NFL Officiating: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

Watching and listening to Jon Gruden alleging that he had just witnessed the worst job of NFL officiating he had ever seen is truly ironic.  Either Mr. Gruden is suffering from a massive and unexpected attack of diplomacy or due to the the shock of the game, he is suffering from amnesia.   In 2003, in the famous comeback victory by the Indianapolis Colts, despite Gruden’s almost psychotic refusal to run the ball in the fourth quarter with a four touchdown lead, his team had the game won.  Enter Paul Tagliabue and his phony cast of officials - paid by the Commissioner’s office to fix games.  Under the watchful eye of the saintly “Commish,” officials conveniently forgot that a return man can call a “fair catch” on a pooched kick that fails to touch the ground. The Commissioner’s excuse: “They didn’t know the rule.”

Not long after, on a missed kick, the same officials didn’t know that on a block attempt, the call of a “catapulting” infraction depends on where the defender starts his jump, not where he lands.  In other words he must catapult off of another player, not land on him after he jumps straight up in the air.  Remember that game, Jon, the one you couldn’t really comment on without being fined and maybe blackballed from the league?

Oh, and why not look up Ol’ Joe “I Can't Tell a Lie” Theismann.  Ask him about the game that he broadcast in early 2002 in which Tagliabue and his paid goons had to admit to eighteen mistakes out of the twenty-some erroneous calls they managed to get away with.  One included the Packers wide receiver’s blatant tackle of the Minnesota defender in an effort to avoid an interception on a pass that was ten yards short.  It also included purposely calling a blatant holding penalty on an important kickoff return (a clear “tackle” on a block) an illegal hit in the back just so the flag could be picked up because “he really didn’t hit him in the back.”  Dan Dierdorf’s initial comment was: “ this is a no brainer, a holding penalty.”  Theismann’s reply: “Theres no such thing as a no brainer in the NFL.”  Thirty seconds later the call was changed.  Apparently Tagliabue believed Brett Favre when he threatened that the 2002 season would be his last and he would do all he could to get the “Living Legend” into the playoffs.

As much as I really like stand up guys, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer, they’re seriously exaggerating about “all those years” in which the NFL built its sterling reputation for top notch officiating.  While Commissioner Rozelle permitted fixing of games mainly for one team, Oakland, Tagliabue seemed to fix any game he determined crucial to the NFL’s ultimate success.  Similar to David Stern “instructing” referees to officiate “selectively” in different games “for the good of the game,”  Tagliabue’s officials somehow seemed to favor the most popular and therefore the most watched teams.  In fact, after the Packers were helped to a bogus victory over the Bills, they were totally forgotten by their loyal Commissioner as they were virtually slaughtered by their next two opponents.

With the Packers out of the picture, Tagliabue turned to the next most popular team on the totem pole.  To his utter dismay, despite two totally bogus holding calls against New York, negating their first two touchdowns, the Giants won as the Eagles missed a short “can't miss” field goal.  To their great embarrassment, despite the broadcasters trying to overlook the bogus calls, offended cameramen repeatedly showed how the “offending lineman,” each time, was alone, some ten yards away  from any other player.  The next week, my own Cinderella team, the Bucs, suddenly became the new darling of the Commissioner and, coincidentally, I believe, the NFL’s new “most watched” team.

What is really strange, is that the only time the NFL has actually seemed to have “ the officiating that we have all come to respect” is when the current Commissioner, Roger Goodell declared that he would make officials accountable for their performances.  Ever since then, the officiating has steadily improved and even in less than perfectly officiated games, noone seemed to feel that the games were “fixed.”  The real irony lies in the fact that with the inadequate “replacement” officiating, everyone can complain now about “phenomenally incompetent” calls without the Commissioner’s office coming down on them.  For the first time in recent NFL history these “unbelievable” calls are “believable” because they are due to relative, but actual incompetence endorsed by the owners rather than at the behest of a dishonest Commissioner.  Even more ironic is the real reason that tonight’s game changing call was botched.  It actually had little to do with the admitted incompetence of the “Replacement Refs.”

Ultimately, the call was blown due to Commissioner Tagliabue’s brilliant manipulation of the “Replay” rules.  The Review Process was not allowed to overrule an obviously blown call.  Apparently it could determine only if the player credited with the catch had not dropped it to the ground.  This and many other disappointing restrictions, of course, afforded poor Roger Goodell's predecessor the never ending ability to force officials to make bogus calls for which he would later apologize.   Along with each apology there would always be an explanation that the call could not be overturned under the carefully designed deficiencies in the Review Process.  Preying on the average fan’s impatience with the extended duration of games, it was always easy to pretend that including more “reviewable” options would simply “take too long.” 

Since Mr. Goodel does not seem to have any proclivity for “fixing” games, perhaps it is time to include the necessary options in the Review Process, thereby actually protecting the officials’ integrity and that of the NFL.  Isn’t it time to end the nonsense, Jerry and the rest of the greediest  owners?  I think you guys can find a better way to pick up a few extra bucks if you’re that hard up.

Ain’t Life in the NFL a hoot?

Al Finkelstein 9/21/12