Any minute now, the NFL will issue another mea culpa detailing that one of their esteemed officiating crews botched one (or perhaps several) calls, which may or may not have directly affected the final results of a game.
These days, this is nothing new. Each week, win or lose, multiple teams feel victimized by poor officiating. No one is immune, as even the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots have been rudely reminded. No one’s record matters, as fans of the Cleveland Browns will tell you. And the outcome of these games, whether or not they were acknowledged to be faulty, is ever altered as a result.
Before the referees were unceremoniously locked out by the NFL’s highest administrative powers prior to the 2012 season, effective officiating was expected and generally received. While human error can often influence the accuracy of particular calls, the video replay system had been tweaked to the point of being a behavioral counterbalance, allowing officials one more avenue to “get it right”. Once the lockout was resolved (a new agreement was reached, stipulating pay and benefits for officials through 2019) and the abominable replacement officials ousted, it was expected that the incumbent refs would resume their duties without further complications. And for approximately one season, they did.
Enter 2015. Despite the usual grousing from fans and officials, the season commenced as all do: with a full slate of games. The refs could operate as instructed by the NFL and as the rulebooks dictated.
Except they didn’t. And haven’t. And we, as fans, are forced to watch referees, not players, decide the ultimate outcome of matters that shouldn’t be theirs to determine.
Consider last Monday night’s wild finish: the Browns, having intercepted Ravens quarterback Matt Schaub, were in a favorable spot to kick a field goal and seal the game in their favor. The worst-case scenario, presumably, would have been overtime, as no field goal is ever a sure thing. The Ravens blocked the kick, recovered the ensuing live ball, and scored on the return. Bully for Baltimore.
Except it shouldn’t have happened. Reviews showed that Ravens safety Anthony Levine had lined up in the neutral zone, which would have nullified the play had it been spotted (the league denies this). In addition, safety Will Hill stepped out of bounds during the return itself, which would have rendered the play dead at that point.
Two obvious infractions, two missed opportunities to “get it right”.
This past weekend, the refs managed to take away a Ravens TD on a (replays showed) non-existent offensive pass interference infraction. Saints running back Mark Ingram fired a football into the back wall, beyond the end zone, and was penalized for…what, exactly? Perhaps the most laughable call was Jets guard Willie Colon receiving a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct…while on injured reserve.
As fans, we get it. We understand that as long as humans are making the initial calls, there are times that replays won’t provide enough evidence to overturn them. There are times that penalties are simply unwelcome due to the nature of a particular hard-hitting contest. We can even accept that sometimes, refs simply didn’t see an infraction and it wasn’t cleanly captured on video. We understand that inherently, this is part of the game, and as such, is acceptable to a point.
We’re most assuredly past that point.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s VP of officiating, recently claimed to have reviewed the statistical rate of infractions compared to previous seasons, and he contends that NFL officiating is actually improving, as the numbers are in line or slightly below what we’ve become accustomed to. A day or so after reviewing this “evidence”, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell voiced his support for the refs, stating that they “have done an extraordinary job under very difficult circumstances.”
This is laughably transparent, as Blandino and Goodell both conveniently missed – or refuse to acknowledge – that while the rate of infractions may not have changed, the infractions themselves have, not to mention the game times in which such infractions are called. It’s clearly worse, and I’ve come to this conclusion without the benefit of a crack staff of researchers and number-crunchers, as have most of you.
I understand why Blandino would say this – he’s tasked with protecting his staff and their reputations, so he’s going to find the most easily-available evidence to support his assertions. It’s also not surprising that Goodell would ascribe to such nonsense. His concern is supposedly the reputation and (his words) the “integrity of the game”. Questioning the referees and their flawed determinations is implying that the Great Goodell has committed another egregious management error by allowing incompetent, part-time personnel the power to legislate activity between their whistles. He will not allow such assault of his already-besmirched resume, because that might force fans to view him (more) negatively.
And once again, as with all things Goodell, what recourse do we have? What’s our alternative? When does this, added to the ever-mounting pile of ineptitude that will serve as Goodell’s legacy, finally become the catalyst for change in the NFL’s highest management levels? It’s affecting the product on the field. When will the league offices actually listen to fans and their concerns instead of using the fans in name only to enact more useless changes? It’s not going to happen unless the threat of financial damage becomes a reality, and Goodell knows this, hence his support of Blandino and the refs. To institute a new system or overhaul the current one would cost money. Paying full-time officials would cost money. League money.
And that, folks, is for Goodell and his cronies, like Blandino, to enjoy.