“They felt differently.”

Those were the succinct words of Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury when asked after Sunday’s last-second, 25-24 loss to the Chargers if his coaches said anything to him after two crucial replay reviews negated potential turnovers that might have affected the game’s outcome.

Throughout this season (and prior seasons), there have been numerous instances where it appeared plays were reversed when it wasn’t clear and obvious that the original ruling was wrong.

That surely seemed to be the case Sunday, contrary to what NFL senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson told me shortly after the end of the game. (I was representing the Professional Football Writers of America and was granted access to Anderson by phone and the pool report was distributed to the media.)

The Cardinals are now 0-5 this season in games where they have a negative turnover/takeaway ratio. They had two turnovers Sunday and no takeaways.

Yes, we’ll never know what the outcome would have been had the two takeaways stood. And, yes, they still likely would have won if the offense didn’t have three three-and-outs in the fourth quarter while nursing a 24-17 lead. And, yes, they definitely would have won had the defense stopped the Chargers on their game-winning drive that included the 2-point conversion that sealed the victory.

But, also yes, the reality of the effect those reversed turnovers had on the game can’t be ignored, especially when it’s highly questionable whether the decisions were correct.

On the first one, trailing 10-0, the Chargers faced second-and-3 from their own 44-yard line. Quarterback Justin Herbert connected with wide receiver Josh Palmer on an 18-yard play to the Cardinals 38, but cornerback Trayvon Mullen Jr. forced a fumble that on the initial ruling he recovered, pulling the ball away from wide receiver Michael Bandy.

Anderson said, “The first thing that we had to do was to confirm that the initial receiver did complete the process of the catch, which he did. Then we had a fumble and we had a clear view of No. 83 of the Chargers that secured control of the ball while it was on the ground in his hands. An Arizona player ended up getting his hands in there, but the Chargers player had hold of the ball on the ground and therefore he is down by contact at that point with control.”

The key word there is “hands.” Watching the replay several times, it appeared that right as Bandy was trying to control the ball with one hand and bring it to his body, Mullen got his hand on the ball. After that, there were several players blocking the view of what occurred next.

So, I asked Anderson about the “hands” explanation.

He then said, “The Chargers player reached with one hand and brought the ball underneath him and then his other hand came in. He had control of the ball on the ground. In that situation we had a good look at the ball for a long period of time. At best for the Arizona player, it would’ve been simultaneous control, but because the Chargers were the offensive team, then it would by rule be awarded to them had we deemed it simultaneous possession.”

On the TV broadcast, rules analyst Gene Steratore said the reason the Chargers were awarded the ball was because of simultaneous possession. But, that’s not what Anderson said.

When I asked, “Just to be clear, you’re saying that when he had his hand on the ball, that it was in his body and not extended from his body?”

He responded, “No, it was underneath his upper chest and his head.”

Let’s remember the “clear and obvious” standard necessary to reverse a call on the field. That sure didn’t seem to be the case.

Mullen said, “I feel like we were supposed to have the ball, but I can’t say too much about it.”

Kingsbury said he was told, “We took it from them, which I hadn’t seen that called yet this season.”

After that decision, six plays later, the Chargers cut the Cardinals lead to 10-7 on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Herbert to wide receiver Keenan Allen.

The second instance came at a pivotal point in the game. With 7:45 remaining in the game and the Cardinals leading 24-17, the Chargers faced third-and-13 at their own 36-yard line. A Herbert pass was tipped by defensive end Zach Allen and ruled to be intercepted by linebacker Zaven Collins, who returned the ball from the 45 to the L.A. 35-yard line.

Once again, the ruling was reversed. The Chargers punted out of bounds at the Cardinals 25-yard line, a field-position difference of 40 yards.

On replay, it appeared that Collins was trying to secure the ball in his body and it was moving. As it went toward the ground, it looked as if Collins had has hands under the ball gaining control. It might have touched the ground, but didn’t seem to be clear and obvious that it did.

Anderson disagreed, saying, “It was clear that the ball touched the ground before his hands ended up getting control of the ball.”

Collins also disagreed. He said, “My hand was under the ball in between my hand and chest and when I fell to the floor, the ball squeezed, and my chest came off the ball and then my hands brought it up. I think the referees saw it angling funny. I don’t think it ever touched the ground, but from that angle, the ball looked like it touched the ground. It’s supposed to be undeniable evidence that it wasn’t a catch so that sucks there. We just gave the offense really good field position. I just have to catch it clean at the end of the day.”

He then added, “I thought I caught it clean. Usually, you can feel when the ball hits the ground based off when you catch it because you can feel the ball ricochet off the ground. The ball isn’t going to move the ground, the ball moves your hands when you’re catching the ball. You’ll feel the ricochet off the ground, and I didn’t feel the ricochet off the ground. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whatever they saw in New York they thought happened.”

Several Cardinals also believed the officials missed an obvious holding or block in the back prior to the game-winning score.

Andy Lee punted to the Chargers 37 and DeAndre Carter returned the punt 20 yards to the Cardinals 43-yard line. Five yards were added on for Christian Matthew going out of the bounds on the kick. It was Kamu Grugier-Hill and Victor Dimukeje that were thought to be the victims, but there were no flags on the Chargers. Had that penalty been called, the Chargers would have had the ball at their own 32, a field-position flip of 30 yards.

Seven plays later plus the conversion and the Cardinals experienced another frustrating loss, which also put their record at 1-4 in one-score games.

To his credit, quarterback Kyler Murray, who rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown, while engineering an offense that outgained the Chargers 366-311, was 7-for-13 on third down, saw running back James Conner rush 25 times for 120 yards and add 20 more yards on three receptions and a touchdown, lamented the opportunity to put the game away in the fourth quarter.

The Cardinals fourth-quarter three-and-outs totaled 16 yards and took only 3:43 off the clock. Two of the possessions began at the 6- and 10-yard lines.

Murray said, “We should not have even been in the situation. The whole game we had what we wanted. Our four-minute offense execution lost us the game. Our defense shouldn’t have been in that position. We had three chances, three drives to put it away and didn’t.”

As good as Conner played along with the Cardinals being much better on first down in the game than they had been, that wasn’t the case on those final possessions. On three first-down plays, Conner ran for minus-1, one and zero yards and the yards to go on third down was 11, five and 16. The two longer ones came from the 5- and 4-yard line, so safe plays were called to move the ball into better punting position. On third-and-5 from the 30 on the other possession, a pass for tight end Trey McBride was knocked out.

Asked if there weas a lack of aggression in the fourth quarter, tackle Kelvin Beachum said, “I think it was still aggressive. We didn’t execute the plays that were called. I think they (Chargers) did a really good job with second down, pressuring us on second down. We had the one out route to Trey; guy got his hand in on the ball, three-and-out. Came back, got sacked on second down, which, in a two-minute situation that just can’t happen. We just can’t allow sacks to happen.

“But I think that they (Chargers) did a really good job of finding ways to be aggressive in those critical moments and we didn’t do so today.”

When Murray was asked if field position contributed to the play calls in the fourth quarter, he said, “That plays a part in it. That’s why we practice that stuff. There’s really no excuse for our last three drives. No excuse. We have the players; there’s no excuse for not finishing that game on our terms.”

As for the defense, on six consecutive plays on two possessions by the Chargers, they totaled one yard. On their next possession, after driving from their own 22 to the Cardinals 35, Isaiah Simmons sacked Herbert on third-and-7 for a loss of 13 yards. Still, the Chargers had the ball for 9:33 in the final quarter, and the defense, which limited Chargers running backs to 27 rushing yards on nine carries, wasn’t able to make a final stop.

But Murray said no fingers should be pointed at the defense. “They did their job,” he said. “We don’t get a first down, we don’t run the clock, that’s tough to put them back on the field like that.”

And the Cardinals head to their bye with a 4-8 record, tied with Green Bay, New Orleans and Carolina and better than only five teams in the league: Pittsburgh 3-7 (plays Monday night); the Rams and Denver at 3-8, Chicago 3-9 and Houston 1-9-1.

As Beachum said, “Without question, the light is still on, it’s very, very dim. But we have our opportunity to come out of the bye, get healthy, find a way to put a couple games together and try to close out the year the right way.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

Author

Howard Balzer is in his 47th year covering professional football as a writer, editor and broadcaster and has covered 41 Super Bowls. His connection with pro football began in 1976 with College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and since then he has been a featured columnist for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly and The Sports Xchange. Balzer moved to St. Louis in 1978 to work for The Sporting News, where he became Pro Football Editor in 1979. He was an analyst on ESPN's initial broadcast of the NFL Draft in 1980 and continued in that role through 1988. He has won seven writing awards in the Professional Football Writers of America competition, won an Emmy for commentaries on KPLR-TV in St. Louis in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 and 1990. He was named the 2016 winner of the Bob Broeg Media Award presented by the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The award is for enthusiasm, integrity, professionalism and devotion to the game of football and is reserved for individuals whose contributions to football in the St. Louis area have made a significant difference. Balzer was an officer (secretary and secretary/treasurer) for the Professional Football Writers of America for 33 years and was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Balzer relocated to the Phoenix area in 2020 as the publisher of the FanNation AllCardinals site and is now the Cardinals reporter for PHNX. He is entering his 19th year as one of 49 voting members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is also on the Hall's Seniors Committee. He is the co-host of the weekly Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show on SiriusXM NFL Radio and is a part-time host at ArizonaSports 98.7 FM.

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