The NFL rule book is written in black and white. The same colors adorn the officials’ uniforms. But there is and always will be a healthy dose of gray attached to the rules. It was into that gray that the Patriots’ chances of pulling out a last-second victory over the Carolina Panthers on Monday night disappeared — along with a yellow flag signifying pass interference.
There is nothing special about the Patriots. The league isn’t out to get them. There is no need for a persecution complex or conspiracy theories connecting the Carolina chaos to the obscure pushing penalty on a field goal attempt that sent the Patriots to defeat against the Jets Oct. 20.
No rule book is human-proof. The rules, and thus, the games always will be subject to human interpretation, application, and error. There is no rule book that is going to rule out human error or misjudgment in rules interpretation and enforcement.
The gray, like the Patriots’ loss, is in permanent ink.
As long as there are officials, umpires, and referees, there will be blown calls, bad calls, and judgment calls. What happened — or didn’t happen — in New England’s 24-20 loss Monday night — falls into all three call categories.
The officials blew it. They relied on the sophistry provided by the dense language in the NFL rule book to convince themselves out of a common-sense penalty against Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly that would have given the Patriots’ one more shot at victory.
The play has been run ad nauseam by now, debated and dissected around workplaces, dining tables, barber shops, and the Twitterverse.
The Patriots trailed the Panthers, 24-20, with the ball at the Carolina 18 and three seconds left. Tom Brady lofted a last-ditch throw into the end zone, where former Boston College star Kuechly was wrapped around Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski like a giddy groupie with too many Gronktinis in his/her system.
The ball was intercepted by Panthers safety Robert Lester, but back judge Terrence Miles threw a flag for pass interference, which would have given the Patriots one more play from the Carolina 1.
Instead, the officials, led by referee Clete Blakeman, convened, and Miles’s flag was willed invisible the way Major League Baseball umpires said Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks should have willed himself invisible to avoid the obstruction call that ended Game 3 of the World Series.
In that case, the rule book was missing common sense. In this case, the men applying it misplaced theirs.
That’s why NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino could offer only lukewarm support for the call Tuesday, never saying Blakeman and his crew got it right.
“It’s a judgment call,” Blandino told the NFL Network. “There was contact, but there is contact on a lot of passing plays downfield. The issue isn’t the contact. The issue is the restriction. Does it occur prior to the ball being touched? And at full speed, the officials made a tight judgment call, and they determined that the restriction occurred just as the ball was being touched. And again, at full speed, you could see why they made that call.”
And why it was wrong, Dean.
You certainly can write rules simpler than they’re written in the “Official Playing Rules of the NFL.” But you still need human beings to apply them and interpret them. What sealed the Patriots’ third loss of the season was a matter of gray matter and gray area that always will exist.
C’est la vie.
Before we start comparing Blakeman with Ben Dreith, the referee who oversaw the greatest travesty in the history of Patriots football — Ray Hamilton’s phantom roughing-the-passer penalty in the 1976 AFC divisional playoffs — it must be acknowledged that the Patriots didn’t lose to Carolina because of the disappearing penalty flag.
The decision didn’t cost them the game. It cost them a chance to atone for allowing Cam Newton to run through and around them as if they were a helmeted obstacle course, for allowing the Panthers to convert on 8 of 11 third downs, and for a head-scratching play call on third and 1 from the Carolina 8 that subsequently required them to settle for a field goal earlier in the fourth quarter.
With that, what Kuechly did had to be called something. It violated both the rules and the spirit of the rules.
The hesitation of the officials to award the Patriots the ball at the 1-yard line in that situation is understandable.
That’s why the common sense solution would have been to downgrade the penalty to illegal contact, which would have moved the ball up 5 yards to the 13 and given the Patriots one more play.
The illegal contact rule reads in part: “If the receiver attempts to evade the defender, the defender cannot initiate contact that redirects, restricts, or impedes the receiver in any way.”
That holds as long as the player who received the snap remains in the pocket. Brady moved to his left, but he never got outside of where left tackle Nate Solder lined up.
But Patriots fans need to remember they’ve been on the other side of questionable NFL rulings. The Tuck Rule Game lit a candle for the Patriots that is still burning.
The NFL rewrote the rules this year to eliminate the Tuck Rule, a mind-numbingly nonsensical rule. Perhaps the death of the Tuck Rule and the Patriots’ season of frustrating officiating decisions are mere coincidence, perhaps not.
Also, there is no 16-0 season in 2007 without a fourth-down defensive holding call against the Ravens on a blustery December night in Baltimore.
The rules never will be perfect, and neither will the men and women asked to act as arbiters of them.
Rule books always will be 50 shades of gray that have someone seeing red.
That’s one rule that’s never going to change.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.