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Wed, Nov 20, 2013 at 6:58 AM

Ex-NFL officials disagree on non-call to end Patriots-Panthers game

Longtime NFL official Gerry Austin defended the controversial decision to pick up a flag on the final play of Monday's game between the Carolina Panthers and the New England Patriots.
Another former official disagrees — and says others are on his side.n
"As soon as I saw the play, I knew there was a foul," Jim Daopoulos, who spent 11 years as an NFL back judge and umpire and later was a supervisor of officials with the league, told USA TODAY Sports by phone Tuesday.
"I guess what troubled me the most was officials getting involved when they don't need to be involved in that and trying to talk this young guy out of throwing that flag. Every official I've talked to today has said, 'It's a foul. You've got to keep the flag down.' "
The play happened with three seconds to go and the Patriots trailing 24-20 with the ball at the Carolina 18-yard line. Under pressure, quarterback Tom Brady threw up the seam for tight end Rob Gronkowski, and Panthers safety Robert Lester intercepted the pass in the end zone.
Standing near the goal post, back judge Terrence Miles threw a flag for pass interference, and TV replays showed Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly wrapping his arms around Gronkowski at roughly the same depth the underthrown ball was picked off.
But then Miles spoke with two other officials, and by the time referee Clete Blakeman made his way to the spot, Miles was shaking his head and saying "no," wiping away the foul and giving the Panthers the victory.
Blakeman offered no on-field explanation for the decision to wave off the flag.n
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"There's no question that Gronkowski was interfered with," Daopoulos said. "He was grabbed. He was held. All this speculation about an uncatchable pass is just unwarranted."
Austin, a league official for more than two decades who serves as ESPN's officiating expert, joined the broadcast moments after the play and said Kuechly's contact was "a foul that's in the making. However, if the ball is knocked down or intercepted short of getting to the receiver, then there's no foul."
Austin also referred to the ball as "clearly not catchable" and said Gronkowski "was going where he wanted to go even though the guy had his arms around him," wiping out the possibility of a holding penalty.
"For Gerald to say the ball was short — he's just wrong. He's absolutely wrong on that," Daopoulos said. "That's not the issue. The issue is whether it's catchable. This was a catchable pass. How do you determine what Gronkowski can do when he's being held?"
Rule 8, Section 5, Article 1 of the NFL's playing rules says: "It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible receiver's opportunity to catch the ball."
Prohibited acts include "Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent's opportunity to make the catch." The contact is deemed permissible only if "the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players" — a high threshhold Daopoulus said Monday's play didn't meet.
"We as officials have always been taught, for a ball to be uncatchable, it has to be clearly out of the field of play or it has to be a kind of — I probably shouldn't say this — a Tim Tebow-type pass that lands 15 yards in front of you," Daopoulus said.
"You usually see uncatchable passes down the sideline or long passes down the middle of the field. But even down the middle of the field, they don't want it uncatchable, because these guys make up so much distance so quickly. 'Uncatchable' should have never been brought in there."
In an interview with two pool reporters after the game, Blakeman said he felt confident in the call after viewing TV replays in their locker room and was pleased with the communication among Miles, side judge Greg Meyer and umpire Garth DeFelice on the field.
"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 end of the end zone," Blakeman said.
"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."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had no statement on the call or Blakeman's decision not to explain it on the field. Dean Blandino, the league's vice president of officiating, was expected to address the call during a Tuesday night appearance on the NFL Network.
Daopoulus questioned why the other officials — particularly DeFelice, whose primary assignment is at the line of scrimmage — got involved when Miles had the clearest angle on the play.

"One of the things that I've always taught young officials is you better go with your gut," Daopoulus said. "Does one player have an advantage over the other? If he gets that advantage, boom, you throw the flag. Normally, your first gut reaction is going to be correct.
"It should have been the Patriots' ball. They should have had one additional to play to run from the 1-yard line."
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Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelisseron
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