The comments below Mike Florio’s post at ProFootballTalk point to a crisis that’s compromising the very integrity of America’s most popular spectator sport.
“I don’t know what it will take for commissioner Roger Goodell to care that officiating in the NFL is broken,” a frustrated fan wonders. “Ultimately, he is responsible for all of this, because simple fixes could have made the system more workable.”
Writes another: “The sad thing now is fans almost expect to see at least one horrendous call each game.”
“When is the NFL ever going to get this right?” somebody else asks. “The officials determine the outcome of too many games.”
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After two weeks, the story line of the 2012 season has been the struggle of the “replacement refs,” those clueless human punching bags hired during the lockout of the league’s incumbent officials. The idea of asking temps to enforce rules and maintain order on an NFL field was fraught with problems, many of which were exposed Monday night in Atlanta.
Calls were botched. Confusion begat chaos. Between the coaches who belittled them and the players who bullied them, the replacement refs resembled substitute teachers incapable of quelling a food fight in the cafeteria.
“The legitimacy of the league is at stake,” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King insisted on TV, speaking in the sort of grave tone associated with the scene of an immobile player strapped onto a gurney for an ambulance trip to the emergency room.
Which brings me back to those comments that followed Mike Florio’s post at ProFootballTalk. Florio’s readers weren’t referring to the officiating gaffes prevalent in the Falcons’ defeat of the Broncos on Monday night. They were referring to the apparent end-zone fumble that referee Bill Leavy ruled a Green Bay touchdown during last season’s playoff game between the Packers and Giants.
Although the dubious score didn’t prevent the eventual conference-champion Giants from advancing to the Super Bowl, it gave those critical of Leavy’s work reason to be, well, more critical of his work. After all, this was the same Bill Leavy who admitted, more than four years after the fact, that he “kicked two calls in the fourth quarter” of Super Bowl XL, better known to Seahawks fans as The Debacle in Detroit.
“I impacted the game, and as an official, you never want to do that,” Leavy told Seattle reporters last summer. “It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly.”
Despite the furor over the incompetence of the replacement refs, this much can be established: The NFL is 32 games into its 2012 schedule, and no controversial call, or controversial non-call, has changed the outcome of any of them.
I say this without having monitored all 32 games. But Peter King has monitored all 32, and when asked if he could identify one instance where a replacement ref’s ruling proved pivotal – as in, victory-versus-defeat pivotal – King’s answer was typically honest.
I consider King among the best football reporters in the business, but his contention that replacement refs are putting the NFL’s legitimacy at stake is nonsense. Thrust into an impossibly challenging situation – adjusting from high school and small-college games to the breakneck speed of the NFL – they’re batting 32-for-32.
Along the way, sure, mistakes have been made. A game clock that was supposed to be stopped last Sunday in Cincinnati was allowed to run for 29 seconds, the same afternoon a questionable offensive pass interference penalty denied Baltimore receiver Jacoby Jones a touchdown against the Eagles. To make matters worse, the replacement ref forgot to throw a flag. He merely gestured.
And then there are the Seahawks, who figured to benefit from the extra timeout the replacement refs granted them late in the season opener at Arizona. Hawks coach Pete Carroll was assured his team had one timeout left – wrong, because Doug Baldwin’s injury should have counted as the third timeout of the second half – but when talking about the mix-up afterward, it was evident Carroll understood the league’s timeout rules no better than the replacement refs.
Carroll’s unfamiliarity with timeout procedure recalls the more egregious mistake of former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who in 2007 asked for a timeout to ice Buffalo kicker Ryan Lindell before his attempt at a winning 51-yard field goal. With still another timeout in his pocket, Gibbs ordered another round of ice.
Oops. Calling two consecutive timeouts before a field-goal attempt is the stuff of a 15-yard penalty, and Lindell’s 51-yard kick became a much easier 36-yard kick, which Lindell converted. Gibbs didn’t know the rule, notable only because he was a 1996 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A Hall of Fame coach doesn’t know the rules after spending 34 seasons on NFL sidelines, and he’s exonerated. But a high school ref doesn’t know the rules, after taking a summer-school cram course in NFL officiating, and he’s vilified?
Lighten up on these guys. It’s a plea I want to make to coaches and players and fans and, especially, to those who second-guess the snap judgments of replacement refs from the press box and broadcasting booth. Thinking of you, Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden. The ESPN duo saw a game Monday night and described it as if the only mistakes were committed by an overwhelmed crew of replacement refs.
The Broncos didn’t lose on Monday night because of the officiating. They lost because the great quarterback – er, once-great quarterback – Peyton Manning, who was intercepted three times in the first quarter, can’t throw deep any more.
No crime; he’s only human. So are the replacement refs, who have yet to affect a game more tangibly than Bill Leavy did in Super Bowl XL.