Questionable Calls, No Calls, and the No Fun League

I have been a fan of professional football for over 40 years, and, in my opinion, this past season has got to be one of the most disappointing and aggravating I can remember.  There were numerous officiating controversies during the regular season and the playoffs, followed by the lowest scoring and, possibly, the most dismal championship game ever.  Unless your team won the Super Bowl, like the Patriots, or exceeded expectations, like the Browns, Chiefs, or Colts, chances are you are left feeling frustrated, disillusioned, or just plain angry.  In short, it was not fun.

As I see it, the National Football League has two problems.  One is the question of fairness in applying its own rules.  The second is the possibility that corrupt officials, coaches, or players are influencing the outcome of games.

In regard to even-handed officiating of games, the NFL may be its own worst enemy.  Many of its rules are open to interpretation, including recent rule changes made in the name of safety.  Contact with a quarterback's head, neck, and legs has been restricted, and there is a rule that governs how a quarterback can be tackled.  Another rule, created in response to the long-term effects of violent collisions on the brain, restricts helmet-to-helmet contact during play.

Much like pass interference or holding, these rules are subjective and not equally enforced.  There are numerous examples where game officials have called penalties when there were none and missed others that were clear violations, including instances where players were fined for helmet-to-helmet contact not flagged by the officials.

There is also some controversy over officials calling penalties or not calling them depending on the player or team involved.  One instance occurred during the Chiefs-Patriots playoff game, when quarterback Tom Brady got a roughing call on a play where a defensive lineman hit him on the shoulder pad.  A similar thing happened to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but no call was made in that instance.  There is also suspicion, backed by some evidence, that the New England Patriots get a disproportionate number of penalties called in their favor.  Is this bias by the officials, or is it just good coaching?

This brings me to the infamous pass interference call that officials ignored near the end of the Saints-Rams playoff game.  If you have not seen a replay, you can watch different views of the hit on Saints receiver Tommy Lee Lewis by Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman here and here.  According to analysts, the referees could have thrown a flag for either pass interference or helmet-to-helmet contact.

This is such a flagrant foul, even when seen in real time, that it is hard to believe that it was ignored.  During a post-game interview, even Robey-Coleman, who was later fined by the NFL for helmet-to-helmet contact on the play, admitted that it was pass interference.  In fact, Al Riverton, the NFL's vice president of officiating, apologized to Saints coach Sean Payton, admitting that the referees had missed both fouls.

This leaves us with an admission that a foul occurred and that the officials missed it, a palliative whoops-our-bad from the NFL, and a lot of questions.  How does something like this happen at such a critical juncture of a championship football game, where the correct call would likely have changed the outcome?  What were the officials involved thinking?  Was there a good rationale for ignoring the infractions?    

If there is no good reason for these fouls to be ignored, what is left is the ground everyone, especially the NFL, fears to tread upon.  Was this a clumsy last-minute attempt to rig the game or manage the score?  To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once you eliminate the rational explanations, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Can the outcome or score of an NFL game be influenced?  The answer is yes.  If a team can get an opponent's game plan or real-time information on his play calls, they can take steps to counter them.  If a key team member, such as the starting quarterback, is deliberately injured during a game and unable to play, the opponent gets an advantage.  In addition, there is the possibility that corrupt players, coaches, or officials are acting to influence the outcome.

Has it happened before?  Witness the Spygate scandal, involving the Patriots in 2007, and the Bountygate scandal, involving the Saints in 2012.

Motives?  There are many, including money; pride; hate; vengeance; and winning, which comes with its own basket of goodies.

Most fans know that the NFL is big business.  In 2018, the league pulled in around $15 billion in revenue.  The profits will be split among the league's group of 32 rich, powerful, and competitive owners and managing partners, almost all of whom have a net worth north of $1 billion.  Every one of whom would love to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the Super Bowl.

There is big money tied to the broadcast of NFL games, too.  Regular season television advertising revenue from NFL games in 2018 was $3.71 billion.  It is worth noting of the four teams playing in the two divisional championship games this season, the two that won, Los Angeles and New England, were from the largest metropolitan areas.  Probably just a coincidence.

Throw in sports betting, and the amount of money surrounding pro football gets ridiculous.  According to Forbes, the American Gaming Association estimated $95 billion was wagered on college and professional football, and that was in 2015.  Betting on Super Bowl LIII is estimated to come in around $6 billion all by itself.  Would gambling interests try to influence a game here or there?

Opportunity?  How difficult would it be to rig an NFL game?  If you are a coach or a player, maybe not that tough.  Dropped passes, missed blocks, and bad play calls are common.  How about an obvious rule infraction, like knocking another player down after the whistle or tackling a receiver before the ball arrives?

What about the officials?  They manage the game and decide when to throw the penalty flags.  Just one offensive holding call at the wrong time can stop a scoring drive.  Defensive holding, illegal use of hands, or pass interference penalties can wear defenders out, keep offenses on the field, and put a team in position to score.  One or two bad calls a game might swing the score by a touchdown or two.

Fans have to believe that the league has no hidden agendas and the players, coaches, and officials are honest.  Otherwise, pro football falls apart.  I believe that the NFL understands this, but to keep that trust, those running the show have to take steps to clean up the officiating and make certain no internal or external forces are influencing the game.  If the rules are too complicated, simplify them.  If more officials are needed, hire them.  If rule changes are required to review penalty calls or no-calls, implement them.  If investigations are needed to root out corruption, conduct them.  The NFL owes it to me and millions of other fans, so all of us can have faith in the integrity of the game we love.

I have been a fan of professional football for over 40 years, and, in my opinion, this past season has got to be one of the most disappointing and aggravating I can remember.  There were numerous officiating controversies during the regular season and the playoffs, followed by the lowest scoring and, possibly, the most dismal championship game ever.  Unless your team won the Super Bowl, like the Patriots, or exceeded expectations, like the Browns, Chiefs, or Colts, chances are you are left feeling frustrated, disillusioned, or just plain angry.  In short, it was not fun.

As I see it, the National Football League has two problems.  One is the question of fairness in applying its own rules.  The second is the possibility that corrupt officials, coaches, or players are influencing the outcome of games.

In regard to even-handed officiating of games, the NFL may be its own worst enemy.  Many of its rules are open to interpretation, including recent rule changes made in the name of safety.  Contact with a quarterback's head, neck, and legs has been restricted, and there is a rule that governs how a quarterback can be tackled.  Another rule, created in response to the long-term effects of violent collisions on the brain, restricts helmet-to-helmet contact during play.

Much like pass interference or holding, these rules are subjective and not equally enforced.  There are numerous examples where game officials have called penalties when there were none and missed others that were clear violations, including instances where players were fined for helmet-to-helmet contact not flagged by the officials.

There is also some controversy over officials calling penalties or not calling them depending on the player or team involved.  One instance occurred during the Chiefs-Patriots playoff game, when quarterback Tom Brady got a roughing call on a play where a defensive lineman hit him on the shoulder pad.  A similar thing happened to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but no call was made in that instance.  There is also suspicion, backed by some evidence, that the New England Patriots get a disproportionate number of penalties called in their favor.  Is this bias by the officials, or is it just good coaching?

This brings me to the infamous pass interference call that officials ignored near the end of the Saints-Rams playoff game.  If you have not seen a replay, you can watch different views of the hit on Saints receiver Tommy Lee Lewis by Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman here and here.  According to analysts, the referees could have thrown a flag for either pass interference or helmet-to-helmet contact.

This is such a flagrant foul, even when seen in real time, that it is hard to believe that it was ignored.  During a post-game interview, even Robey-Coleman, who was later fined by the NFL for helmet-to-helmet contact on the play, admitted that it was pass interference.  In fact, Al Riverton, the NFL's vice president of officiating, apologized to Saints coach Sean Payton, admitting that the referees had missed both fouls.

This leaves us with an admission that a foul occurred and that the officials missed it, a palliative whoops-our-bad from the NFL, and a lot of questions.  How does something like this happen at such a critical juncture of a championship football game, where the correct call would likely have changed the outcome?  What were the officials involved thinking?  Was there a good rationale for ignoring the infractions?    

If there is no good reason for these fouls to be ignored, what is left is the ground everyone, especially the NFL, fears to tread upon.  Was this a clumsy last-minute attempt to rig the game or manage the score?  To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once you eliminate the rational explanations, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Can the outcome or score of an NFL game be influenced?  The answer is yes.  If a team can get an opponent's game plan or real-time information on his play calls, they can take steps to counter them.  If a key team member, such as the starting quarterback, is deliberately injured during a game and unable to play, the opponent gets an advantage.  In addition, there is the possibility that corrupt players, coaches, or officials are acting to influence the outcome.

Has it happened before?  Witness the Spygate scandal, involving the Patriots in 2007, and the Bountygate scandal, involving the Saints in 2012.

Motives?  There are many, including money; pride; hate; vengeance; and winning, which comes with its own basket of goodies.

Most fans know that the NFL is big business.  In 2018, the league pulled in around $15 billion in revenue.  The profits will be split among the league's group of 32 rich, powerful, and competitive owners and managing partners, almost all of whom have a net worth north of $1 billion.  Every one of whom would love to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the Super Bowl.

There is big money tied to the broadcast of NFL games, too.  Regular season television advertising revenue from NFL games in 2018 was $3.71 billion.  It is worth noting of the four teams playing in the two divisional championship games this season, the two that won, Los Angeles and New England, were from the largest metropolitan areas.  Probably just a coincidence.

Throw in sports betting, and the amount of money surrounding pro football gets ridiculous.  According to Forbes, the American Gaming Association estimated $95 billion was wagered on college and professional football, and that was in 2015.  Betting on Super Bowl LIII is estimated to come in around $6 billion all by itself.  Would gambling interests try to influence a game here or there?

Opportunity?  How difficult would it be to rig an NFL game?  If you are a coach or a player, maybe not that tough.  Dropped passes, missed blocks, and bad play calls are common.  How about an obvious rule infraction, like knocking another player down after the whistle or tackling a receiver before the ball arrives?

What about the officials?  They manage the game and decide when to throw the penalty flags.  Just one offensive holding call at the wrong time can stop a scoring drive.  Defensive holding, illegal use of hands, or pass interference penalties can wear defenders out, keep offenses on the field, and put a team in position to score.  One or two bad calls a game might swing the score by a touchdown or two.

Fans have to believe that the league has no hidden agendas and the players, coaches, and officials are honest.  Otherwise, pro football falls apart.  I believe that the NFL understands this, but to keep that trust, those running the show have to take steps to clean up the officiating and make certain no internal or external forces are influencing the game.  If the rules are too complicated, simplify them.  If more officials are needed, hire them.  If rule changes are required to review penalty calls or no-calls, implement them.  If investigations are needed to root out corruption, conduct them.  The NFL owes it to me and millions of other fans, so all of us can have faith in the integrity of the game we love.