Officials curtailing free plays over safety concerns

Posted by Wes Hodkiewicz on August 1, 2016 – 10:26 pm

160801-coleman-950GREEN BAY – The Packers began to sense NFL officials cracking down on free plays around the halfway point of last season.

Aaron Rodgers’ mastery of the offense could be seen in his ability to not only lure defenders offside with his hard count, but also catch them with 12 men on the field when trying to make an in-series substitution.

Quick snaps helped create frequent big-play opportunities with little risk early in 2015. Then, suddenly officials started blowing more plays dead at the line of scrimmage.

But why? In town to discuss rule changes for 2016, veteran NFL official Walt Coleman tried to provide some context on Monday.

Coleman, who’s officiated in the league since 1989, has talked with Rodgers before about the reasons behind the referees blowing plays dead instead of letting them continue.

In short, it comes down to player safety.

“He’s already asked us why we call unabated to the quarterback,” Coleman said. “He would prefer us not to call that because it takes away his free play. (Safety of the quarterback) is the reason why the rule is there, but Aaron is convinced he can get away from (the rusher). I tried to explain to him about what happens if you don’t and he just smiled.”

Rodgers, speaking afterward with reporters in the locker room, said he joked with Coleman to “Just let ‘em go, let ‘em try and tackle me and give us a chance to get a free play,” but acknowledged refs are going “to do the right thing.”

Rodgers was satisfied with the explanation Coleman gave him, but it isn’t going to stop him or the Packers from trying again in the future.

Statistically speaking, the two-time MVP is in his own stratosphere when it comes to generating free-play opportunities.

“We’re going to keep playing the way we play, try and draw them offsides, and if we do, try and make something happen,” Rodgers said.

In speaking with the media for about 30 minutes, Coleman also addressed the NFL altering the language this offseason about what is and what is not a catch.

From his perspective, Coleman says the reworked description hasn’t changed things for officials, who can tell the distinction between a catch and no-catch, and act accordingly.

Still, there remains some grey area regarding the interpretation of when a receiver has gained possession and becomes a runner.

A big topic of discussion this offseason has been the difference between Dez Bryant’s no-catch against Green Bay in the 2014 NFC postseason and Larry Fitzgerald’s catch in January’s NFC divisional playoff.

McCarthy challenged the ruling of Fitzgerald’s catch on the field, which was then held up upon review.

Coleman and his crew agreed with the call on the field, saying the difference between Fitzgerald’s play and Bryant’s no-catch is Bryant had to go into the air for the catch and never established a second foot before losing the ball.

In their minds, Fitzgerald took the necessary steps forward after securing the catch before the ball came loose.

“For us nothing has really changed,” Coleman said. “Obviously, there’s been a lot of discussion everywhere else about what it is and what it isn’t, but I think for us, we’ve been pretty clear that basically you just need to hold onto the football when you hit the ground.”

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