Throughout most of my newspaper sports writing career, I tried to steer clear of criticizing officials. It’s a hard knock life for a ref (instead of kisses, they get kicked), and I didn’t want to add to their misery.
But good lort … this might’ve been the worst season yet for NFL stripes, and they certainly put their worst foot forward in last Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
The hot take in the Los Angeles Rams’ 26-23 overtime victory over the New Orleans Saints, of course, is to be outraged about the non-call that will live in infamy.
You know the story.
L.A. corner Nickell Robey-Coleman made a crushing, helmet-to-helmet hit on New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis long before Drew Brees’ pass got to him inside the 5-yard line.
The combo of pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact made it the most obvious penalty since the first yellow flag was stitched. Hell, it could’ve been seen from the international space station.
Inexplicably, though, the NFL officiating crew didn’t see it – or at least didn’t call it.
Had they done so, the Saints would’ve had first-and-goal with under two minutes to go.
They would’ve eaten the clock, most likely kicking a chip shot field goal on the final snap. Or maybe a plunge up the middle would’ve turned a conservative call into a touchdown.
Either way, their chances of winning the game would’ve been in the upper 90 percentile.
Instead, they had to settle for three (the no-call set up fourth and 10 from the 13), and the Rams were left with enough time to march downfield and tie things up in regulation.
That set the stage for Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning 57-yard field goal, although Saints faithful will always believe they were jobbed and robbed and I’d feel the same way if I were them.
If we’re going to blame the officials – and they deserve a lot of blame – let’s go all in. This crew was horrible all day long and made more than one potential game-changing blunder. One just happened to occur in the waning minutes of the game, magnifying it that much more.
For example, one no-call resulted in a New Orleans touchdown and another probably denied L.A. one of its own.
The Saints scored on a second-and-goal play in the third quarter to go up 20-10, even though the play clock clearly hit double zeroes before the snap.
Had the flag been thrown, New Orleans would’ve faced a second and goal from the seven.
They might’ve still scored a TD, but it would’ve been more difficult.
And in the fourth quarter – with his squad trailing 20-17 – Rams QB Jared Goff scrambled on a third down play and was pulled down by his facemask. If the official makes the call, L.A. has first and goal at the 1 but instead had to settle for a field goal.
A touchdown would’ve put the Rams ahead 24-20, and the Saints would’ve been forced to score a TD to regain the lead.
But none of those things happened, and now we’re left to debate all the might-have-beens.
And in the interest of equal time, the crew in the AFC Championship Game had their shaky moments in New England’s 37-31 O.T. conquest of Kansas City.
I’m not sure there’ll ever be consensus on Julian Edelman’s muffed punt return, although I tend to think overturning that ruling was the correct decision
My favorite penalty call, however, was the roughing-the-passer flag against K.C.’s Chris Jones.
People have applied Vicks VapoRub with more force than Jones used against Tom Brady.
So what’s the solution?
The quick answer is to at least make pass interference reviewable since it tends to the infraction that’s frequently the most “iffy.” For that to happen, the NFL competition committee would need to put it on the table and 24 of the 32 league owners have to approve it.
You can count Saints owner Gayle Benson as an “aye” vote there.
But if and when that happens, a game that is becoming increasingly lengthy will grow longer still.
When first introduced, I thought video replay reviews would be a great addition to the game.
I’m not sure I believe that anymore.
I’ll never understand how officials can pore over a replay like they’re examining the Zapruder film, yet still get the call wrong. But they do, and now games that used to run at a crisp two hours and 45 minutes are dragging on well past three hours.
Throw interference flag reviews into the mix – even something as obvious as Sunday’s no-call – and you’ll add more down time to the NFL “experience.”
Here’s an idea: look to Canadian Football League officials for guidance. After all, the leagues already have an exchange program where NFL refs work early season CFL games and CFL refs “intern” at NFL mini-camps and clinics.
CFL contests – on average – clock in at well under three hours, and the refs have a whole lot more to look at.
Not only are all backs and receivers (other than the quarterback) allowed in motion toward the line of scrimmage, there are 12 players to a side on a 65-yard wide, 110-yard long field and you can even attempt an onside punt, for heaven’s sake.
Oh yeah – coaches are allowed to challenge interference calls and when refs review plays, they don’t screw around.
Obviously CFL officials make mistakes, too, and I won’t deny I tend to view football things through Maple Leaf-colored glasses.
Still, that league’s video replay era seems to be marked by much less error.
Whatever the case, here’s hoping NFL officials will get their act together and be able to end the season on a high note in the Super Bowl.
After all, the best way for refs to be remembered is to not be remembered at all.