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Hurley's Picks: The NFL has an intentional grounding problem

Bill Belichick won't name Patriots' starting quarterback for Week 13 vs. Chargers
Bill Belichick won't name Patriots' starting quarterback for Week 13 vs. Chargers 00:46

BOSTON -- Troy Aikman played in 181 NFL games. He's a Hall of Famer. He's a three-time Super Bowl winner. A six-time Pro Bowler. And he's remained in the game for the past two decades since his playing career ended, working as one of the top color commentators in the league.

That's a long way of saying this: Troy Aikman knows the sport.

Yet on Monday night, when the Bears were driving to try to win the game in the final minute, Aikman made a proclamation that when it comes to intentional grounding, he no longer knows the rule.

"I'm not sure I know what the call is anymore," a befuddled Aikman said after a Justin Fields pass that cleared the sideline bench was not flagged for intentional grounding.

The pass, by any definition, was not in the "vicinity" of any eligible receiver, unless the fans in the front row count.

Justin Fields' throwaway
Justin Fields' throwaway GIF from NFL+

Inexplicably, ESPN's rules expert John Parry -- a former referee -- said this non-call was correct.

"He's got a receiver, also, in that area," Parry said. "And as we've learned, they've really gotten lenient with this call."

Just last month, Parry said "there is no player in the vicinity" on this pass that sailed directly over an eligible receiver's head:

Jared Goff
Jared Goff spikes the ball into the turf. GIF from NFL+
Jared Goff
Jared Goff spikes the ball into the turf. GIF from NFL+

Head of officiating Walt Anderson actually joined that broadcast to tell Parry and the rest of the crew that the officials were correct in not flagging that one for intentional grounding. 

Earlier this season, Justin Herbert clearly didn't throw the ball "in the vicinity" of Austin Ekeler but wasn't flagged for intentional grounding:

Justin Herbert spikes the ball into the turf.
Justin Herbert spikes the ball into the turf. GIF from NFL+

NBC's rules analyst Terry McAulay said that was an egregious missed call by the officiating crew. (Walt Anderson must have been busy that night, just as he must have been occupied during Monday's Bears-Vikings game.)

Earlier this season, when the Dolphins played the Chiefs in Germany, Tua Tagovailoa was flagged for intentional grounding when his pass "to" Raheem Mostert was both nowhere near the running back and well short of reaching the line of scrimmage. After a lengthy meeting of officials, the flag finally flew. Color commentator Dan Orvlosky -- who played quarterback in the league -- was confused.

"They gotta deem him inside the pocket, then, if they're gonna throw that as grounding, right?" Orlovsky asked on the broadcast.

Referee Clay Martin on the field and rules analyst Gene Steratore on the broadcast then informed Orlovsky and everyone else that Tagovailoa was outside the pocket but didn't get his pass to the line of scrimmage, which is a penalty.  

What makes the non-calls more puzzling is the fact that intentional grounding penalty calls are way up this year. WAY up.

Through 12 weeks, intentional grounding penalties have been called 39 times, according to

Last year, in 18 weeks, there were just 42 intentional grounding penalties called. That number was just 30 in 2021, and it was 45 in 2020.

This year, officials are on pace to flag 58.5 instances of intentional grounding. Not since Tom Brady became the first player to ever be penalized for throwing a pass through the back of the end zone has there been a more obvious point of emphasis on the intentional grounding rule. It's not the most confusing rule in the universe, but it does generally require a meeting between the referee and another official to confirm, and the process is managing to confuse current and former referees just as much as it's confusing current and former quarterbacks.

And any time the end result is confusion, the NFL could be doing a much better job. (Maybe throw Walt Anderson out there on some more live broadcasts? No? Bad idea? OK, OK, fair enough.)

(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)

DALLAS (-9) over Seattle
The old not-a-short-week Thursday night game. Look, I didn't trust Dallas to cover a large spread at home on Thanksgiving. I've learned my lesson. That's my bad.

Los Angeles Chargers (-6) over NEW ENGLAND
The Chargers make such dumb mistakes that I'm loath to take them on the road, 3,000 miles from home, outdoors in December. Just saying that out loud gives me the willies. I foresee 15 fumbles.

But ... let's say Bailey Zappe starts for the Patriots at quarterback. He has a 38.2 passer rating. He could go out there and go 10-for-20 for 150 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and get that rating UP to 56.32.

The Patriots have such a void at quarterback, you can't trust them in any scenario. 

(Cue the 15 fumbles.)

Detroit (-4) over NEW ORLEANS
The Lions are 2-0 after their previous two losses this year, winning 20-6 against Atlanta and 26-14 against Las Vegas. After they ruined Thanksgiving for themselves and their fans and the ENTIRE CITY OF DETROIT last week, I expect them to have a Dan Campbell-forced focus against the Saints (who are bad).

Atlanta (-2.5) over NEW YORK JETS
Do you remember when the Jets gave up a touchdown while throwing a Hail Mary before haltime? I do. That was funny.

Arizona (+5.5) over PITTSBURGH
The Steelers have 15 offensive touchdowns in 11 games played. Take them to cover by more than a few points at your own risk.

TENNESSEE (+1) over Indianapolis
When in doubt, take the home team getting a point for what would be a season split with a divisional opponent.

WASHINGTON (+9.5) over Miami
Thanks to the aforementioned Hail Mary interception return for a touchdown, the Dolphins eventually blew doors last week. But before that, they weren't exactly the high-flying Dolphins in their first cold-weather road game. It won't be super cold in Maryland this weekend, but it will be rainy. That's a big spread if the Dolphins play at the medium pace they utilized last week.

HOUSTON (-3.5) over Denver
What a turnaround for Sean Payton. Turns 1-5 into 6-5. Looks even more right about Nathaniel Hackett. Fun times.

But I'm making this pick almost exclusively on vibes. Despite barely losing last week, the Texans have a good thing going. The Broncos aren't good enough to disrupt that. Houston's not losing two straight home games. Their momentum has not been fully shattered.

TAMPA BAY (-5) over Carolina
A lot of teams get a short-term boost when they fire a head coach. But that kind of only works when everyone hates the guy. Did anyone hate Frank Reich? Seems doubtful. The Panthers are likely to just continuing to stink, setting up the Bears with the No. 1 pick.

PHILADELPHIA (+2.5) over San Francisco
Some of the games this year are just so unfathomably bad that when one like this comes along you almost faint. My goodness.

I must stay true to my philosophy that I've held all year: The Eagles try just hard enough to beat their opponent. They may look vulnerable or flawed at times but really they're just playing down to their competition. Won't be a problem this week, though. What a game. 

Imagine that: Being excited for a late-afternoon Sunday game. A rarity in this day and age.

LOS ANGELES RAMS (-3.5) over Cleveland
Ah. OK. Back to reality then.

Hope we at least get some Joe Flacco.

GREEN BAY (+6) over Kansas City
The Chiefs seem like the obvious play. The Packers seem like the smart play.

Are the Packers good? Well ... debatable. But they've won three of four, including that impressive showing on Thanksgiving in Detroit. They haven't lost by more than six points since Week 8, which was one of just two such losses this season. Seemingly very little has come easy for the Chiefs this year. A Sunday night trip to Lambeau won't be easy, either.

JACKSONVILLE (-8.5) over Cincinnati
Don't let anything distract you from the (apparent) fact* that the Bengals cheated and lied about Joe Burrow's wrist injury and thus have karmic retribution coming their way.

*potentially not a fact

Last week: 8-7-1
Season: 80-92-6

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