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Pete Morelli Under Review

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.

Grading Methodology

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

Line Play
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.

Secondary Breakdown
Good/Easy Calls 2
Bad Calls 2

The good/easy calls were a pass interference call on the Giants' Curtis Deloatch and a correctly ruled incomplete pass that Burress bobbled.

Special Teams
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

Line Play
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 … 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
Defensive Holds 0 0

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: “After reviewing the play, the receiver maintained control of the pass. It is a forceout and a catch.� 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 “continuation� the defense would keep the ball.

Secondary Breakdown
Good/Easy Calls 5
Bad Calls 3

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.

Special Teams
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
Defensive Holds 0 0

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.

Secondary Breakdown
Good/Easy Calls 4
Bad Calls 4

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.

Special Teams
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 “let them play,� but penalties need to be enforced with consistency.

Overall Impression

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 … 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." – Paul
"I hate the Ravens, but that was a clean hit. Ward was clearly in bounds." – Harris
"The officials tried their damnedest to give that to Baltimore at the end, but Wright decided to be charitable as well." – Vash
"Ned's going to have to scrap his article this week. I suggest Any Given Sunday: Refs vs. Steelers." – 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.


47 comments, Last at 13 Apr 2006, 11:37pm

1 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Interesting article MF. I did not realise Morelli was in charge of the game Gibbs was fined for. Goal line cameras really would take some of the guesswork out of the replay review system ie Collins breaking the plane

2 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Congrantulations, Matthew! I enjoy reading articles like these, and I wonder what sort of officiating ratings FO might do next season. Aaron, I think you mentioned this possibility in your pre-Super Bowl interview with Seahawks.NET?

3 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

This should be done with every game by numerous reviewers. The fans need to start grading the officials and bringing the NFL to task. In fact, anyone have a complete collection of their teams games from last year that they can review?

4 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

I've never understood the fuss over the do-overs, its called an inadvertent whistle and it has been a part of the game since forever. If the refs blow the whistle incorrectly the play is redone. End of story.

6 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

very interesting article, matthew , and a good way to start this much needed discussion.

i see two problems here:
you are judging the calls from the viewpoint of the camera , but that is not neccesarily the viewpoint of the official making the call.
the real pertinent question is: what did the official see and did he call what he saw correctly.
what you did here can be understood also as " the officials are not seeing the plays correctly". this can be not because they suck or are inherently evil but simply because they have too many things to watch simultaneously, or the rules are just not clear enough, or they are not positioned correctly and so on.

another issue is what you mentioned: how does this crew compare to the rest of the league? from what i have seen they look to be about average. in other words - the problem is not the officials themselves but the circumstances in which they are being put.
what kills me isn't the mistakes they make - they are human after all(i suppose).
what i cannot accept is inconsistency in the calls - within each game and across the league. that really drives me crazy!
maybe that can be another criterion for your next article.

7 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review


Nicely done. One question, how many of these calls fall directly on Morelli, and how many on other members of the crew?

8 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

A Pittsburgh fan?!? Sir, you have impugned my honor and I demand satisfaction. I will see you at dawn for pistols at 10 paces. Foul knave, I have counted myself an Eagles supporter since I was 10-years-old. Now taste the back of my hand.

That said, using Intraweb sources to judge to officials is a fool's errand. Fans are much more likely to bitch about bad calls than celebrate good ones. Plus, how do you determine which calls are right but unpopular, such as the offensive pass interference call in the endzone during the Super Bowl, or bad calls?

9 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Jake, #6, is totally right. This is a great article to start the process of more systematically reviewing officials. Unfortunately we're forced to rely on the TV cameras, and probably the calls that officials don't make (and that TV doesn't show) are as important as the calls they do make. I think officiating the game of football is ridiculously hard, and it's hard to see how it can be made easier, with the exception of minor tweaks like goal-line cameras. You can't just get guys with 'better eyes' - I'm sure the officials do a better job than we could. It's just a tough game to officiate. Thank goodness for instant replay.

10 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

One more thing, I thought the top-rated individual refs worked the Super Bowl, not entire crews. Did that change and I just missed it?

11 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

This is a great article, and I like the synopsis at the end ("If I was a coach, this is what I would expect...").

There are three things I want from officials, in order of importance (most to least):

1. Getting the call right.

2. Internal consistency on judgment calls.

3. External consistency on judgment calls.

#1 is obvious - you don't want blown calls. But the number of blown calls is relatively small (although that doesn't mean they aren't important - their impact can be significant).

#2 simply states that, within the crew, calls should always be made in a similar manner - this at least allows the coach to say "Well, this crew always calls holding tightly, so we have to adjust for the crew."

And of course, #3 being the panacea - that every crew call every call in roughly the same way. That would be great, and the NFL would like to aim for this, and although it can never be perfect, it could be better. I'd also say that the NFL is better at this than many sports (the MLB and the NBA are terrible at this, with some refs well known as favoring certain players, or just being foul-happy).

Interestingly enough to me is the fact that the lack of #3 (consistency between crews, or even between umpires on the same crew) in baseball is one of the things many baseball "traditionalists" tout as one of the best things about baseball - the fact that every umpire calls balls and strikes differently (despite them being defined fairly rigidly in the rules), etc. I have never agreed with that, believing that while there will always be borderline calls, given that there is a specific definition of the strike zone, umpires should all use that definition, with mistakes coming only when it's a close call (edge of the plate, slightly high/low, etc.).


12 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

While I love the idea, I think the article needs to be a little more objective. Things like talking about the refs' views, detailed description of the circumstances of a penalty and perhaps comparing the actual circumstances with the rules themselves would be useful.

13 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Interesting article. One question. You note that "on passes, holding is more likely to be called if the play results in a first down or completion." Did you notice (or could you even see) if flags for holding tended to come late on pass plays? Any idea if this is common? I can understand holding being called more often at the point of attack on a run, but I think it would be apparent if officials were waiting for the outcome of a pass play before calling a penalty.

14 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Thanks for the positive response on the article. When I'm not being a complete Redskins homer, I do enjoy watching football games during the season.

Re: 6 (jake)
I think the NFL also judges their officials by the cameras, albiet they have more angles than the TV crew. TV is what we've got right now as fans.

Re: 8 (Harris)
My apologies and sympathy. I used team messageboards as guidance to looking for an article in the "traditional" media. This lead me to the Schottenheimer quote, Gibbs fine, and TMQ article. I also gave the benefit of the doubt to FO readers the game threads.

Re: 7 (James, London)
Morelli is not responsible for all the calls. That's why this is looking at his crew. This crew worked all the games I reviewed, and I'm fairly certain they were kept together in the playoffs.

After checking the playoff game in the Gamebook, there was 1 change to the on-field crew and the whole replay booth was changed. I spot checked Weeks 16 and 17 to confirm that the crew didn't change until the playoffs.

Regular Season Crew
Referee: Peter Morelli (135)
Umpire: Garth Defelice (53)
Head Linesman: George Haywood (54)
Line Judge: Darryll Lewis (130)
Side Judge: Jeff Lamberth (103)
Back Judge: Don Dorkowski (113)
Field Judge: Jim Saracino (58)
Replay Official: Hendi Ancich ()
Video Operator: Don Langeloh ()

Playoff Game Crew
Line Judge: Jerome Boger (109)
Replay Official: Al Hynes ()
Video Operator: Lou Nazzaro ()

15 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Just some notes from the rulebook on offensive holding, which explains some of the non-calls. From Rule 3, Section 3, "Blocking":

Note 2: If there is a potential for offensive holding but the action clearly occurs after the pass has been thrown to a downfield reciever, offensive holding will not be called as the holding has not had an effect on the play.

Note 3: If there is a potential for offensive holding but the action occurs away from the point of attack and has no effect on the play, offensive holding will not be called.

This seems to explain the findings that holds away from the point of the run are not called.

16 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

re: holding:

I am a high school football ref in PA. We are INSTRUCTED to let holding go unless it is at the point or attack, or at least has some possibility of affecting the play. Personally I'm not crazy about this directive, seems to me a foul is a foul, but this is what we are supposed to do. I have no proof that the NFL operates the same way, but I know the NCAA does from talking to fellow refs, so I'd say it's a good bet that the NFL has a similar edict. Note: this does NOT apply to ANY other foul, such as blocking in the back or below the waist or any PF calls.

17 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Tarrant, where do you get that idea about baseball fans? The umpires and players might complain about the attempts to regulate the strike zone more tightly, but I don't think the fans have any particular attachment to umpire's judgement.

18 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

...on passes, holding is more likely to be called if the play results in a first down or completion.

Be careful; you observed a correlation (albeit with a small sample size), which says nothing about causation. It could be that officials are more likely to call a holding penalty in order to reverse a play that results in a completion or first down (first down/completion causes penalty to be called). It's also possible that there's a common cause - for example, a "more blatant" hold is more likely to give the quarterback additional time to complete the pass, and is also more likely to be called; a "less blatant" hold has less impact on the pass rusher's ability to disrupt the QB (thereby making the play less likely to result in a completion or first down) and is also less likely to be called.

To suggest causation would require something like wrmjr suggests in comment #13: when in these plays were the flags thrown? If a significant number of holding penalties had flags thrown after the pass was completed, there's evidence that the officials are allowing the result of the play to influence their decision on calling the penalty (which I believe should not happen). However, if the flags are consistently thrown prior to the pass being caught/dropped, then the "common cause" case would seem more likely.

I don't know if you could do this without game film, though.

19 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Boy, I love the idea behind this article. Nice job, Matthew. There's probably a way to put more rigor to it, but you did a nice job of starting the discussion.

I thought it was interesting that you noted the referees sometimes seemed to wait and see the result of the play before calling holding ("on passes, holding is more likely to be called if the play results in a first down or completion"). As MDS illustrated, holding can be called on a lot of plays in a given game, but you've kinda validated my suspicion that sometimes the officials really do seem to wait for the outcome of the play to see if an advantage was gained from the hold.

I don't necessarily have a problem with that, provided that there is consistency within the context of the game. That's what drove me absolutely crazy about the Super Bowl (apart from the Seahawks gakking at the worst possible time); it seemed as though the calls were very inconsistent.

I also found it interesting that the secondary play seemed to be consistently a problem for the referees, at least compared to line play. I don't know how to address that issue, other than hiring younger, more fit (maybe former players?) people to handle the job of watching the secondary play.

20 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Re: 13
I didn't notice late flags. Its more of the fact that holding gives the QBs and WRs more time to execute the play.

21 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

you are judging the calls from the viewpoint of the camera , but that is not neccesarily the viewpoint of the official making the call.
the real pertinent question is: what did the official see and did he call what he saw correctly.

I wonder if there has ever been any thought to having the referees wear a camera. Sometimes, in hockey they'll outfit the goalies with a camera, or in baseball, they'll put one on the catcher.

Why not put a camera on the referee? Maybe something that he can wear on his ear, which would be about as close to eye level as you could get. It wouldn't be perfect, certainly, but if you want to be able to know what the referee is seeing on any given play, that would be the closest thing to it.

22 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

I always thought that the best solution would be to take the refs off the field and do the whole thing by camera. Have a isolated shot of the right and left sides of the line and each of the eligable receivers and have a crew make the call from a booth. I would be scared to death being a frail old ref running around on the same field as NFL players.

23 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Re: 21

They actually did do this for a while, and it led to one of the funniest moments in football. I think it was a MNF game in 2003(maybe 2002???) and they had something called "ref-cam" which was basically a camera stuck in the referee's hat(or maybe it wasn't the referee - it was the guy who tends to hang out behind the linebackers, maybe the field judge?) Anyhow, to make a long story short, the QB threw a bullet which hit the referee square in the forehead. Needless to say, the footage from ref-cam was priceless(football viewed end-on getting bigger and bigger, then lots of shaking followed by a view of the sky), but that was the last I heard of ref-cam, or at least letting the networks have access to it's footage.

Almost as good as the Atlanta-Pittsburgh game that went into overtime and ABC ran out of commercials to show so during timeouts they let Madden doodle with the pen on a shot of the stadium from the blimp. Good times.

Anyhow, back to your regularly scheduled discussion of refereeing.

24 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Matthew, thanks for the clarification. Do you have any plans (or time!) to look at any other crews in the same way? A comparision would be fascinating.

25 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

And I would be terrified of every single play being seen from 17 different angles, and waiting for a group of review officials off the field to come up with a definitive answer during the action.

We have a good system. I still maintain that the only real problem is that exceptions have swallowed the rules with regards to a lot of penalties, and a simple reformation of the rules in a more simple and easilly-applied form would fix almost everything.

Plus maybe a thing about penalties having to have immediate impact on a play. That'd be nice.

26 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Hey, guys, just a presentation request: can you fix whatever bug is making all the apostraphes turn into question marks?

27 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Check your "Character Encoding" on your browser, David. It's under the View menu. I'm guessing it's set to Unicode (UTF-8). Try changing it to Western [European] (ISO-8859-1), and the apostrophes should render properly.

28 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

I am a high school football ref in PA. We are INSTRUCTED to let holding go unless it is at the point or attack, or at least has some possibility of affecting the play.

Virtually every ref is taught this principle whatever level you are at (or country you are in) - only throw a flag if

a) It affected the play or
b) It was dangerous or
c) It was absolutely blatant

29 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

* 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?

Defensive holding on running plays was changed to tack on 5 yards to the end of the run.

30 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

So this settles it, the seahwks were SCREWEd they won the super bowl... lets get the NFL to give them the trophy

31 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Good article. While we're on officiating, see link for an interview from Sunday's KC Star with Mark Hittner, head linesman on the Super Bowl crew.

Of note:

Hittner, 49, was involved in one controversial call, when he ruled that Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger scored on a quarterback sneak, a call that was reviewed and upheld by replay.
“That was probably the closest goal-line call I’ve ever had,� Hittner said. “Jeez, that was close. My mechanics were not the best on that. I thought ‘touchdown’ in my head, and then I went up with one arm, which means the play is over, but I should have went with two arms. I was thinking one thing and did another.
“I’ve seen a lot of video on it, and he’s in the end zone. It’s not by a whole lot, but he’s in there.�

...and in his description of game preparation, it does NOT appear that crews do any specific preparation on the teams they are officiating for. To me, this is a weakness: officials should review coaches' tapes of those teams, looking at the players they will be responsible for and noting tendencies to hold, chop block, etc.

Also he doesn't seem to grasp the change that having full-time referees would imply: that the crews would probably have to live in the same city and see each other every day rather than "video-conference" with each other a few times a week from wherever they live now.

32 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review


That was the Pats playing the Titans in 2002, I remember Brady absolutely drilled that ref. I was furious that there wasn't a do-over for the ref not getting out of the way.

33 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

I think the thing that would help the most is to simply increase the number of officials on the field (by 2 maybe?). That way each official has less responsibility on any given play.

I'm not sure that the notion of full-time refs would have any effect.

34 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Personally, I think pass interference (offensive or defensive) should be a major, flagrant violation to be called. This is football, and some physicality should be allowed.

35 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Re: #30

Congratulations on parsing out the secret agenda behind this post, well done. :rolleyes:

36 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

This is an interesting take and thnaks for your work. 29 is right which made me think of something - should any of us who are going to judge referees first of all read the NFL rule book :-) It's easy for us to sit and complain but how up to date is our knowledge? I know I still automatically compare decisions to the rulebook I knew 10 years ago ....

37 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Good comments on holding during run plays from lower-level officials.

Does anyone know if an official is able to rule "force out" on replay review of a sideline catch? I know the defense is not able to challenge a "force out" call on replay.

Re: 29
That call was made in the Denver-Pittsburgh game and I had meant to edit in a comment about it, or remove that line.

Found it on the Gamebook:
1-10-DEN 15 (11:39) 16-J.Plummer right end to DEN 23 for 8 yards (50-L.Foote).

PENALTY on PIT-26-D.Townsend, Defensive Holding, 5 yards, enforced at DEN 23.

38 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

34: I agree. But, that puts another level of complexity and judgement into the call.

39 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

I must confess since you went on and on about the Alstott call I was really looking for you to make some horrible biased error. However I thought this article was very good, thanks.

40 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Just reinforces my long-held feelings that Dallas almost always gets the benefits of uneven officiating.

41 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

I think its an interesting attempt to try to rate something that is close to impossible to rate without a) a thorough knowledge of the NFL rulebook (as was pointed out); b) a thorough knowledge of the mechanics of officiating an NFL game with a 7-man crew, and c) the coaches game tape, which shows every play from the end zone and from the sideline views.

I officiated several years at the High School level and a couple at the NCAA (predominantly DIII and some DII) levels. In addition, I have attended some officiating camps run by NFL officials.

The comment above regarding ignoring fouls which do not occur at the point of attack is spot-on (personal fouls being an obvious exception). While announcers love to say that officials could call fouls on every play, this is seldom the case, however many fouls aren't called because they do not impact the play.

One of the things that I found most interesting in interacting with NFL guys is how the NFL studies fouls. It helps officials because players are coached to bend (break) the rules and make it look like they are the ones being fouled. For example, DL are taught to hold OL in such a manner that it makes them look like they are being held. The official who ran one of the camps I went to is an Umpire named Chad Brown (Tom Brady hit him in the face with a pass during the Denver playoff game) - he was a DL for Oakland and Pittsburgh in the 70's. He wrote a book about becoming an official and he discussed how in his first few years in the NFL he was almost fired because he kept falling for this technique and calling holding on the OL (I think he said Howie Long was the bestat doing this). If a former DL who is on the field in the middle of the action is falling for this, what chance does a viewer watching at home or an announcer in the booth have. He said that compared to his day, the way players got around the rules was a science.

I don't mean to sound like an apologist for officials (the Asante Samuel DPI against the Broncos was HORRIBLE), but if you want to do further articles of this type, please become very familiar with the NFL 7 man mechanics (I believe the BJ has the play clock, not the Umpire - he has more immediate things to focus on at the snap). It would also help to talk with officials with NFL experience to get background on what what the officials are looking for out there. Also please watch the tapes and recognize that the official in proper position who is looking at the action is in a much better position to see what actually happened than a camera.

Thanks for forum.

42 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Spotting of the football is probably the least "intangible" thing I can think of. Anal-retentive nitpicking aside, very nice article.

43 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

The official behind the defensive line is the umpire.

Officials are part of the field of play. You don't get a do-over if the pass hits a crossbar, or if you drill a defensive lineman in the helmet. Part of the game.

44 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

What I found most interesting is comparing my observations to those of MDS of the Super Bowl. He counted 22 "uncalled holds" in one game, whereas I counted 22 over three games. It's definately one of the hardest things to spot, as I noted and was noted in the article linked in comment 31.

No one really picked up my criticsm on Mike Pereria. Does everyone here think he's done a bang-up job the past 3 years?

I was surprised by the lack of penalties on special teams as well. The impression I've had is that 50% of punts have block in the back fouls, this wasn't the case.

Even though I'm not an official or privy to the official rulebook... I've still watched enough football over 10+ years to have a good grasp of the rules. The only call I'm hazy on is the sideline "catch" review that got changed to a "force out". The only official who writes this type of thing is Markbreit, but he doesn't critique the crews and you'll be hard pressed to find an NFL official willing to make public how they grade.

Re: 40
In one game, one specific crew gave the Cowboys some good calls. On the other hand, they also didn't call holding on plays that went for first downs against Dallas. On a couple of those I thought it had an impact on the play and enabled the Chargers to pick up some first downs.

45 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

RE: 3

How are we going to bring the NFL to task? The officiating in the playoffs was bad, and lots of fans complained. Did anything happen as a result?

Congratulations Matthew on the article!

46 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review


"Ref hit in the face with football" is inherently funny. But what elevated the occurence in that Pats/Titans game to the funniest thing I've ever seen in a football game was the dissolve (is that the right term?) ABC was using that year.

They showed the replay with the ball getting bigger and bigger, bang, confusion as ref tumbles, view of the night sky, dissolve to MNF logo. The dissolve was circling stars!

47 Re: Pete Morelli Under Review

Ever since the Super Bowl, I have been asking for random drug testing of referees.