Sport Science Deceives Again After a Controversial Monday Night Football Ending

George Orwell probably could have envisioned a TV feature where propaganda is fed to the masses all under the disguise of “Sport Science.”

Oh, they used science, so us simpletons can’t possibly dispute it!”

ESPN airs Sport Science segments and it just so happens that Monday Night Football has had the two most controversial endings since the 2012 season. Last year it was the Golden Tate play, which of course prompted a Sport Science feature. The NFL supported the call the whole way, but the general public was outraged over the touchdown. Naturally, the feature flat out lied to say M.D. Jennings “made first contact with the ball” even though it’s clear he did not.


Jump to this week and the game-ending play between the Patriots and Panthers. Luke Kuechly certainly makes significant contact with Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone, but the pass was underthrown and intercepted in the front of the end zone by Robert Lester. A flag was thrown, but picked up and the game was over.

The NFL official said Monday night the pass was deemed uncatchable as it was underthrown. On Tuesday, the NFL added that the officials felt the contact on Gronkowski occurred at or about the same time as the pass was intercepted. Once a ball is touched, even by the smallest of fingertips, there is no pass interference.

Hardly the same negative reaction as last year’s play, but many (most?) people think a penalty was warranted. Once again we got a Sport Science feature on the play.

Again, their “scientific analysis” goes against the NFL call (and rules), satisfying the public in the process. Scientific? Hardly. Just as I did with the Golden Tate play last year, I took a copy of the game and broke it down with video editing software.

The first problem is Sport Science (SS) uses this spot for when Kuechly makes contact:


That’s not a penalty. Players touch each other all the time down the field, often considered incidental contact, but for it to be pass interference, you have to do one of the following from the NFL rule book:

Actions that constitute defensive pass interference include but are not limited to:

(a) Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch.

(b) Playing through the back of a receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball.

(c) Grabbing a receiver’s arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass.

(d) Extending an arm across the body of a receiver thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, regardless of whether the defender is playing the ball.

(e) Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball.

(f) Hooking a receiver in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the receiver’s body to turn prior to the ball arriving.

Now you can say Kuechly did a few of these at some point on the play, but SS determines it was a penalty as soon as he touched him, which is wrong. Also, there’s some very interesting language in the NFL rules about what is not pass interference:

Actions that do not constitute pass interference include but are not limited to:

(a) Incidental contact by a defender’s hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball, or neither player is looking for the ball. If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference.

(b) Inadvertent tangling of feet when both players are playing the ball or neither player is playing the ball.

(c) Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players.

(d) Laying a hand on a receiver that does not restrict the receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball.

(e) Contact by a defender who has gained position on a receiver in an attempt to catch the ball.

The part in bold is most interesting as the involved players are Gronkowski and Kuechly. Since Lester intercepted the underthrown ball, it’s no stretch to say neither Kuechly or Gronkowski could have caught the ball, so it’s uncatchable and there’s no penalty. We see end-of-game defense played like this all the time with contact in the end zone. That’s why we’ve seen one pass interference on a Hail Mary in the last 15+ years, and that wasn’t even a good call.

So starting from the wrong time frame, SS concludes “the contact in dispute happened two-thirds of a second before the ball was intercepted.”

So they’re saying 0.667 seconds and the argument would be that’s enough time for the refs to see it before the interception. However, it wasn’t 0.667 seconds. We need to find the point where pass interference actually happened.

This element of the play is what I called “patty-cake” on Twitter. It’s just two guys touching hands; not a penalty by any means.


At the end of the patty-cake, Kuechly reaches his left hand to Gronk’s shoulder, which is still not a penalty. The restriction comes when he reaches his right arm and makes that bear-hug that has been captured in many still images this week:


Now we start to have enough contact where one can call it PI should they feel it was catchable, but look where the ball’s at. It’s nearly arrived, underthrown, and Lester is reaching out to make the impending interception.


If we take the time from where Kuechly gets his right hand around Gronkowski to the point where Lester touches the ball, that’s at most 0.43 seconds (about a “one-miss-is”). It took 1.33 seconds for the ball to leave Brady’s hand and be intercepted by Lester, so the meaningful contact came on just under the final third of the play when the ball was in the air and pass interference was possible.

That’s not 0.667, and in live action with an underthrown ball and the defender already motioning to make the interception, it’s easy to see why the referees would declare the contact happened at roughly the time of the interception.

SS did play up the “Gronk’s superhuman, he can catch the ball!” — no really, that was spoken on TV by someone on another network yesterday — angle, but by botching the point of any infraction, there’s no scientific evidence he could have made a play on the ball had he not been contacted. He clearly never expected the pass to be underthrown and was not headed in the direction the ball ultimately did.

So it’s a good no-call, because the last thing we need is an offense getting a second chance for poor execution. This ending also adds to the overwhelming proof that referees would rather go with the result on the field (interception) than to make a critical, game-changing call. It happened with Golden Tate, it happened with Michael Crabtree in the Super Bowl and it will continue to happen. Maybe Gronkowski should have learned from Greg Olsen on how to sell it better.

The only reason a call like this gets so much attention is because it was a prime-time game between two good teams, it was a great game and the final play was everyone’s favorite meathead tight end trying to catch a pass from a golden boy quarterback.

If this was Rams at Panthers in a 1 p.m. Sunday setting on FOX and Kellen Clemens underthrew that pass to Jared Cook, you’d get no outcry over the ending. You would get NBC’s Dan Patrick reading the following over a highlight of the play: “Last chance for the Rams. Kellen Clemens, uhh, not quite enough air. Robert Lester with the interception. Carolina has won six straight. Stay tuned for Hines Ward’s ten words of analysis…”

And you know this, man.

Update, 11/22/2013: It was brought to my attention that the link to the Sport Science video on ESPN no longer works. One link says “NOT FOUND” while clicking on the one I used in this article takes you to this video page:




Patriots Should Know Pass Interference Well

Yes, another controversial NFL ending took place on Monday night when Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly grabbed New England tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the final play. The ball was underthrown anyway and intercepted, but there was a flag thrown that was picked up for the pass being uncatchable, so no pass interference. Game over.

By the laws of physics, it really was uncatchable as Gronkowski’s momentum led him to the back of the end zone and he was not expecting such an underthrown pass.

Some people — let’s call them Patriot fans– want to contest that they’ve never seen a team get away with being able to block a receiver out of the play and that it’s okay to call uncatchable because an underthrown pass was intercepted.

Well, they must have forgotten the 2010 season:


Peyton Manning had the Colts on a comeback attempt, but when he was hit as he threw the ball, it was well underthrown to the intended target, who was Pierre Garcon. That target was also grabbed by the defense, but at least Garcon tries to come back to the ball, which is something Gronkowski never did. The defensive back also had to reach up much higher to make this interception than the Carolina play. Given the reach for the pick and Garcon’s movement, this play was just as close if not closer than what happened Monday night.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. Maybe Gronkowski should have pushed someone in the end zone like he did in 2011 to free himself for a touchdown on fourth down against the Giants. We know referees are afraid to make the big calls.