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The NFL Officially has a Problem

Feb 7, 2006, 1:30 AM EST

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An Official Crisis?

The powers that be in the NFL are not happy.

The 24 hours after the Super Bowl have been not been dominated by talk of One for the Thumb, two of the longest plays in Super Bowl history, Jerome Bettis’ triumphant departure from the NFL, or even Big Ben posting the worst quarterback rating for a winning signal caller. Nobody’s even talking about the lame show that the ancient, washed up group formerly deserving of the title The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll put on at halftime.

No, the buzz is all about the officiating. That’s the absolute last thing that Tags and company want to be the talk of the town. And it’s not just the lunatic fringe on the message boards and call-in shows that are in an uproar over the zebras; the major newspapers and network TV have the story plastered all over the place as well. It’s enough to make Paul Tagliabue wish that there had been a wardrobe malfunction this year or wish that they had allowed the racier versions of the GoDaddy.com commercials to be shown, anything at all to take attention away from the guys in the striped shirts.

There were four calls that are drawing most of the attention today, calls that all went against Seattle and possibly cost them a net of some 18 points or more in a game that they lost by 11. Those four are the offensive pass interference on Darrell Jackson, the touchdown awarded to Roethlisberger just before halftime, the holding call on Seattle that called back a pass that went to the Steelers one, and the personal foul called on Matt Hasselbeck when he tackled the defender who had intercepted his pass.

They were all peculiar in their own way. The pass interference call was a late one, coming only after the Steeler defender turned and complained to the official, who had shown no inclination to throw a flag before that. The TD call on Big Ben’s run was also a delayed call. If the ball did indeed eke over the goal line as he was going down, why did the official not make the call immediately? Instead, he waited until Roethlisberger had pushed the ball over goal after he was clearly down. The holding call looked like nothing other than routine pass blocking and the cut block called on Hasselbeck was just a flat-out missed call.

This comes on top of a postseason filled with questionable calls, from a pass interference flag against New England to a reversal of an interception by the Steelers for which the league issued an apology.

The Redskins had more than their share of controversial calls in their games this year. In Denver, an apparent safety was overturned on replay under a questionable interpretation of the tuck rule. The call on Mike Alstott’s two-point conversion that represented the winning points during the regular season in Tampa Bay was just the last of several head-scratchers by the referee crew on that day.

The cumulative effect of all of this has been quite damaging to the NFL. An unscientific poll of members of the CPND Redskins Addiction Board here shows that a majority believes that NFL officials have performed with “alarming incompetence”. Anyone who is going to shell out money to attend an athletic event or invest the time to watch one on TV wants the outcome to be determined by the players, not by the officials. The more people perceive that the team that gets the calls is the one that wins, the less popular the game will be.

The worse news for Tagliabue is that people thinking that the referees are merely grossly incompetent is the better case scenario here. There are those who are calling the very integrity of the officials into question. Many of them are bitter Seahawk fans who probably will calm down and angry gamblers who gave the four. But not all of them are from the Pacific Northwest and not all of them are going to go back to watching football as usual.

I am not one to believe that there is any conspiracy to tilt the officiating towards one team or another. As a practical matter, there isn’t enough gain in having, say, the Steelers win to balance the risk of the incredible damage the league would suffer if word of any plot to fix a game were to get out.

That being said, I will say this. If a crew of officials, for whatever reason, was inclined to fix a game they would have made exactly the calls they made against the Seahawks on Sunday. The timing and impact of the calls could not have been better had there been a sinister plot to ensure that the Steelers would be crowned as champs.

Perception is reality, especially in a sports league. The NFL will only remain popular if people perceive that it’s on the up and up. The events of Super Bowl Sunday will no doubt harden the suspicions of the conspiracy theorists and push more people into the ranks of the cynics.

It’s enough to make Tagliabue long for the days of Janet Jackson and Desperate Housewives.

In the next installment here, this observer’s suggestions on how to fix some of the problems with the officiating.

Rich Tandler is the author of The Redskins From A to Z, Volume 1: The Games. This unique book chronicles every game the Redskins played from 1937 through 2001. It is available at www.RedskinsGames.com

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