(Image via @MetsKevin11)
So, it finally happened.
The Seahawks beat the Packers on a controversial last second play, shining the limelight on the replacement officials presiding over their Monday Night Clash. You knew sooner or later they were going to have to make a call that would decide a game and common consensus is that they got this one wrong. So wrong. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that it wasn’t the Jets who got screwed.
For the second straight game, the gun has sounded on an NFL contest with nobody entirely sure who won for a few awkward moments. When Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker’s field goal was ruled good, I half-expected them to change their mind when Vince Wilfork started leaping around a throwing a hissy fit. (For what it’s worth, I still haven’t seen convincing evidence either way, but if you account for the fact that if the ball goes directly over the goalpost – in other words so that it would have hit the upright had the goalposts been a few feet higher – that still counts as good according to the NFL rulebook, then it probably was good).
I’ve remained pretty silent on the issue until now. Obviously these officials are doing the best they can and, although some of the delays and confusion can be frustrating when the games are played into the early hours of the morning where I am, I can live with the occasional bad call, because we’re accustomed to that anyway. However, when you get a game-deciding call that is non-reviewable or a situation where the same wrong call is being made over and over again, you start to affect the results of games and that is unacceptable.
On the whole, let’s say NFL officials make the correct call 99% of the time. I have no idea if that’s accurate, but this is just for the purposes of illustration. Now, maybe the replacements make the correct call 98% of the time. We all moan and gripe about the bad calls with the normal referees in place and now there are (perhaps) twice as many. Having said that, the NFL should perhaps be commended for at least managing to source a set of officials that are at least competent enough to enable games to be conducted under somewhat controlled and fair conditions.
It would vary from crew to crew (and possibly from week to week) too. Some of the better replacement crews might be doing a better job than some of the worst crews from the regular officials roster (*cough* Jerome Boger *cough*). However, the difference between the top NFL crew and the worst replacement crew is becoming unacceptable. It can’t be a good sign that there was so much controversy attached to the last two games, where the two crews hand-picked to work a nationally-televised game came under fire.
It’s particularly interesting to look back at what happened with the replacement officials in the NBA in 1995. Back in 2008, where it looked like the NBA was going to have to use replacement officials once again, I looked back to some footage from 1995 games and wrote an article about it (linked to here) for an NBA team blog (I know, I know).
At the time, I had been wondering if the replacement officials would be a refreshing change because they wouldn’t ignore certain calls or give certain players preferential treatment like the usual officials did. However, what I found was that when they did make those calls (which NBA players were used to seeing overlooked), this made the players more likely to complain (despite newly instigated tighter technical foul sanctions). This led to a situation where the replacements were even more likely to allow that to influence how they called the rest of the game than the originals.
Fast forward to today and we’ve seen the same thing happening – specifically with pass defense. We’ve seen Santonio Holmes appeal for a flag, both justifiably and non-justifiably, but then we’ve also seen the likes of Ike Taylor complaining about a flag, so that the next time there is a violation, it doesn’t get called. You also end up with a Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf scenario, where a player who isn’t perceived to have been interfered with doesn’t earn the call the next time, because the officials just assume he’s always going to ask for that call.
Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that even when they identify an infraction correctly, they are getting the call wrong. This might be a wacky conspiracy theory, but I wonder if that’s something that has come from higher-up. If a receiver runs deep down the sideline and the defender makes contact with his arm, that is pass interference or it’s a no-call. However, having thrown the flag, the officials often seem content to reach a “compromise” and call illegal contact or holding, so that the offensive player earns a first down but doesn’t get the big yardage.
Maybe that’s a clever way for the officials to hedge their bets. It’s like accepting a plea deal for a misdemeanour instead of being charged with a felony. However, this is rooted in nonsense, because illegal contact can only apply when the quarterback is in the pocket and still with the ball in his hands. Once the ball is thrown, if you impede the receiver, that’s pass interference and if you don’t (for example, incidental contact), then that’s a no-call. They’ve also been calling holding on defensive players where the ball has been thrown and the defender has been holding the receiver. Yes, that’s “holding”, but in the context of preventing them from catching a pass, it should be interference and assessed at the spot of the foul.
You’ve also had controversy after the first game where Mario Williams claimed Austin Howard was using illegal techniques to keep him at bay and I didn’t make a big deal of it this week, but there was a lot of what I would recognize as holding going on in the trenches between the Dolphins and Jets this weekend. All of this pails into insignificance when considering the game-deciding call(s) made over the last two nights though.
Rewind back to 1995 and how did the NBA officiating lockout end? It ended because the situation got out of hand and the NBA moved swiftly to get things resolved so that the regular officials could return. In the NBA, with 82 games in a season and 200 points being scored in most games, there would be less indignation over a game-deciding call. However, a major brawl – which the replacements struggled to get under control – led to a record number of players being suspended and a couple of star players got injured either in scuffles or during particularly physical games. In the NFL, one game and one play can make or break your season, so they’re more or less at breaking point already.
So what’s the answer? I purposely haven’t got into the financial or political side of things, but both teams seem reluctant to budge. Maybe the NFL will now be under more pressure to convince the owners that this needs to be sorted out, but they’ve been satisfied to run the games under these conditions and the officials’ union doesn’t want to blink first –even though they’re losing money at a rate that will be hard to recoup via the negotiations themselves. So, while the NFL could panic and surrender some bargaining power to bring back these guys, what happens in the meantime?
I’d like to see the NFL address this somehow. It’s difficult to do anything about it on the fly, but admitting these officials need help would be a good first step. While most calls are judgment calls and therefore non-reviewable, as they should be - otherwise games would last forever – maybe the NFL could implement procedures whereby such calls are considered reviewable in the last two minutes of a one-score game or something.
I’m still not entirely certain there was enough video evidence to overturn either of the last two results, or that a regular crew of officials would have called those plays any differently (remember Jets-Packers from 2010?) but at least that would be seen as a positive step towards ensuring an even worse miscarriage of justice is avoided in future.
As of today, the NFL is a laughing stock. I can’t imagine Roger Goodell sitting idly by and allowing that to continue.
Don’t expect me to spoil you like this every week, but I’ll be back with another BGA Special about Darrelle Revis later tonight. Also, BGA Extra will be here tomorrow night, so remember to head on over to the BGA for this week’s game if there’s anything you want me to analyze.