in any other controversy. Of the three games I watched every play of, the San Diego game was controversial.
Week 5: Washington @ Denver
This game saw the return of the "tuck rule" to negate a Washington safety. I know the rule has something to do with "arm going forward," but to me if the arm is going forward, then so will the ball. Football Outsiders reader doctarr commented, "The refs blew a lot of calls in this game. It's very likely that the weather made it hard to call." Do officials get a free pass due to inclement weather? Joe Gibbs was fined $10,000 after making comments about the officiating quality after this game and referencing some "mysterious penalties."
Week 8: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
I never appreciated how many Pittsburgh fans read FO until looking at the comments for this game.
"Two pass interference calls uncalled then a completely botched punt." â€“ Paul
"I hate the Ravens, but that was a clean hit. Ward was clearly in bounds." â€“ Harris
"The officials tried their damnedest to give that to Baltimore at the end, but Wright decided to be charitable as well." â€“ Vash
"Ned's going to have to scrap his article this week. I suggest Any Given Sunday: Refs vs. Steelers." â€“ Fnor
Maybe Morelli is a Cleveland Browns fan?
Week 14: Kansas City @ Dallas
This game came down to a fourth-and-goal situation for the Cowboys. Derrick Johnson was called for holding Jason Witten. I perused the internet and found it was generally considered a good call. However, on the preceding play the officials didn't call holding on a pretty clear takedown of Jared Allen. Gregg Easterbrook in TMQ had this to say: "Dallas did benefit from a significant no-call. With 54 seconds remaining, rookie offensive lineman Rob Petitti wrapped both arms around Kansas City defensive end Eric Hicks and tackled him to prevent a sack: Holding should have marched the ball away from the Chiefs' goal."
Week 17: New York Giants @ Oakland
During the end of this game, Kerry Collins attempted a sneak on fourth-and-1. The ruling on the field was he didn't get in, but it appeared on replays to most people watching the game and posting on the internet that the ball broke the plane. FO reader Andrew commented, "Kerry Collins did get in the endzone too. The ball could be clearly seen crossing the plane in the sideline view." It wouldn't be the first or last time Morelli's crew botched a replay.
Upon Further Review
Based on my grades this crew got two lukewarm passes and a failure. If I was a coach preparing for this crew, I would expect an even game called on the offensive line, I wouldn't expect to be able to get a cheap pass interference call on a deep ball, I would expect some type of replay screwup, and I would be wary of having a penalty called on my team at a critical fourth quarter moment, unless I was Bill Parcells. I'm inclined to think the crew is just an average crew, and am wondering how they got to work in a divisional playoff game. Is the NFL officiating quality that bad that these guys are among the top 33 percent? Is it really hard to make good calls in the secondary? Is there a lot of pressure during the end of the fourth quarter that officials feel like they have to make a call sometimes?
It seems like Mike Pereira has been director of NFL officiating for a while, at least since the 2003 fiasco involving the San Francisco 49ers-New York Giants playoff game. But it doesn't seem like he has done much to improve officiating.