After a tough loss, sometimes it’s necessary to calm the nerves with a slew of excuses. “If he hadn’t thrown on third down,” or “if he hadn’t slipped and fell,” or “if our coach knew what he was doing,” are all tried, and after enough repetition they can even start to feel genuine. But the most common excuse, one that is seen across the board in every sport, goes something like, “It was the refs’ fault.” This not only excuses the team from blame, it’s often legitimate. Referees make mistakes, and instant replays can prove that without much doubt. Most of the time, however, these mistakes are rather miniscule. A miscalled strike in the third inning probably isn’t going to be the game decider. An offside call at the 30-minute mark of a soccer game could change everything, but probably not. Mistakes need to be accepted as part of human fallibility; nobody is perfect.
But this year in the NFL, there’s room for genuine complaint. More and more frequently it seems that the referees are changing the rules on the fly, or failing to understand the basic principles of the game. What’s a catch? Ask any scarred Green Bay supporter, and they’ll tell you the terrors of the Fail Mary. That was years ago, but it’s a problem that seems to be growing rather than diminishing. Another high-profile catch by Golden Tate this year, a very dubious one, was the clincher that won the Lions their first game of the season against the Bears. The difference between a fumble, an incomplete pass and a completed pass seems to grow more and more uncertain with each passing year.
As well as not understanding what a catch is, mismanagement of the clock has been a nagging concern throughout the season. Particularly horrendous was the fiasco during the Patriots vs. Bills game two weeks ago. The Bills had the ball with less than a minute to go and no timeouts. The Patriots were up by one touchdown, so a game-tying drive was well within the realm of possibility. With two seconds left on the clock, Sammy Watkins made the catch at about the 50-yard line and lunged out of bounds. This stops the clock, giving the Bills time for a hail mary from midfield. Except it didn’t. The referees kept the clock running, for no valid reason. The game was over and the Patriots won. And this may not have even been the worst call of the game.
Earlier on, during a Patriots drive, Tom Brady launched a ball upfield to Danny Amendola, who made the catch and started streaking down an empty field, except he didn’t, because the referees had blown the whistle mid-throw, ending the play. Again, for no known reason. Earlier this season, against the Cardinals, the Steelers saw nearly a minute of game time drained away on their final drive when the referees failed to stop the clock. Although they won, it was a touchdown with three seconds left from Le’veon Bell in the wildcat that saw them eke out the win.
Decisions like this need to be punished by more than a reprimand or an acknowledgement by the league that they failed to properly implement the rules. The league needs to institute a more coherent understanding of every aspect of the decision making, and ensure all their employees fully comprehend these regulations as well. Last week, a poorly officiated match between the 49ers and the Cardinals led to the referees being demoted from their Monday Night Football game the next week, and instead were sent to officiate the Patriots vs. Eagles game this upcoming week. The NFL recognized their officials did a poor job. And their rebuke was not to suspend the refs, but to send them to a less conspicuous game. That’s in no way a solution to the problem.
Many Patriots fans, myself included, felt bitter after the loss to the Denver Broncos in Week 12. A frenzy of dubious calls in the last quarter of the game, almost exclusively against the Patriots, saw the Broncos take the lead, and ultimately win in overtime. Offensive pass interferences, holding, poorly officiated timeouts and uncalled facemasks were just a handful of the issues that kept the Broncos’ offense on the field. These kind of calls are a problem, but one that should be dealt with in a different fashion. These flags were not the referees misinterpreting rules or flat-out forgetting how to officiate, but rather calls that (probably) would have been retracted (or implemented) if they could see it again.
And that begs the question, why can’t they?
Penalty flags cannot be reviewed in the NFL, so the slow motion replay that the viewers are treated to is irrelevant to the call, correct or incorrect, that was made on the field. This is harmful to the basics of the game; perfectly orchestrated plays are called back, sometimes at crucial moments. Allowing coaches to challenge penalty flags in the same way they can challenge certain calls would largely negate this problem, and there’s no legitimate reason a system hasn’t been put into place yet.
The specifics of a review system, both in game and afterwards, need to be considered thoroughly. A hastily implemented system could prove just as bad as what’s going on now. But something needs to be done. It’s unfair to the players and to the fans to see teams defeated by incompetence, rather than skill. By refusing to change a clearly flawed system, the NFL is damaging the integrity of the game.