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Blind-sight in Hindsight: A look back at a season of #PhantomCalls

You've heard the grievances week-to-week about officiating. Are they true? Have the Ravens been victims of lots of game-changing, highly questionable decisions, or are penalties a result of some other cause, like discipline? Using video and screen caps, let's take a closer look at some of the most impactful penalties--ones challenged as unmerited--over the course of the Ravens season thus far.

Coach John Harbaugh assumes his most frequent sideline pose from this season.
Coach John Harbaugh assumes his most frequent sideline pose from this season.
Andrew Innerarity-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent article, I made fun of the myriad of hashtag-phantom calls that have gone against the Ravens this season.

This time, I am serious about it.

Ravens fans have agonized, to say the least, about the consistent appearance of calls by referees that have either taken a touchdown off the board, nullified a game-changing play, or drastically changed momentum in most of the Ravens losses this year.

At best, these calls are a series of coincidences, of Murphy's Law parallels.  (Does anyone believe that?  I would like to hear the perspective of someone who thinks that all of these calls and happenstances are some type of odd luck.) At worst....it isn't nice to say.  Or sane sounding.  Somewhere in the spectrum is also the possibility that the Ravens have a bad penalty reputation with referees, and they anticipate guilt as opposed to responding to it.

What adds to the picture is that the Ravens have been within one score in all of these losses.  If it was a 38-7 blowout like Seattle rendered on Minnesota on Sunday, these calls would be harder to make issue of.  Likewise, if it was a win, these calls would hold less weight because we would be talking from a victorious stance and would lose the claim of questionable motives or reputation with referees.

Nevertheless, here is a list of the crucial judgments that would fall under the heading of #PhantomCalls.  I will limit myself to one per game, although some games have had more than one.  These are hugely questionable judgments that affected game outcome.

Week 1) Non-Pass Interference vs. Denver

In the final moments of the game, the Ravens had the ball, 3rd and 10 from the Denver 16.  Joe Flacco lobbed a pass down the middle towards Crockett Gilmore, who was facing the ball and clearly had the defender beat.  The point of contact for the ball was 16 yards down the field, and the defender jumped in response to Crockett's receiving motion, in order to stop the ball from being caught.  He had no idea of where the ball was and was not facing the ball.

According to the 2015 NFL Rule Book (emphasis mine):

ARTICLE 2. PROHIBITED ACTS BY BOTH TEAMS WHILE THE BALL IS IN THE AIR

Acts that are pass interference include, but are not limited to:

a) Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s  opportunity to make the catch.

This screencap seems to illustrate the rule precisely:

Why was this not called?

Week 2) Defensive Holding vs Oakland

4th Quarter, Oakland down by 3.  On 2nd down from the Baltimore 17, Raider QB Derek Carr threw a pass to the inside shoulder of the posting-up TE Mychal Rivera, downfield.  Ravens safety Will Hill III got the inside position and intercepted the pass, ostensibly ending the game.  Yet, a yellow flag floated down to the ground during his return and he was cited for defensive holding.

A close-up view of the play, which has very few existent angles for public viewing, shows that Rivera ran all the way to contacting Hill, who outstretched his arms; and then Rivera turned in a post-up move, challenged by Hill, who was fighting for position to the ball, very basketball-like.  This is proven by Rivera raising his right arm with an arm-bar towards Hill in order to push him backwards.

A close-up still shows that Rivera performed a swim move to get his posted up position, and this preceded any arm-raised contact from Hill.  By rule, Hill can protect himself from a player running directly into him.

Week 5) Roughing the Passer vs. Cleveland

Baltimore was leading this game in the first half, 14-3.  With 10:47 left in the 2nd, Browns QB Josh McCown rolled to his right, threw an off-balance pass under duress, and watched from the turf as Lardarius Webb intercepted the pass at the Baltimore 48.  However, a penalty was called against Lawrence Guy for Roughing the passer.  Instead of Baltimore having the ball in prime field position with momentum, and a realistic chance of going up 21-3, the Ravens later got the ball at their own 10 after a Cleveland punt.

Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9a:

Roughing will be called if, in the Referee’s judgment, a pass rusher clearly should have known that the ball had already left the passer’s hand before contact was made; pass rushers are responsible for being aware of the position of the ball in passing situations; the Referee will use the release of the ball from the passer’s hand as his guideline that the passer is now fully protected; once a pass has been released by a passer, a rushing defender may make direct contact with the passer only up through the rusher’s first step after such release (prior to second step hitting the ground); thereafter the rusher must be making an attempt to avoid contact and must not continue to "drive through" or otherwise forcibly contact the passer; incidental or inadvertent contact by a player who is easing up or being blocked into the passer will not be considered significant.

While you watch the clip below, count the number of steps that Guy takes after the ball is fully released, but before he hits McCown.  He does not get to two.

And while it is true that his forcefully pushing after the pass was clearly gone would violate the terms of the rule, there is a very important caveat:

Article 9g of the same rule:

When the passer goes outside the pocket area and either continues moving with the ball (without attempting to advance the ball as a runner) or throws while on the run, he loses the protection of the one-step rule provided for in (a) above, and the protection against a low hit provided for in (e) above, but he remains covered by all the other special protections afforded to a passer in the pocket (b, c, d, f, and g), as well as the regular unnecessary roughness rules applicable to all player positions. If the passer stops behind the line and clearly establishes a passing posture, he will then be covered by all of the special protections for passers.

The clip below illustrates the pocket, tackle-to-tackle, on the play.  McCown was well out of the pocket (the green box turns red when this happens) when the contact occurred.  (Please forgive the jittery box; the video was moving on both the x and y axis and was very hard to track...keep your eyes on the left boundary of the box.)

Clearly being out of the pocket, McCown was susceptible to a good shove, especially one within two steps.  Coach Harbaugh said that this was a confusing interpretation of the rule, and that Guy had done exactly what he was coached to do in that situation.  The interpretation killed a sure game-changer.

Week 6) Defensive Holding vs. San Francisco

Another endgame scenario: 3rd and 7 from the SF 40 with 2:33 left in the game.  Baltimore has one timeout and is down by 5.  SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick is stopped for a 1 yard gain.  At this point, Flacco and co. would have more than 2 minutes, plus the Warning as another clock stoppage, to attempt to drive down and score.  Problem: an inevitable flag.  This one is called against CB Jimmy Smith for defensive holding.

Rule 12, Section 1:

ARTICLE 5. LEGAL USE OF HANDS OR ARMS BY DEFENSE

A defensive player may use his hands, arms, or body to push, pull, or ward off offensive players:

  1. when he is defending himself against an obstructing opponent while attempting to reach the runner
  2. when an opponent is obviously attempting to block him
  3. in a personal attempt to reach a loose ball that has touched the ground during a backward pass, fumble, or kick
  4. during a forward pass that has crossed the neutral zone and has been touched by any player.

Exception 1: An eligible receiver is considered to be an obstructing opponent only to a point five yards beyond the line of scrimmage unless the player who receives the snap demonstrates no further intention to pass the ball (including handing off the ball, pitching the ball, or moving out of the pocket). See 8-4-2–3 for rules applicable to Illegal Contact with an eligible receiver.

Kaepernick is known for leaving the pocket and bolting downfield.  It is reasonable for Smith to fight for position.  Trumping that truth is the fact that they were not 5 yards from the line of scrimmage (the blue line), making contact legal.  This is similar to the Raider play in that the pas catcher ran directly up to Smith and initiated contact, then attempted to box him out.

Notice towards the end how Jimmy's right elbow is pulled back so as to avoid hooking the receiver.  Jimmy is a smart player, he was intentionally trying not to get the hold called on him, nor applied by him.  To no avail.

And, of course, the Back Judge that made the call was 25+ yards downfield.  For part of the play, Will Hill III was obstructing his line of sight.  Why would he throw a flag, on an unimportant part of the play (the ball was towards the sideline, this matchup was an afterthought)?

The Ravens had to burn a timeout, stop San Francisco again, and get the ball back with worse field position and less than half of the previous clock left, with no ability to stop it post play.

Week 7) Ross Fumble vs. Arizona

More momentum killing penalizing: leading 10-7 and having stopped Arizona on 3-and-out, Jeremy Ross of the Ravens received the punt right at 3 minutes left in the half.  He made a move on Arizona reserve corner Justin Bethel and got by him, but another cut put him back in Bethel's reach, and Bethel surprised Ross with a semi-blind tackle while causing movement of the ball and an eventual fumble.  The question was, had the ground been reached before the ball came out? Again, a couple of rules to consider:

Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7, Item 3. Simultaneous Possession of a Loose Ball. If a Loose Ball is controlled simultaneously by two opponents, and both players retain it, it is simultaneous possession, and the ball belongs to the team last in possession, or to the receiving team when there has been a Free Kick, Scrimmage Kick, or Fair Catch Kick. It is not simultaneous possession if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.

Note 3: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.

Now, let's look at the strip action in motion.  I've done two things to add to the illustration:

  • I spotlighted the left purple glove, with the light fingers, gripping the ball.  If you look closely, you can follow the glove the entire way through. Never once does it budge from the ball.
  • I superimposed a graphic football at the **approximate** position of the ball, underneath the personage of helmet and arms and uniform, and put a purple dot at the point where the back of the purple glove--that is, just beneath the knuckles on the hand--remains. This shows that the fingers are still very much gripped on the ball.  This is at the end of the animation.
  • I encircled the 'down' knee at the end as well, so that you can correlate that with the continued grip of the gloved hand.
Ross's gloved hands.  Keep an eye out for them below.

Arizona was awardwed possession, and also given a penalty which gave them the ball at the Ravens' 10 yard line.  It's hard to avoid thinking about what could have happened with the ball, momentum, and the lead in Pheonix that night.

Week 10) Bonus Play vs. Jacksonville

The Ravens had a one point lead vs. Jacksonville with 14 ticks on the game clock.  Jacksonville ran an 11 yard play, and then attempted to line up to run another play.  They snapped the ball quickly.  Too quickly, in fact.

RULE 7. BALL IN PLAY, DEAD BALL, SCRIMMAGE

SECTION 4 - ACTION AT OR BEFORE THE SNAP

ARTICLE 6. COMPLETE STOP

All offensive players are required to come to a complete stop and be in a set position simultaneously for at least one second prior to the snap.

...


Penalty: For a player illegally in motion at the snap: Loss of five yards.

In the embedded video, we join the game one play before the one in question.  Jacksonville's Blake Bortles completes a pass to TE Julius Thomas, who is tackled 12 yards downfield with :08 seconds left.

"We spend a lot of time studying this," Ravens Coach Harbaugh said of the endgame scenarios.  He said that the staff believed, in this scenario, that the distance the Jags would need to go, prior to the final play, would make it impossible to get off another snap.

He was right.

The o-line sometimes gets leniency in these calls, but look at the right slot receiver, circled in the video, #88 Allen Hurns.  The celebrated rookie does get back to his spot in time,  but starting from the millisecond he is set, I embedded a true millisecond timer to gauge the amount of time between that moment and the snap.  As you see, it is about 1/3 of a second. Not long enough according to the rules.

And then, the video rolls to approximately 1 second, to show you the moment that the snap should've happened.  At that point, the game clock is showing zeroes. It should have been game over.

Week 13)  Offensive Pass Interference vs. Miami

5:16 left in the most recent game's first quarter, 0-0.  The Ravens were on their second possession of the day, driving--having  gotten three first downs--and were getting a rhythm.  QB Matt Schaub threw a deep outside shoulder ball to rookie Daniel Brown.  Miami corner Nolan Carroll fell down while backpedaling, leaving Brown to make a clean catch and race untouched for a 52 yard touchdown.

Time for another Phantom Call.

The referee threw a flag for offensive pass interference.

We can actually bypass the official rules on this one.  Clearly, Daniel Brown 1) did not initiate contact, 2) responded to contact with his hands but did not forcefully push off, 3) was playing the ball the entire time, unlike Carroll.  The video below shows that Carroll did not have momentum from a push from Brown when he fell.  It wasd from his own momentum and unsure footing on the field.  That is, unless Daniel Brown has superhuman strength and shoved him using power from one hand.  Again, he would have to be a superhero who had a super powerful hand.

i

A screencap from the play tells it all--Carroll illegally initiates contact downfield while Brown's head is on a swivel looking for the ball.

I would love to say that this is the end of the article.  I would love to believe that, with 4 winning teams coming up on the Ravens schedule, they will not be victims of game-changing calls against them because they are decimated and these teams will need no help disposing of them.

I do not believe that for one second.

The Ravens will fight, will find a way.  They will not lie down for the upcoming opponents.  So, the question becomes, will the refs allow them to play, or will these Phantom Calls continue?

Stay tuned, true believers.  The story continues.