The latest edition of What Will it Take for Cam Newton to Draw a Flag? aired on Monday night, when a scrambling Newton slid—maybe late—and got hit helmet-to-helmet—maybe glancing—by Washington LB Trent Murphy. There was a flag thrown on a play: a taunting call on Newton for flipping the football at Murphy. Yesterday, NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino attempted to explain and justify the referee’s ruling.
Here’s the play:
Panthers coach Ron Rivera raved at ref Walt Coleman, but to no avail. After the game, Coleman told a pool reporter that “what I saw was that Cam slid late and the defender went over the top. I didn’t see any forcible contact with the head.”
That wording—“forcible contact”—appears often in the NFL rulebook, and it formed the crux of Blandino’s semantic defense of Coleman’s call. Here’s Blandino, on NFL Total Access:
“The word forcible is in the rulebook, it does add a layer of judgment. And why it’s in there is you’re trying to avoid having 15-yard penalties on incidental contact. So forcible is something that isn’t incidental. ...Remember, the quarterback who becomes a runner loses quarterback protection but still has unnecessary roughness protection so at this point if the quarterback starts his slide before contact is imminent by that defender, he can’t be contacted to any part of his body. If he starts his slide late, he can be contacted to the body but he can’t be contacted to the head and neck area.”
“There is contact to the head, referee felt it wasn’t forcible, that’s why the flag was not thrown in that situation.”
Forcible contact shows up again and again in the debates over the non-calls for Newton this season, and the problem is the same was with so many of the other soft definitions in the rulebook, like what constitutes a “defenseless receiver” or what entails a “football move.” These things, as Blandino noted, are necessarily subjective. That’s fine, but it’s the exact opposite intention of the over-legislation of the NFL, which just packs in more and more rules, with denser and denser wording, and in an attempt to cover every eventuality, the rulebook turns just about everything into a judgment call. The downside to subjectivity is, necessarily, inconsistency.
Judgment varies from official to official, crew to crew, game to game. The non-call on Murphy and the subsequent flag on Newton were iffy enough, but look worse compared to a play later in the game, when Kawann Short shoved a running Kirk Cousins while he was still in bounds, and got flagged for unnecessary roughness.
That’s just one context of the non-call for Newton that the officials’ judgment ignores. The big one is the series of hard, late, and/or dangerous hits that Newton has suffered this season, while getting calls well below the rates of other star QBs. It got to the point where Newton spoke with Roger Goodell about the pattern, and while I don’t know what Goodell could do about it, for the Panthers and for fans watching there’s a real confirmation bias in play every time a questionable call doesn’t go Newton’s way.
Another context is the fact that Newton had issues with Walt Coleman’s officiating crew earlier this season. Newton went off on a postgame rant after a game against the Cardinals in which Calais Cambell went low on a knee-seeking hit that wasn’t flagged but was later fined by the NFL.
In his Monday night press conference, Newton wouldn’t take the bait:
Did he think the referees did their job?
“Next question,” he said.
Was he surprised he had an issue with the same officiating crew?
“Next question,” he said.
It’s possible, though very unsatisfying, to believe that the zebras made a defensible call in flagging Newton but not Murphy, and to also believe that on the whole, Newton’s gotten screwed this year, and that the NFL risks being down a superstar if it doesn’t protect him better.