Each Sunday, I find myself in a state of confusion. A perfect hit will be delivered in the defensive backfield, and for a second all will be well. Then, the inevitable. A cascade of yellow fabric, and 15 yards for the offense. It's become ever more frequent with the increased focus on player safety from the NFL, with their increased drive towards concussion prevention something I wholeheartedly support. As Colts fans, we saw the Austin Collie storyline progress through the last couple of years. The image of Collie unconscious before hitting the ground – much as with Stevan Ridley on Sunday – isn't something i'm likely to forget quickly.
As such, it's a great thing that the NFL has decided to prioritise player safety in the wake of ex-player suicides and issues with mental illness. No-one wants to see players unconscious on the field, or suffering outside of it. The stories involving Dave Duerson and Junior Seau are harrowing to say the least – two men wrought by physical and mental torment, ultimately driven to suicide.
The issue I have with the NFL lies in enforcement – and the complete lack of consistency on behalf of every officiating crew in the league. This year in particular has been littered with officiating mistakes, and they've affected the Colts fairly frequently. It's in the nature of any fan to consider him/herself aggrieved when their team gets flagged, and it's also natural to exaggerate numbers, frequencies and such when your team is involved. While conscious of this, I completely believe that there was a disproportionate level of officiating ineptitude in Colts games this year. Every week there seemed to be a new interpretation of the rulebook – whether concerning pass interference; unnecessary roughness and even simple defensive holding. The net effect of this ambiguity fatally skews the balance in favour of offense, given that the defender is wrought by indecision and calculations that he now has to try and make in a split second.
As if the challenge wasn't hard enough, the new attention to DPI has made covering receivers somewhat of an impossibility. Example time – here's Vontae against the Chiefs.
You can clearly see Vontae at the top of the frame covering Jamar Newsome (#84 – WR). On the route in question, Newsome is trying to convince Vontae he's going out, up and vertical before positioning himself for the back shoulder catch. Vontae does an admirable job of closing on his man and redirecting him to the sideline.
The frame you're about to see encapsulates the extent of the contact on the play.
Vontae continues to the sideline, with one arm resting on Newsome to ascertain his position. I'll say this now – if DBs aren't allowed any contact whatsoever after the 5 yard line, the NFL is going to swiftly become boring, given the aptitude and abilities of the individuals we see entering the league each year. Because he's allowed Vontae ideal position on his route, Newsome tries to shove Vontae out of the way to give himself some room.
The throw eventually comes in from Brady Quinn, and it's atrocious. A clear gap remains between Vontae and Newsome at this point.
..still no contact between the two other than the earlier referenced arm-rest.
..and other than the wrestle for the ball, there isn't any more contact to see, and Vontae picks it off. The fact that the officials ended up calling a flag for the earlier contact is ridiculous enough, but it gets worse.
The flag was called as a DPI – meaning that the ball had to be in the air with the receiver clearly geared towards the catch. DPI is of course a spot foul, which meant that the Chiefs moved up the field to Davis' location. In reality – if this is any type of penalty at all, which it isn't – they should have called illegal contact, given that the ball was still in the quarterback's hand at the time of 'collision'. Illegal contact is a 5 yard penalty for an automatic first down rather than the 24 yards the Chiefs were given in this instance. So, not only are the Colts deprived of a well-earned turnover on the back-end (gold-dust to us fans), they're screwed further by a misunderstanding and misapplication of interference and contact.
For contrast, here's Julio Jones versus Tarell Brown from Sunday evening.
I've drawn on the route for clarity, though what you'll see is the uniquely 'physical' (illegal) game of Julio Jones. Both Jones and Roddy White are memorable for their frequent push-offs, but I'd argue this takes the cake.
Julio fakes the out-route, before coming to the point where he has to suddenly stop, flip his body and seperate.
He stops and turns, utilising his athletic ability. What we didn't see at the combine was the feared straight-arm exhibited here. With every receiver supposedly watched by an official, how on earth can something this obvious be missed? Jones was blowing the 49ers up on the night, so it's not like he'd have flown under the radar. Someone has watched this play unfold and decided that it isn't offensive pass interference. In the NFC Championship game.
Am I the only one that's a bit confused? There's no reason for Jones to hyper-extend his arm into a straight position other than to gain leverage and strength for a potential push-off. That much seems obvious to me, and the fact that it went uncalled beggars belief. In highlighting these two plays I'm not seeking to encapsulate the entire picture, merely a slight illustration of my point.
The NFL is a passing league, and for some that is certainly a boon. In terms of entertainment value, the passing game outstrips its running counterpart to the vast majority of spectators. Compared to defense, the simplicity of a receiver running a route and another guy throwing it to him can be appreciated by all, while complex defensive systems require more study and knowledge of the game.
This doesn't however permit the NFL to dilute defense in the way it seems to be attempting to. I'm not suggesting Ty Law rules should apply – merely more understanding that contact will happen and that it can't always be avoided. Some sort of corrective action has to take place to rebalance the game that we love. DPI needs to be clarified and properly officiated, whether it takes a rigorous programme of official training in order to reach that level.
The issue of unnecessary roughness is more delicate, and to fix it I'd propose an extension of the replay system. I'll attempt to forestall the inevitable 'the game already lasts 3 hours' argument by saying that this is simply more important than time, and that inadequate enforcement of unnecessary roughness on the back end risks trivialising the issue. Officials should be able to walk to the booth and carefully examine a play in which they suspect helmet-to-helmet contact or unnecessary contact to a defenseless receiver.
Until they can do so, we'll be stuck with terrible calls and lack of a clear picture with regard to the defensive backfield. When the passing game plays such a crucial role and is utilised so heavily, the variations in enforcement become ever clearer. Before the pass-first mentality accelerates further, this simply has to be addressed.
If I want to watch points on the board, i'll watch the NCAA. Let's not take the NFL down that road.