One of the most exciting games in recent memory ended amid controversy Sunday evening when Karlos Dansby's fumble return for a touchdown gave the Cardinals a 51-45 victory over the Packers. And while Aaron Rodgers said he isn't blaming the refs, Packer Nation is up in arms with two specific no-calls. Let's examine:
First of all, FOX color commentator Troy Aikman mentioned on the Packers' second down play in overtime that a defender hit Aaron Rodgers "helmet to helmet." Coincidentally, just this past week I covered how the actual penalty isn't for every time helmets collide in the NFL, because the circumstances behind each hit actually matter.
That being said, I'm pretty surprised there was no call for roughing the passer here. For the past several years, we've seen officials -- at the urging of the league office -- be particularly protective of quarterbacks. This wasn't a situation where the defender got blocked into Rodgers or where Rodgers initiated the contact himself. It appeared simply to be a blow to the helmet by the helmet of a defender. In other words, clear roughing the passer.
Here's the section of the rulebook that applies to roughing the passer in this situation (12-2-13, p. 85):
In covering the passer position, Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly use the helmet and/or facemask to hit the passer, or use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer in the head, neck, or face (see also the other unnecessary-roughness rules covering these subjects). A defensive player must not use his facemask or other part of his helmet against a passer who is in a virtually defenseless posture -- for example, (a) forcibly hitting the passer's head, neck, or face with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him, or (b) lowering the head and violently or unnecessarily making forcible contact with the "hairline" or forehead part of the helmet against any part of the passer's body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer.
(the emphasis in bold was mine, as I just wanted the most important parts to be easily accessible for you readers)
Two plays later, the Packers lost the game on a Rodgers fumble which was returned for a touchdown. On the play in question, it does appear the defender got enough of Rodgers' facemask to warrant a flag, in my opinion. The problem here is the positioning. If you watch the replay from behind, you can't tell where the defender's hands are -- and this was the view the referee had. There's no way he could see it. No one else would be watching the quarterback, as each official is assigned to a certain grouping of players and the referee is the only one watching the passer. There's also another layer at play, which is that the referee, in this case, had to watch the ball to determine possession once it was loose. This was just a blind spot that is unavoidable when using a seven-man crew of human officials.
Now, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be a penalty. A penalty is a penalty. As I said, it's hard to fault the referee for missing the facemask. I do believe he made a big mistake by averting his eyes from the quarterback on the first no-call. On the possible facemask, if anything, this further illustrates an opinion I've had in the past that more calls should be reviewable. If that was the case, the final play would have been taken to the replay process and they would have called facemask.
Then, it would be a tough call as to whether or not the foul occurred before or after the Cardinals gained possession. If it happened after the possession change, the Cardinals would have gotten the turnover and had to score with their offense. If it was determined the foul happened before the Cards gained possession, the Packers would have retained the football and been awarded 15 yards and a first down (they call this the "clean hands" stipulation, meaning you can't get the ball on a change of possession unless you haven't committed a penalty. If you had committed a penalty, you didn't get the ball with clean hands).
Finally, I've seen a few people asking about why the "tuck rule" wasn't applied on the final play. The answer is that it's irrelevant because the ball never hit the ground. In the tuck rule, a forward moving arm means it was a pass and not a fumble, but, again, the ball never hit the ground. The only argument would be whether or not to credit Karlos Dansby with a fumble recovery or an interception.
Got a rules-related question? Whether it's elementary, high school or NFL, email TZR and he'll see what he can do.