What We Learned from Controversial Week of NFL Officiating

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What We Learned from Controversial Week of NFL Officiating
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Week 11 in the NFL had its fair share of officiating controversy, and the brunt of that controversy resulted from critical, late-game plays in the New Orleans Saints victory over the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers win over the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football

But they weren't the only two outings that featured debate-worthy flags.

Let's take a look at the most controversial moments and examine what we learned from each incident.

 

Erik Walden

Indianapolis Colts defender Erik Walden opened Week 11 with a head-butt. 

Immediately following a second-quarter run by Chris Johnson, Walden ripped off the helmet of Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker, who was blocking him. 

As the helmetless Walker approached Walden with his arms raised, he was head-butted. After that, Walker swung at Walden, but the players were quickly separated. 

GIF courtesy of Bleacher Report

Walden was hit with an unnecessary roughness penalty; however, he wasn't ejected from the game. 

On Tuesday, the NFL decided to suspend Walden for one game due to his egregious action, per Fox Sports' Jay Glazer:

Before this play and the subsequent suspension, Walden didn't have any history of dirty play. But the league wasn't timid about making an example of him in this circumstance. 

While a handful of fines are being levied every week for defenseless receiver penalties, late hits and sometimes even specific tackles that weren't flagged, the precedent has been set for head-butting an opponent without a helmet.

It's an extremely dangerous act—Walker's lucky not to have taken the head-butt on his bare skull—and will warrant suspension. 

The NFL certainly got this one right.

  

Dashon Goldson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson was the second player to be suspended for Week 12 because of the way he used his helmet in Week 11. 

On an incomplete pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White in the second quarter, Goldson launched himself at White's head. 

The hit was noticeably late and helmet-to-helmet. 

As Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports pointed out:

Goldson was suspended for one game earlier in the season for a hit on New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles in Week 2, but the suspension was overturned and reduced to a fine of $100,000. This is the third time this season Goldson has been penalized by the NFL for an illegal hit; he also was fined $30,000 for a hit to the head and neck area of a defenseless New York Jets player.

Repeat offenders of blatant helmet-to-helmet hits will face suspension, and they should. 

Per Rotoworld.com, "Goldson leads the NFL in personal foul penalties since the start of the 2010 season," meaning he has a long history of these type of planned, unsportsmanlike strikes on opponents.

With the league severely cracking down on helmet-to-helmet hits, it won't be surprising to see more players facing suspension if they've already been slapped with fines. 

The NFL will have no issue making an example out of repeat offenders in hopes of, well, limiting the amount of repeat offenders in the future. 

 

Ahmad Brooks

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks was hit with a huge penalty on a sack-fumble of quarterback Drew Brees late in the fourth quarter of the New Orleans Saints 23-20 win.

Up 20-17 with 3:18 to go, Brooks came off the edge and blasted Brees before he was able to throw the ball, which resulted in a fumble that was recovered by 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis

GIF courtesy of Bleacher Report

As Willis laid on the turf with the ball, a flag was thrown. 

The refereeing crew deemed Brooks' hit a personal foul, and Tony Corrente explained the flag as "contact to the neck of the quarterback."

After the game, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk cited a league source who said it was the "absolute correct call."

Florio went on to write, "And it was. The rules prohibit forcible contact with the head OR neck area.  Brooks hit Brees in the neck."

Just because the veteran linebacker avoided the dreaded helmet-to-helmet spear, the reasoning behind the call makes sense.

Here's a tweet from Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group that gives a more specific clarification from the league:

According ESPN's Adam Schefter, Brooks will be forced to get out his checkbook for the penalty:

While there's bound to be negative reaction to the fine, the league must stand its ground regarding hits to the head or neck area of quarterbacks, regardless of when the hit happened or the result of the play.

Had Brooks contacted Brees a few inches lower, in all likelihood, no flag would have been thrown, and he wouldn't have been fined.

 

Rob Gronkowski

The most high-profile, controversial call came on the final play of the Carolina Panthers' victory over the New England Patriots and involved tight end Rob Gronkowski and linebacker Luke Kuechly

On Carolina's 18, down four with three seconds left in the game, Tom Brady fired a pass into the end zone, a pass that seemed to be intended for Gronkowski.

Panthers' safety Robert Lester easily intercepted the under-thrown toss, which ended the game. 

GIF courtesy of Bleacher Report

However, a moment later, back judge Terrence Miles threw a flag directed at Kuechly, who had his arms around Gronkowski as the pass was picked off.

After the officials huddled, they picked up the flag, and Carolina was awarded the victory. 

GIF courtesy of Bleacher Report

Clete Blakeman, the head referee of the Monday Night Football contest, met with the media, and had this exchange with ESPNBoston's Mike Reiss:

Mike Reiss: I guess the first question is what was seen on the last play to initially have the official throw the flag? 

Clete Blakeman: The back judge saw that there was contact and the defender was not playing the ball and that led him to throw for defensive pass inference, was the initial call. 

MR: The follow-up naturally, what was discussed to then pick up the flag? 

CB: There were two officials that came in. One was the umpire and the other one was our side judge and there was a discussion at that point as to the, in essence, the catchability of the ball due to its location. So it was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.

Without question, Kuechly made contact with Gronkowski as the ball was in the air and before it was intercepted. 

The initial contact was insignificant hand-fighting but quickly morphed into the linebacker putting both his arms around the tight end, although he didn't appear to be "squeezing" or "pulling" Gronkowski away from the football. 

Did the referees ultimately make the right call?

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Almost simultaneously as the ball was intercepted, Kuechly applied pressure to the "hug."

With his arms tucked down and into his own chest, Gronkowski nonchalantly drifted into the back of the end zone as he watched Lester catch the pass four-yards deep in the end zone.

Even if Kuechly's contact would have been construed as textbook pass interferenceBlakeman and his crew, fully within their job requirements, deemed the under-thrown pass uncatchable—their (reasonable) judgement on a judgement call.

That ends the argument.

The only aspect of the play that should have anyone enraged is the fact that the term "uncatchable" is not clearly defined. 

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