There's a strong case to be made the referees blew the last-second call in Monday night's game between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers.
There's a strong case to be made the referees got the call right.
So why shouldn't it be acceptable the referees were neither right nor wrong?
For those who missed it, back judge Terrence Miles threw a flag on the game's final play, as it appeared Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly impeded tight end Rob Gronkowski from competing for the would-be game-winning throw from quarterback Tom Brady.
Miles quickly called for a conference and the referees together decided to pick up the flag intended to penalize pass interference and ended the game in favor of the Panthers, 24-20. Brady stormed after head referee Clete Blakeman in a George-Brett-like torrent of yelling and profanity. The ensuing 24 hours in football America were spent staring repeatedly at the slow-motion replay. Sure, a holding call was warranted and that's where the referees erred most. But the heart of the debate centered on pass interference, which would have given the Patriots a much better shot at a game-winning touchdown with no time left. That's the topic NFL officiating vice president Dean Blandino approached Tuesday night.
Blandino offered a nuanced explanation that upset pretty much everyone in its non-committal nature. The referees, he said, made a "tight judgment call" and "followed proper protocol." Blandino didn't say the referees got it wrong, but he didn't say the referees got it right.
That's the perfect analysis of it, yet it landed on the ears of most fans and pundits as blasphemy. Which was it? Was it wrong or right?
The case for the wrong call is basically this: the throw would have landed about 5 yards deep in the end zone, and Kuechly's holding began about 4 yards into the end zone. Without that impediment, Gronkowski could have lunged for the ball and perhaps grabbed it. We've seen "Gronk" do that before. Interference should have been called and the Patriots should have been given an untimed down at the 1-yard line.
The case for the right call is basically this: there was another factor impeding Gronkowski from making the catch. Namely, defensive back Robert Lester, who intercepted Brady's pass. To say the ball would have landed 5 yards deep is to eliminate the defender who was in between the ball and the target. And although Kuechly was also in the way, with his hands wrapped around Gronkowski, he would have still been in the way of the catch if he was playing the tight end cleanly.
That seam route to Gronkowski was so obvious that television commentator Jon Gruden predicted it, and it was Kuechly's job to stay between Gronkowski and the middle of the field all the way. Gronkowski would have had to get around two men and catch the ball. That's leaving out his momentum, which was taking him toward the back of the end zone, even without Kuechly's defense. Yes, Gronkowski could have caught it if the defenders weren't there, but defenders don't get vaporized upon further review.
Blandino explained that pass interference could not occur once the restriction (not the contact) occurs, and the referees decided the restriction began at about the same time as the ball was intercepted.
"When you watch it at full speed," Blandino said, "you can see why they made that call on the field."
That's the key here: when you watch it at full speed. The referees did not have replay, and they did not have the overhead view we all enjoy. It was a lot like the safe-out call in baseball, where an umpire has to have his eye on two different things at once. In baseball, however, there's a pop of the mitt. Here, there wasn't, and the two different things were much farther apart.
It turns out the restriction probably occurred a split-second before the ball was touched. That lends support to the argument for pass interference.
The problem with that argument, though, is that the restriction comes so close to the interception that it's hard to see how Gronkowski would have been able to catch the ball even if Kuechly wasn't there, since Lester snuck around him and cut off the pass.
Where does that leave us? With a situation that could have gone either way. The referee's job in that situation is to do the best he humanly can, and ask for help if needed. The back judge did just that.
The unasked question is: Could any human being correctly judge the moment of restriction and the moment of the interception in real time? The answer has to be no. And that has to be acceptable sometimes, like it or not.
This is by no means an argument for the human element in sports. The slowness of Major League Baseball in adopting replay is comical. Replay is a great thing, and it helps sports become better and fairer. Replay should be used in every possible situation, not only for the teams, but for the referees. They all want to get it right and they welcome any aid that allows the just outcome. (That's why the consultation happened right after the play ended.)
But on the rare occasion when replay is not available, or when replay doesn't yield a clear answer, an explanation like Blandino's shouldn't be ridiculed. It was indeed a "tight judgment call" made in real time. It was extremely difficult to get right without guessing, and the referees did indeed "follow the proper protocol." To hold that call against them in future assignments or in postgame grading would be beyond unfortunate.
Blandino got his call right. He should be commended. The referees, whether they got it right or wrong, should also be commended – or at least understood.
The only error they made as a group was in not immediately explaining to coaches, players and millions of fans why the flag was picked up. That was a mistake that marred the ending of a terrific game. It shouldn't have happened like that.
Then again, considering how millions reacted to both the call and the non-call, it's unlikely an explanation would have made anybody in the country any less critical.
That's the problem with being a human referee: When you're wearing only black and white, you're always judged that way.