An entertaining Monday Night Football game ended with a flag being thrown, but no penalty called.
On the last play with no time remaining, quarterback Tom Brady stepped up in the pocket and took a shot in the endzone down 24-20. New England drove the ball to the 18-yard line in under a minute before the game-deciding play that resulted in controversy. In the middle of the endzone was a matchup between two flat out studs, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Carolina had their safeties positioned in the endzone when Robert Lester picked the pass off to seal the deal in front of his home crowd.
There was an official standing out of bounds, watching the back of the endzone on the final play of the game. For a moment, it wasn’t going to be the last play even without time on the clock. After Lester fell to the ground on the interception the back judge threw a flag, signaling a penalty on the play. Gronkowski and Kuechly were battling for position, replay shows the defender making contact as the ball was in the air. Usually, the penalty on the field would be called defensive pass interference, which would have extended the game to one extra down at the goal line. In this case however, the officiating crew had a short meeting and declared the ball to be out of reach of Gronkowski, who has displayed athletic superiority in the past.
The challenges of officiating a professional sport are high, and in prime time football this particular crew made a rash decision that will be magnified for quite some time. For one, under two minutes in the 4th quarter, all challenges to review a play have to come from the officiating booth. The camera showed an understandably, hot-tempered Brady catching up with the official and having some words with him on the way to the locker room. The signal caller is fierce on the field of battle, but he regrouped with the team and kept his cool at the press conference. Coach Bill Belichick paved the way with his calm demeanor on the sidelines, and followed that up with an abrupt, yet telling press conference of his own. He made it clear that he was going to avoid another run-in with an official and a fine from the league.
As did Gronkowski in his post-game interview, “We don’t make excuses. I’m not trying to sit here and make an excuse that he held me at the end of the game. The game is four quarters long. It’s won throughout all four quarters, not just the last play of the game. We’ve just got to keep working hard, keep sticking together and keep on fighting.”
Whether a flag was thrown or not, there would still be debate and scrutiny from a game with this wild finish. Lost in the fold is the see-saw affair of playoff caliber teams with Super Bowl aspirations. New England had just caught stride offensive after piling 55 points, and received a boost by getting all offensive skill positions healthy. Carolina on the other hand, has been the hottest team in the league in large part to their top-ranked defense. Brady and counterpart, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, went at it by completing every pass in the 3rd quarter before exchanging leads in the 4th quarter. Tempers flared early and often in the perimeter matchup between Panthers receiver Steve Smith and Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. It was a physical game that featured the stars rising to the occasion, down to the last play with a questionable call.
The issue should not be about the call on the field. What has everyone speaking out is the fact that a penalty flag was thrown, even though the call was a little late, and simply overridden without clarification. It’s one thing to be an official trying to get out of the public eye after such controversy, but you have to perform your job description thoroughly before clocking out for the night. The officiating crew let the play go, the back judge threw a late flag, then a short meeting decided the fate of the game when they should have reviewed it and given everybody an explanation. Anything said after the game or throughout the week would be null and void because you the score is final and the game is already reflected in the standings.
Nonetheless, the game was exciting and will draw similar coverage to the Packers-Seahawks game featuring a two opposing players catching the ball at the same time on a “Hail Mary” pass. In last night’s situation, if they don’t throw the flag then this isn’t as big of a story, but they did and the NFL continues to generate drama and engage all reality television viewers.