The controversial ending to the Patriots’ 24-20 loss to the Panthers on Monday night remained a hot topic Tuesday.
The debate raged on social media, on sports radio, and even at Gate C8 of the Charlotte Douglas Airport, where several New England fans were waiting for their flight home and using their phones to show companions and strangers alike a screen-grab of Rob Gronkowski wrapped up by Carolina’s Luke Kuechly in the end zone on the final play.
The debates continued well into the evening over whether referee Clete Blakeman and his crew cost the Patriots one last chance to try to win the game by not calling pass interference on Kuechly.
New England was at the Panthers’ 18, with three seconds left.
On the snap, Tom Brady dropped back two strides then took a couple of short steps forward. With pressure coming toward him, Brady didn’t fully step into his throw as he let it go for the middle of the end zone.
Carolina safety Robert Lester, who appeared to have the play read the entire way, caught the ball in stride for an interception, while a couple of yards behind him, Gronkowski was being wrapped up by Kuechly.
Back judge Terrence Miles threw a flag, then motioned to his right for side judge Greg Meyer. Miles, Meyer, and umpire Garth DeFelice chatted briefly.
Blakeman came in, Miles told him something, and Blakeman announced: “There is no foul on the play. The game is over.”
The picking up of the flag was where the trouble seemed to be, at least in the minds of many. Had Miles not thrown his flag, there still would have been debate about whether pass interference could have been called but no proof that perhaps an official felt there was as well.
But since Miles threw the flag, he indicated that he had seen some sort of infraction on the play.
Blakeman told pool reporters the discussion that led to the flag being picked up was about “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 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.”
(Perhaps at another time Blakeman can be asked why he felt the need to repeatedly say “in essence.”)
NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino appeared on NFL Network on Tuesday night to review the play, and didn’t explicitly say the crew made the right call, nor did he say it made the wrong call.
Noting that pass interference is a judgment call that cannot be reviewed, Blandino said watching the play unfold at full speed, he understands why the decision was made, and that the officials followed proper protocol.
“There was contact, but there is contact on a lot of passing plays downfield,” Blandino said. “The issue isn’t the contact; the issue is the restriction. Does it occur prior to the ball being touched?
“At full speed, the officials made a tight judgment call and they determined that the restriction occurred just as the ball was being touched [by Lester]. At full speed, you could see why they made that call.”
Asked directly if the officials were wrong, Blandino said, “I wouldn’t say that they were wrong. Again, they have to make this call. They used proper mechanics. They got together after the play. They determined that in their judgment, the contact occurred simultaneously with the ball being intercepted and that’s why the officials did what they did.”
But Blandino’s predecessor, Mike Pereira, said on 98.5 The Sports Hub that once the flag was thrown, the right thing to do was to call the penalty.
“It’s a tough play that involves a couple of different aspects of the pass interference rule. It all boiled down to the pass being ‘catchable’ or ‘uncatchable’,” Pereira said.
“The rule book doesn’t really define what is ‘catchable,’ but says it is not interference if a pass is ‘clearly uncatchable’. In the end I think this: you might be able to make a case the pass was ‘uncatchable,’ maybe. But ‘might’ and ‘maybe’ are not ‘clearly’ in my mind. The fact the back judge threw the flag, the prudent thing to do is to stay with the call on the field.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick had even less to say about the non-call Tuesday morning than he did in the immediate aftermath of the game.
“I don’t really have any comment to add about the officiating or any of those calls,” Belichick said. “If you have questions on that, you can talk to the league office and the officiating department, let them give their explanation on them.
“It’s not really our job to call the game, it’s to play it and coach it. Whatever calls they made are the ones that we live with.
“We can’t let that affect what we’re doing, we just have to continue to coach the techniques and do the things that are right and within the rules and assume that they’ll be officiated accordingly.”