NFL refs made two very controversial calls this weekend in the 49ers/Saints and Patriots/Pathers games, and both could potentially have major playoff implications. The old adage that you can't blame a loss on the refs is becoming less and less true, and it's time for the NFL to adjust.
After last night’s Patriots/Panthers game, one thing is blatantly obvious: the NFL has a problem, and it has nothing to do with concussions. Referees are increasingly under fire, and Monday night was a perfect example of why. Three seconds left, Patriots down four. The ball is spotted at the Panthers 18 yard line after a short pass to Aaron Dobson on the sidelines gained seven yards in just three seconds.
Now, it’s the last play of the game. Brady in shotgun, three step drop, steps up in the pocket, sends the ball over the middle of the end-zone for Rob Gronkowski. Luke Kuechly hugs Gronk like he’s an 11 year old little girl who just found Justin Bieber hiding in the closet while Robert Lester intercepts the ball. A flag is thrown, and Patriots have one more untimed down where Brady hooks up with Matthew Mulligan for the game winning touchdown and the GOAT chatter continues.
That’s how it could have/should have ended, but unfortunately the refs convened after the flag was thrown and decided there was no interference. Looking at the replay, did interference actually occur? It could be argued no, because the ball didn’t get to Gronk, but it didn’t get to him because he was being bear hugged in the back of the end zone. Gronkowski, Kuechly, and Lester were all at the same depth in the end zone when the ball was released. Kuechly persists to hold Gronk and pull him to the back of the end zone him while Lester breaks on the ball.
It could be argued that his path to the ball was interfered with, or it could be argued that he was held. Either way, the only argument that wasn’t valid was one that said that no foul occurred - which is exactly what the ref told us. In yet another potentially game deciding call, the refs put their tails between their legs to make sure that Team A can’t say their call decided the game, which is the lesser evil of Team B saying their non-call maybe did. And we, the fans, are treated to former refs on ESPN and Fox Sports telling us why the refs are right and we’re just stupid.
Once is an Accident, Twice is a Coincidence, But Three Times Is a Pattern
As time goes on, we continually see bad calls "potentially" – and I use that term loosely, because people will argue that only a loss as a result of a bad call on the last play of the game can be blamed on the refs, but let’s be honest here, refs can change outcomes – cost teams games. Look at the 49ers/Saints game on Sunday. Ahmad Brooks makes what Ray Lewis described as, “the perfect play.” He beats his man, gets to the quarterback, hits him hard in the chest and shoulder pads, and drags the quarterback to the ground while the ball is fumbled. Patrick Willis recovers the fumble, and the 49ers have the lead and the ball with just 3:18 left.
But, the ref threw a personal foul flag for hitting the quarterback in the neck. Brooks clearly hits Brees in his chest, his right hand grasping the shoulder pad, his arm bent at the throat area, and his head turned away so there is no helmet to helmet contact. The blunt force of the hit caused Brees’ head to jar forward and for a split second and his neck may have come in contact with Brooks’ arm, but that was not intentional and certainly not Brooks’ intention. Why is a defender at fault for a quarterback’s Stretch Armstrong neck? The Saints were given 15 yards and a first down. They tie it up with a field goal, and go on to win the game on the last play, potentially shaking up the entire NFC playoff picture in the process.
Again, we can’t definitively say this cost the 49ers the game. They did get the ball back with the game tied, they just couldn’t do anything with it. The Saints were assisted by some great clock management by head coach Sean Peyton – something you rarely see at any level of football any more– an absolute bone headed play by Colin Kaepernick where - on third and long - he scrambled out of bounds rather than forcing New Orleans to use their last timeout, and Kasim Osgood being the only man in America to not see Darren Sproles call for a fair catch.
Sure, the 49ers could have taken control of their destiny and drove down the field and scored. Sure, their Superbowl quarterback could have stayed in bounds and burned precious time off the clock, and sure, their special teams pro bowler could have paid better attention, but they didn’t. And why should they have to? Should it just be expected that teams have to overcome their opponents as well as the officials? Is that just part of the game now?
The call clearly improved the Saints win probability, and at the very least assisted in the win. Trent Dilfer said he was offended by the call, and Lewis said it was the most embarrassing call in the National Football League since the tuck rule. Hey, atleast Lewis said he’d pay half of Brooks’ fine.
It’s Your Fault, NFL
The NFL doesn’t want to be Major League Baseball. They don’t want a couple of teams trading off Superbowl wins while the rest of the league flounders because they don’t have the cash to compete. The NFL wants a league where, from season to season, literally any team can come through and make an appearance in the Superbowl. This philosophy keeps fans interested, which keeps them glued to the TV, which increases revenue, which helps the bottom line.
The NFL has taken painstaking measures to assure that parity is a major theme in the league. Their revenue is large, but their salary cap is hard - both vital to said parity. New rules are implemented to favor offenses so no lead is too big, and quarterbacks are protected like babies in the womb. All for one thing: hope. Every year fans from every NFL team have hope that their franchize can win it all, "Hey, look at the '99 Rams, anything can happen."
Football: America's New Past-Time
As a fan, if your team has multiple Superbowl wins, you’re considered very lucky. If that's happened in the salary cap era you’re not just lucky, you're part of an exclusive club.
Since the salary cap started in 1994, 21 NFL teams have appeared in the Superbowl, while just 17 different MLB teams have played in the World Series. In the Superbowl era, a whopping 28 NFL teams have played in the big game, whereas just 21 have played in the World Series. To top it off, just 11 different NFL teams have multiple Superbowl championships, while 15 have done so in baseball during the same time frame. Karl Marx would be proud, but Bud Selig? Not so much.
These steps to an even playing field brings more responsibility. The NFL wants the equality, which is fine, but it needs to step up the accountability. The NFL cannot have ultra-conservative refs who would rather not throw a controversial flag when one clearly should have been thrown, or guys who pick up a flag rather than create dissension.
A lot of NFL refs are approaching retirement age, one has to wonder if it’s time to start bringing in younger guys who were raised in the progressive era of football. Something’s got to change, and change soon, or the NFL is in danger of losing some of its fan base. Right now, it’s a locomotive with no stop in site, but it only takes chaffing a couple of loyal fan bases to slow that train down to halt.
Well, what are the solutions to such problems? Can we feasibly expect NFL refs to be perfect? Can we point fingers at them for losses and say they are the sole reason for it when mistakes like Steven Ridley’s red zone fumble or Kaepernick’s bad judgment could be just as much to blame? No, we really can’t. Can we say that there are improvements that need to be made? Yes we can. We can say that the NFL needs to do something to not only get the calls right for teams and their fans, but to take some of the heat off of refs. They are only human after all, and a love/hate relationship with millions of people have to take its toll. Mistakes are bound to happen, lets do what we can to minimize them.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Extra challenge. Bang-bang plays happen often, so why not give an extra challenge to teams to use for judgment calls only? Yes, a judgment call is subjective and that’s what the refs are paid for, but they make mistakes. Pass interference sometimes looks like pass interference if the receiver just happens to fall down, or if feet get tangled up. Why not one challenge flag per game to revisit such a call? Give teams a chance to have the right call made, and let the refs redeem themselves if it in fact was a mistake. Don’t you think refs who realize mistakes after the fact would like to remedy them?
There’s much less scrutiny on a penalty that gets reviewed. Sure, even reviewed penalties are screwed up once in a while, but they're almost always correct. It could be a blue flag for plays like pass interference or holding. Those two plays seem to cost teams the most because those are the two most common calls made during big plays, so why not allow them to be rectified at least twice a game? Sure, we could review every single play in a game, but one extra challenge per team would allow coaches to feel a little more pragmatic, and it would take some heat off the refs.
- Penalties involving body parts are automatically reviewed. To this day, I don’t understand why any penalty that involves a body part isn’t automatically reviewed. These are black and white penalties that don’t involve judgment. We’re not talking about a ref deeming the defender to have interfered with a receiver. Either the helmets touched or they didn’t. It’s black and white, there is no gray area. How often do we see a helmet to helmet flag thrown when in fact the helmets didn’t touch, but instead a hard hit jerked a player’s body in one direction while moving their head in the opposite? Teams are penalized 15 yards and players are fined large sums of money on a knee-jerk reaction from what a ref saw in a split second. Same goes for hitting quarterbacks below the knee. We’re dealing with inches here in some cases, so why not allow these to be looked at? A correct call can be made with an automatic review from someone in the booth working with the ref, and they don't take long to figure out in replays. Have a guy in the booth to confirm. You don't need the ref to look under the hood at a black and white play like that.
The Home Team’s Dirty Little Secret
A little off topic, but I had to bring this up after Monday's game. It's something that's bothered me for years and NO ONE ever talks about. I sometimes think I'm in the twilight zone when I see it happen. I think to myself, "Did no one else notice that? These guys prepare for every minute detail but no one notices such a huge mistake?!"
I’m a clock Nazi. When I watch NFL games my eyes are constantly on the clock. As soon as a the whistle is blown, I stare at the clock to see if it's stopped at the correct time. Every Sunday, I see a clock operator fudge a few seconds here and there in favor of the home team. Last night it happened three different times. When Ted Ginn scored the final touchdown, he was in the end zone for three full seconds before the clock stopped (he also has crazy high ups). On the Patriots final drive, two separate times the play clock operator let the clock run for an extra second or two. The refs finally said something the last time it happened, and instructed the operator to add two more seconds to the clock. That took the clock from :04 to :06 left in the game. If the operators had done their job on the previous two plays, or during the Ginn touchdown, the Patriots would have one more play at the end of the game, regardless of the missed call.
I’m not sure why every single team in the NFL doesn’t have a quality control coach whose sole purpose is to watch the clock. Maybe they do, but the Patriots sure didn’t look like it. I couldn’t believe Belichick wasn’t throwing a fit over the time ticking away after the Ginn touchdown. With Tom Terrific under center, an extra second could be the difference between a win, a loss, a playoff appearance, or even a Superbowl.
So, now what?
Can we ever expect games to be called perfect without human error? No, it will always be a part of the game until the next Bill Gates invents software that uses 1,000 cameras on the field that watches every play from every player and throws up virtual flags. Until then, we should make our voices heard when mistakes are made.
The NFL is worth billions, and it mean a lot to most red-blooded Americans. When your favorite team loses either in part, or completely, because of a ref missing a call, it hurts. When it happens several times, it makes you question whether or not your emotional energy is well vested in the game you’ve loved since you could say, “GO NINERS!”
The NFL should take note of that.
Follow me on twitter: @NFLGary