“There is no foul on the play. The game is over.”
And with those words from referee Clete Blakeman, the game between the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots ended. He should wish it were that simple. Tom Brady certainly disagreed. So did a lot of people watching “Monday Night Football.”
The debate about the controversial final play, the one that was initially ruled a foul and then was not, is raging. It will, for now, overshadow 59 minutes and 56 seconds of great football Monday night and a stellar performance by Cam Newton.
The latest controversy arose Monday night when Brady drove the Patriots, who were trailing 24-20, to the Panthers’ 18-yard with time running down. He aimed a pass that was short for tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone and Gronkowski couldn’t get to the ball, largely because he was locked in the embrace of Luke Kuechly. A flag was thrown immediately. And just as immediately it was picked up. Game over. Nothing more to see here. Move along.
Brady made a run at the ref after the game, dropping an expletive along the way and likely drawing a fine for his efforts. Blakeman offered an explanation to a pool reporter (via ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss):
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.
Cooler heads than Brady’s thought there should have been a flag on the play. Mike Pereira, a Fox analyst and the league’s former head of officiating, and Jim Daopoulos, a former game official and supervisor of officials, thought the flag was warranted, that Gronkowski was kept from getting to the ball.
Daopoulos said (via FootballZebras.com):
Pass interference occurs when a defender is not playing the ball and restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch. This absolutely occurs on the play in Carolina as Kuechly is not playing the ball and restricts Gronkowski from having an opportunity to make the catch. The official correctly calls the foul for pass interference, then picks up his flag.
The ball was catchable as the definition of “uncatchable” is clearly over an end line or side line and not one that is short of the receiver because he is being restricted. This is a foul and the penalty should have been enforced and ball placed on the one yard line.
Gerry Austin, a former official who is now an ESPN analyst, disagreed.
“I see the contact occurs deep, back near the end line, but the ball is intercepted — underneath,” Austin said. “Therefore that takes [defensive pass interference] off. There is no chance for this receiver to catch the ball. Therefore, there’s no foul.”
MMQB.com’s Peter King rebutted that. “Jon Gruden argued with him and said: ‘The pass interference starts four yards deep in the end zone, and that’s where the ball ends up being thrown … It should be a penalty on Kuechly.’ In Austin’s logic, a defensive player can drape his arms over a potential receiver and push him away from the ball, and if the ball is underthrown, it’s not interference. That, quite frankly, is insulting to any football fan’s intelligence.”
Gronkowski, who stands 6-foot-6, could have easily covered the ground, according to ESPN’s Trent Dilfer. Steve Young on ESPN pointed out that Gronkowski couldn’t compete for the ball (“How can you compete for the ball if you’re being held from the ball?”) and said there was a penalty on the play, whether it was holding or pass interference.
“It’s not nothing,” Young said.
Afterward, a calmer Brady offered only the company line, saying that the game shouldn’t have come down to the final play, that the Patriots had plenty of chances to make plays earlier, yadayada. “I didn’t really see the play either so I don’t know whether it was a good call or a bad call,” he said. “But we had plenty of chances. I’m not making any excuses. [Gronkowski] was kind of weaving in and out of there and I didn’t really want to throw it over his head and out of bounds. So I was a little indecisive. It wasn’t a great throw. No excuses. It should have been a better throw.”
Coach Bill Belichick, fined $50,000 14 months ago for grabbing the arm of a referee in an effort to discuss a play at the end of the game, wasn’t saying squat, either. “There was no explanation given to me,” he said. “The officials ran off the field.” And did he see on that final play?
“The same thing you saw.”
While Belichick, Brady and the Patriots try to move on to prepare for a Sunday night against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, the league will deal with the fallout. It’s going to make for a hellacious week on Park Avenue, where they’ll also be sorting through allegations by Washington Redskins lineman Trent Williams that he was verbally abused by a referee Sunday.
King hopes that, at the end of the week, “league officiating czar Dean Blandino cleans up some of the communication issues that marred the end of a thrilling game — quite possibly the game of the year. And I hope the Competition Committee clarifies language and mandates a call of interference anytime a receiver in the same area code as a thrown pass is illegally blanketed by a defensive player.”