The NFL has a serious problem: There are too many misinterpretations regarding how defenders can hit offensive players.
On Monday, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard(notes) became the latest player questionably penalized with a personal foul when he was flagged for an apparent helmet-to-helmet hit during the third quarter against Jacksonville. Like many of the recent calls on similar plays, Pollard's penalty came at a critical juncture.
Early in the second half with Jacksonville leading 6-0, Pollard was flagged on a third-and-7 play. Instead of having to punt following an incompletion, Jacksonville kept the ball, took another six minutes off the clock and drove for a field goal and a nine-point lead. In an eventual 12-7 victory for the Jaguars, that field goal and the extra six minutes Jacksonville milked off the clock were crucial.
While replays show that Pollard's helmet may have slightly touched the bottom of Deji Karim's(notes) headgear, there was nothing flagrant about the safety's actions. Pollard did not spear, launch or lead with the head. However, because of the NFL's heavy emphasis on protecting defenseless players, too much power over the outcome of a game has been subsequently been put on a call that is virtually impossible to distinguish in live action.
Don't get this wrong: The problem is not with the officials themselves. Calling this play is harder than interpreting a charge/block call in basketball. If you blink or are viewing the play at the wrong angle, you can get it wrong. That's perfectly human.
This is also not to say that the emphasis is wrong. The league is correct in pushing defensive players to use better technique by leading with the shoulder rather than the head. However, this call needs to be subject to review. Yes, it's adding another play to the seemingly endless list of situations that are reviewed, but this one is too important because it usually happens in too critical a moment. Just as it did Monday night, this usually happens in a critical third-and-long situation in close games where a blitz is called. Not only is the automatic first down a killer for the defense, but the 15 yards that goes with it is huge.
Practically the exact same play happened in the Oct. 10 Monday night game between Chicago and Detroit, when Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) was called for a 15-yard penalty. That play contributed to a touchdown drive for the Lions that put them ahead in the second half and gave them momentum.
The next day, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about the play. He said he had seen it. When asked if he was troubled about whether the league had gone too far in interpreting the rule, he started his answer by chuckling and then said, in so many words "no." For Goodell, his viewpoint of these plays is mostly through the prism of safety rather than the impact they have on the outcome of games.
In fact, during ESPN's postgame coverage Monday night, studio analyst Trent Dilfer (who is quickly becoming one of the best in the business) did a terrific breakdown of three such bad calls from this weekend's games. The Pollard play was one of the three; all of them came in games decided by less than a touchdown.
Dilfer, a former quarterback who said he suffered 14 concussions in his career and certainly respects the need for safety, concluded that the call needs to be fixed. In a league where there is so much riding on each contest (playoff positioning and jobs for starters), the league can't afford to have a blown interpretation of this call mean so much.
While there is a reasonable argument to be made that any call is subject to interpretation (holding by offensive linemen is a constant complaint among fans), the problem here is that the combination of 15 yards coming at such a critical point makes this call a game-changer. Leaving games up to interpretation isn't good for the league.
As the winless Dolphins prepare to start another coaching search – with their eyes apparently on former Super Bowl-winning coaches Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden – Miami fans should be aware that the feeling is mutual. Both Cowher and Gruden have quietly planted seeds that they would like to return to coaching and are more than open to listening to an offer from Miami owner Stephen Ross. According to two sources in and around the team, former Dolphins quarterback and current CBS studio analyst Dan Marino has been telling Dolphins management that Cowher, an analyst partner, is geared up for a return. Cowher is also close with Ross confidant Carl Peterson. As for Gruden, he was in Miami for a Monday night game in the opening week and told more than a few folks that he'll be ready to go next offseason.
The worst thing about watching Miami coach Tony Sparano endure the bad start that will eventually result in his demise is that he's being left to take all the heat himself. Whether it's Ross, general manager Jeff Ireland or former head of football operations Bill Parcells, no one else who is responsible for this mess is facing the music. Ross barely knows how to address the media, let alone answer questions about how the team will get better. Ireland hasn't spoken publicly since April and talks roughly twice a year, ranking him as one of the three or four least talkative personnel executives in football.
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As for Parcells, who is working for ESPN, his effort to distance himself from the mess he created in Miami is disgusting. Parcells could have done a lot to take pressure off Sparano and even give him some help in the locker room this season (the players have all but quit on Sparano). In addition to Parcells' biggest mistake of taking Jake Long(notes) over Matt Ryan(notes) in 2008, he drafted quarterback Pat White(notes) in 2009 and chose to select pluggers on defense and the offensive line (defensive lineman Jared Odrick(notes), linebacker Koa Misi(notes) and guard John Jerry(notes)) in the 2010 draft rather than, say, take a dynamic offensive threat such as tight end Jimmy Graham(notes). How badly did the Dolphins miss on Graham? The guy played in the same home stadium as the Dolphins.
However, instead of those guys standing up and taking the blame next to Sparano, they continue to hide. And you wonder why the Dolphins organization is so lost.
Bolts' big weakness
Between the awful time management at the end of the loss to the New York Jets and the postgame whining from the likes of cornerback Quentin Jammer(notes), the San Diego Chargers have a serious problem they better address quickly. Their lack of mental toughness remains a huge problem. The main problem is coach Norv Turner, who is one of the league leaders at blaming other people or finding reasons why things go wrong. The sad part of that is Turner is a brilliant offensive play-caller, but when it comes to focusing and directing players, he comes up way short.
"I love 90, maybe even 95 percent of what Norv does," one of Turner's former quarterbacks said on Monday. "But when the pressure is on and something goes wrong, it totally sticks in his mind and distracts him. He won't say it out loud, but he completely loses track sometimes of what he's supposed to do next."
"You saw it in the playoffs against the Jets two years ago and you saw it again on Sunday. Norv got completely out of his mind in the second half with the Jets' adjustments. By the final drive, he and [quarterback] Philip [Rivers] were completely out of synch. They had 89 seconds left at the end of the game and they ran five plays. Five? You're not talking about a mediocre play-caller and an inexperienced quarterback. These guys know what they're doing. They should have been able to run seven or eight plays easy and Norv knows it."
1. Green Bay Packers (7-0): Aaron Rodgers'(notes) stat line (125.7 rating, 20 TD, 3 INT) looks like something from a 7-on-7 tournament – not the NFL.
2. New England Patriots (5-1): They have won eight straight (and nine of the previous 10) in games played after the bye week.
3. San Francisco 49ers (5-1): Strange as it sounds, they could have the division sewn up by the time they beat St. Louis on Dec. 4.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2): Critical question this week is whether they have found a way to stop the spread offense.
5. Baltimore Ravens (4-2): It's hard to believe in this team when QB Joe Flacco(notes) regresses the way he did against Jacksonville.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5): Nice win, but the offense is still a complete mess and it's going to take a miracle for Jack Del Rio to stay.
29. Minnesota Vikings (1-6): Good opening act for rookie QB Christian Ponder(notes). Now we get to see Ponder and Cam Newton(notes) on display together.
30. Miami Dolphins (0-6): Looking back at it, that Tim Tebow(notes) miracle might do the Dolphins well in delivering Andrew Luck.
31. St. Louis Rams (0-6): If you thought giving up 294 yards rushing to Dallas was bad, the Rams get New Orleans and Drew Brees(notes) next.
32. Indianapolis Colts (0-7): The strutting and fretting are over; the Colts will not be heard from the rest of this season.
• One of the continuing problems for New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) is that he still seems to have a blind spot when it comes to seeing the second and third defenders in zone coverages. On Sunday against San Diego, Sanchez narrowly escaped a second interception when two Chargers defenders collided going for a pass in the end zone in the second half. Said one scout for an AFC team: "It hasn't changed at all. I'm stunned by it and it's a big reason why he looks so scattered in the pocket. He doesn't trust what he sees. … He looks and looks and looks and then still throws a ball like that."
• I just wanted to issue some sincere and heartfelt praise to Jacksonville defensive back Drew Coleman(notes) for his decision to fall to the ground after nabbing an interception to essentially end the game against Baltimore. Coleman had plenty of open space and time, and could have tried to return the pick for a score. Instead, he took the selfless approach and ended the play instead of making himself vulnerable to getting stripped. Nice work.
• Add Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren to the list of people who thought either Jim Harbaugh of San Francisco or Jim Schwartz of Detroit should have been fined after their Week 6 fracas. In fact, Holmgren even put in a call to the league office to say something should have happened. "Even if we're only talking about $5,000 or $10,000, there should have been some fine," Holmgren said. "That's not good for our league and if my guy [Pat Shurmur] had done it, I'd say the same thing. You have tough, intense games, but afterward, you conduct yourself a certain way. [Bill] Parcells and I had plenty of tough games, but we always were gentlemen to each other after the game."
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• You've heard about the Suck for Luck campaign going on in so many NFL cities. However, my favorite campaign is the Forget Brett effort that Rodgers is waging in Green Bay. My favorite new stat on Rodgers is that through 239 throws this season, he has only three interceptions. That's just below one interception every 80 throws. For his career, Rodgers is averaging an interception every 52.9 throws (that's 1,850 throws so far). Favre, who set the NFL record for career interceptions (336), averaged one every 30.3 throws.
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