‘I don’t love it’: What NFL experts say about a pivotal penalty call against the Patriots

Experts discuss whether Anfernee Jennings should have been called for a blindside block.

The Patriots drafted linebacker Anfernee Jennings in the third round this year.
The Patriots drafted linebacker Anfernee Jennings in the third round this year. –Matt Patterson/AP Photo

Early in the third quarter of Sunday’s Patriots-Cardinals game, Gunner Olszewski reeled in a punt, zigzagged his way through the Arizona defense, and accelerated deep into Arizona territory.

He had only one man to beat in Cardinals linebacker Ezekiel Turner, but Turner was gaining ground and was close to catching him. Patriots rookie Anfernee Jennings unleashed an overpowering hit on Turner and sent him flying to the ground. Olszewski waltzed into the end zone – for what would have been an 82-yard touchdown return – but Jennings was called for an illegal blindside block.

The Patriots ended up getting the ball at Arizona’s 39-yard-line and settling for a field goal to make it 10-10 with 7:46 left in the quarter. Afterward, reporters, announcers, and fans had varying reactions to the call.

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Referee Bill Vinovich said after the game that there were actually three flags thrown on the play and that it was a “block back towards his own end line, with forceable contact.”

When ESPN’s Mike Reiss asked him what officials are looking for from a player to stay within the rules on a play like that, Vinovich provided a concise answer.

“He would have to shield him or use his hands,” he said.

The Boston Globe‘s Ben Volin noted that a blindside block “is a foul if a player initiates a block when his path is toward or parallel to his own end line and makes forcible contact to his opponent with his helmet, forearm, or shoulder.”

By that definition, Volin said, the play meets the criteria.

FOX broadcaster Daryl Johnston said he disagrees with the call because Jennings wasn’t moving back toward his end zone. He arrived at the point of contact, paused, and went shoulder-to-shoulder, Johnston said, rather than toward the head.

“It’s a huge, game-changing play,” Johnston said. “I thought that Anfernee Jennings really did a lot right.”

NFL rules expert Dean Blandino said he doesn’t love the call, but he pointed out that referees are asking players to shield off the opponent, rather than lower their shoulder.

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“I think the league is going to support this as a blindside block,” Blandino said on the broadcast.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick immediately took umbrage with the call, yelling at an official – with some profanity – that Turner was about to make the tackle. He then showed referees photos of the hit at the timeout, but they didn’t budge.

Belichick didn’t say much about the play after the game, but he did note that the official simply told him it was a blindside block.

“I’m disappointed that the punt return got called back,” Belichick said, “but we’ll just have to pull that off a little bit, I guess.”

WCVB-TV reporter Christopher Gasper pointed out that the gamebook officially called it an “illegal crackback.” If Jennings had simply set a screen, the referees would have let it go, but he threw a block while facing his own goal line or blocking back toward it. He called it “a safety rule.”

NESN’s Doug Kyed called the rule “dumb” but said the ruling wasn’t wrong.

“Tough flag,” Kyed wrote. “It’s the correct call, but you can debate whether it should be.”

NFL reporter Albert Breer agreed, noting that the rule can be argued, but the call should not be.

The Boston Globe‘s Jim McBride said there was “nothing blindside about it.”

MassLive.com’s Chris Mason also didn’t approve.

“This is football,” he tweeted. “People get hit.”

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