I am not a huge fan of finger-pointing at the game officials, and I want to make that one hundred percent clear as I start this article. Being at the game Sunday, it felt like the Dolphins did what they have done in several losses this season, and got away from a game plan that was working on offense and failed to stop them on defense when it counted, but in this instance that simply was not the case. Many fans make a case about the field goal pushing rule not being enforced in the Dolphins loss to Baltimore, but I’m willing to say that “That’s football” and the Dolphins should not have been in that position to begin with. I’m not willing to say that here.
There were many factors I wanted to blame in the Dolphins loss in a knee-jerk reaction on Sunday. Mike Sherman was the easy scapegoat as his playcalling has hurt the Fins in several of the losses. That is not the case here, for the most part. While it “felt” like the Dolphins got away from the balanced offense that had led them to the lead at halftime, rewatching the tape tells a different story. There were mistakes made by the Dolphins. On the strip sack of Tannehill, someone should have picked up the blitzing corner. Mike Wallace dropped too many balls early. Not challenging the bad call on the catch by Rishard Matthews on the sideline when he was in bounds. These are things that happen no matter how good your team is, and as a fan I can accept mistakes like these.
There were turnovers, some of which occurred on amazing plays that I can accept and not finger point. The interception on the sidelines by the Pats was one of the most amazing plays I’ve seen in a long time. The strip sack was one hell of a play call by the Pats. The garbage time grab of a toss-up at the end is going to happen, and quite frankly at least kept the Pats from adding a potential “rub it in” score to end the game. These are all things that will happen throughout the course of a game, as will a couple of bad calls. Bad calls and negative plays are things that need to be overcome, and can be overcome by a good team – to a point.
At a certain point, especially in a contest between good teams, bad calls at critical times can be crippling. Momentum shift can be a huge factor for a team in any game, and make no mistake the Dolphins had all of the momentum until a series of bad calls began extending multiple scoring drives for the Patriots while ending a drives for the Dolphins. Having been in attendance at the game, I can tell you definitively that the Pats fans were not in the game at the end of the first half, in spite of the terrible call that extended a drive to at least put the Pats on the board. The Patriots were being booed and berated by their home fans at the half. One fan near me, at the start of the third, screamed out “Hey BRADY! Remember when you used to actually be able to throw and have talent?” I’m not saying I agree with her, but that’s how far the momentum was in Miami’s favor.
Quite frankly, I would’ve overlooked one or two of the phantom penalties that kept the defense on the field when they earned a break, but a terrible series of these one-sided calls got to be too much. It sucks the fun out of the game for me as a football fan to see continuous bad calls drastically impact a game in either direction. These calls not only resulted in a momentum shift, but also in fatiguing a defense that was playing so well against a team that no one could see them doing this well against. Fatigue, frustration and momentum are a huge killer to a defense. The game officials brought all three to the Dolphins doorstep in this one.
The biggest momentum shift of the game, the one that truly changed the energy in the stadium, came on that terrible “batting the ball” penalty on Olivier Vernon. The spirit of the rule is to combat blatantly attempting to bat the ball down the field into an advantageous position for your team. I support the rule, but the key here is the blatancy of it. This was a very weak call to make on a diving player amidst other diving players, let alone one who had it glance off his fingertips. Did he mean to bat it fifteen yards downfield? I honestly don’t know, nor do the officials. There could have been a plethora of other intentions here, and without that blatancy this is the wrong call to make but possibly understandable if the flag came out when it happened. The flag didn’t. The play was over, it was 3rd down and 29 yards to go from midfield for the Patriots, as they recovered the fumble. Well after the play was blown dead, a flag came out. On any play, when a flag comes out significantly after the occurence, as an official you weren’t certain of the call. When you’re not certain of a penalty that is a judgement call to begin with, it is not one that you should make well after the fact. The penalty moved them nearly forty yards and gave them a new set of downs deep in the Dolphins red zone, and the mental affects of a critical play like that can be huge on a defense.
Following the batting call, the momentum in the stadium shifted drastically. The other terrible calls contributed to the momentum shift as well, and downside of this was that the calls directly led to 13 points by the Patriots. While many may disagree with the impact that this has on a game, let’s look back at the Dolphins schedule and see the effects it would have on games for them throughout their first 7 games if the officials were to gift wrap thirteen points for them, without even factoring the momentum shift and its effects:
- Week 1: Mia vs Cle: original – 23-10 MIA, revamp 36-10 MIA
- Week 2: Mia vs Ind: original – 24-20 MIA, revamp 37-20 MIA
- Week 3: Mia vs Atl: original – 27-23 MIA, revamp 40-23 MIA
- Week 4: Mia vs NO: original – 38-17 NO, revamp 38-30 NO
- Week 5: Mia vs Bal: original – 26-23 BAL, revamp 36-26 MIA
- Week 6: Bye (revamp, still a bye)
- Week 7: Mia vs Buf: original – 23-21 BUF, revamp 36-23 MIA
- Week 8: Mia vs NE: original – 27-17 NE, revamp 30-27 MIA
- Current record: 3-4, Revamped record: 6-1
The point here is that critical calls made incorrectly or correctly can drastically alter the path of a game and the final score. When they are made incorrectly, the good teams can overcome a couple of those, but with only so many drives in a game there comes a tipping point. If these critical calls are legitimately on you, then there is a point that needs to be coached up for players or mistakes that need to be corrected. When these calls are not legitimate and become insurmountable, however, then they are not something that you can course correct on. There are a million comparison’s that I can make here, but I believe that the point here is clear.
Without breaking these apart too far, as it would be beating a dead horse, here are a handful of the poorly called “phantom” penalties on Miami. I won’t belittle the officiating with some of the missed calls, as there are always a batch of those in both directions as at a certain point the officials need to just “let them play the game.” The following were some of the more blatant ones that impacted the outcome of the game.
- Jimmy Wilson’s pass interference penalty: This was one of the best plays I have seen to break on a ball. The only contact he had in jumping the route was when Gronkowski’s arm hit him. This kept the Pats on the field on a failed 3rd down and gave them a fresh set of downs, ultimately leading to 3 points. The worst part? This flag was thrown late by a sideline judge on the play, who doesn’t have a clear view to begin with.
- Dmitri Patterson’s defensive holding call: Patterson did a beautiful job jamming the receiver with picture perfect technique on this play where Miami stopped the Pats on 3rd down outside of field goal range. Watching from the end zone, I would see numerous times throughout the day where New England DB’s were “mugging and hugging” the receivers at the line with no call, making this call even worse than it was originally.
- Rishard Matthews Sideline Catch: After a beautiful play by Matthews that saw him keep both feet in bounds, Miami should have thrown the challenge flag when they ruled the pass incomplete and stalled out a Dolphins drive.
- Faceguarding Mike Wallace: I haven’t heard much on this one, but there was a textbook faceguarding call that should have been made and was not that stalled out a Dolphins drive. The throw was coming Wallace’s way on the sideline, and the defender leaped up with both arms raised with his back to the ball, making no attempt to look back for the ball whatsoever, and had the ball bounce off the back of one of his arms.
The above are some of the plays that were critical in New England’s victory this weekend. Remove any two of those against the defense and this game has a completely different outcome.
Last but not least, Miami fans can’t legitimately blame Mike Sherman in this one, nor can they blame the offensive line. My knee jerk reaction was to lay some of the blame at Sherman’s feet, but quite frankly that is not the case. Like many fans, I thought he got away from the run in the second half, but that just wasn’t true. Fewer runs were called in the final 7 minutes of the game with Miami trailing by 10, but that is a situation where you have to go into gunslinger mode at the end of a game that you are trailing by double digits. Sherman was playing to win this week with an open playbook, and I give him credit.
There will be more to come on the good that came from the Pats game in a subsequent article. There were a lot of positive things if you read between the lines.