The call against Fokou: It's going to happen

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
9:03
PM ET
Michael GriffinAP Photo/Wade PayneBernard Pollard (31) has been critical of the league's protection for quarterbacks but offered a calm assessment of the call that changed the game against Kansas City.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Fans were outraged. The Twitterverse bemoaned the call. The LP Field crowd booed the officials the rest of the game.

On a third-and-5 from the Tennessee 44-yard line, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith scrambled to the right sideline. It looked like he was heading out of bounds. Middle linebacker Moise Fokou made sure Smith went out, launching and putting a shoulder into Smith that drew the flag.

Instead of fourth-and-3 the Chiefs got the two yards on the scramble and 15 more for unnecessary roughness. Five plays later, the Chiefs had retaken the lead for good en route to a 26-17 victory that kept them undefeated and dropped the Titans to 3-2.

Outspoken Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard has been critical of the league’s protection for offenses and quarterbacks. Pollard -- a guy who recently said the NFL should pull defenses off the field, let offenses play against air and see what the television ratings would be like -- would surely offer a strong objection to a crucial unnecessary roughness call against a teammate, right?

“It’s a gray area,” Pollard said. “It’s something I think needs to be corrected in the rules, because it’s hard for us as defensive players. Having said that, look at the situation we were in. You’ve got to let that go. The guy was two yards shy. But we make mistakes. That hurt us, when you keep drives going with penalties.”

Fokou was less sure it was wrong, but wasn’t defensive about it either.

“The officials felt what I did was probably a penalty,” he said. “I’ll have to go back and look, I feel like our sideline thought it wasn’t. It’s one of those things, when you’re battling and playing hard, going full speed, things happen.”

“I thought I was in a good position, you just never know. … You try to defend every blade of grass. When I looked at it, I thought he was still in. I left my feet and I don’t know how to stop mid-air.”

In his post-game press conference Titans coach Mike Munchak said he thought Smith was in bounds and Fokou was trying to make sure he didn’t get a first down. There are inconsistencies in the way it’s called, Munchak said, but the Titans know the boundary call is going to be closely inspected and the team has to be smart there.

I talked to Pollard, Fokou, defensive tackles Mike Martin and Jurrell Casey, cornerback Alterraun Verner, safety George Wilson, left tackle Michael Roos and Rob Turner about the call.

All but one of those eight basically said the call is to be expected and a defender has to avoid it.

“We’ve just got to be better at playing smarter football,” Martin said. “When it comes down to plays like that, you can’t leave it in the referee’s hands.”

“They are going to call that pretty much every time,” Roos said. “They have to, they protect the quarterback. That’s unfortunate. It is the way it is. At some point in our season I’m sure we’ll get a call like that in our favor. That’s the way it goes.”

Munchak has spoken to his team on multiple occasions about the body language involved in getting called for penalties -- both by the player that gets whistled and by the victim. There are times when a player is on the verge of committing a hold or is committing one, where he can let go, not really impact the play and earn more benefit of the doubt.

Verner felt referee Bill Voinovich was left too much room for interpretation.

“We discuss that if it’s close the referee could or could not call it,” Verner said. “Of course I am going to say that Smith was still in, but it was one of those that was close. So the referee had a decision to make. It could have gone either way.”

Only Turner spelled out a real case against the call, and he did so in a calm, understanding way, not in an angry, my-team-got-screwed manner.

“Alex Smith was trying to accumulate a first down,” Turner said. “When he hit him, he didn’t lead with the head, he led with the shoulder. He didn’t target the head. Alex had not stepped out of bounds when he made contact. Now he hit him as his foot came down, but again, he was trying to get a first down.

“I’m not going to sit here and criticize the ref. From my viewpoint, what I saw on the replay, I thought it as a questionable call. ... I don’t feel like he did anything wrong on that, he made a good play playing within the rules.”

If Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson hit Ryan Fitzpatrick in a similar fashion, I suspect the Titans would have felt it worthy of a penalty.

I’ve never been a world-class athlete chasing a quarterback to the boundary in an NFL game at full speed with a major first down at stake. Still, I’d propose a strong push or shove is going to ensure the quarterback goes out of bounds and significantly reduce the risk of a penalty. Stay on your feet, keep your head up and hit him with an extended arm, not even a shoulder.

If you do that and the call goes against you, they’ll be a lot more than public outcry to back you.

Give the crew gray area, it’s going to go to the quarterback’s side. Grumpy fans need to come to terms with that. It’s pro football circa 2013.
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Paul Kuharsky | email

ESPN Tennessee Titans reporter

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