RANT: NFL Officiating

Is it just me, or did the NFL games this past weekend showcase the worst officiating in the history of the league?

As you probably know, I am a diehard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. As such, I was over the moon when Troy Polamalu picked off a Peyton Manning pass with 5:26 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game. The game was all but over – the Steelers were going to the AFC Championship! But then the Colts challenged the interception ruling. Hell, I can’t say that I blame them – were I Tony Dungy, I’d have done the same thing. Referee Pete Morelli trotted over to the replay booth and watched the replays for what seemed like a half-hour before coming back out onto the field and stunning everyone in the RCA Dome, the television audience and even the space aliens that will some day pick up the broadcast on their home planet. The call was reversed: incomplete pass.

The Steelers sideline couldn’t believe it. The announcers couldn’t believe it. The guys on the post-game show couldn’t believe it. A Google News search for the name “Pete Morelli” lists thousands of articles from sports writers that couldn’t believe it, either. As luck would have it, the Steelers were able to hang on to win in what was one of the most amazing 4th quarters in playoff history. But the stink over that botched interception was so bad that the NFL – in a very rare public rebuke of an official – came out this week and said that the call should not have been reversed and that the Steelers should have had the ball.

But that’s not the only interception that mattered this past weekend. The Carolina Panthers sealed their victory over the Chicago Bears by picking off a Rex Grossman pass with only a couple of minutes left in the game. The only problem was that the play clock had expired for at least two seconds before Grossman took the snap. The play should therefore have never happened. The referees should have thrown a flag and called Chicago for delay of game. The fact that not a single referee was watching the play clock makes you wonder… but it also explains why the refs credited Chicago running back Adrian Peterson with a touchdown, even though replays obviously and unambiguously showed that the runner didn’t come within a freakin’ yard of the end zone. Let me repeat this – the replay showed Peterson going down and extending his arm. When Peterson hit the ground, the ball was at least two feet away from the end zone. And they called it a touchdown. This wasn’t some complex call, folks. It wasn’t a case of “did his knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane?” The ball never got there.

But wait – there’s more! Denver CB Champ Bailey picked off a Tom Brady pass in their game and ran it back for a near-touchdown. Officials ruled Bailey out at the 1 yard line, even though replay clearly shows that New England’s Ben Watson knocked the ball out of Bailey’s hands and out the back of the end zone. What should have been a touchback in New England’s favor resulted in six points to Denver a couple of plays later. Then there’s the catch that Chicago’s Justin Cage never made. Or the pass interference that New England’s Asante Samuel was called for but wasn’t guilty of.

And all this without even mentioning the inexplicable. It’s the 4th quarter of the Steelers-Colts game… Indy has just completed a long touchdown pass to Dallas Clark to bring the score to 21-10. The Steelers have the ball. It’s third down. Big Ben begins the snap count… and suddenly a wave of Indy defenders crash into the Steelers line before the snap. The officials decided to stop the play but didn’t throw a flag! Replays showed that Steelers guard Alan Faneca did move every so slightly – so slightly in fact, that you needed to watch the replay a couple of times just to see it. But apparently “do-overs” exist in referee Pete Morelli’s world! WHAT THE HELL? Look, I’m a Steelers fan. I looked at the play and saw encroachment on the defense. I’m sure Indy fans looked at the play and saw a false start on the Steelers. But come on, man – you can’t stop a play and not call a penalty on someone, people!

Of course I’m happy. My team won. But come on, people. The referees absolutely, positively sucked this weekend. Pete Morelli should be glad to be a football referee in North America, because had he bungled a call similar to the Polamalu interception in South America, the fans there would have burnt his house to the ground and tarred and feathered his family. As it is, Morelli can now take that vacation in early February that his wife’s been nagging him about.

In closing, I want to say this: it’s all well and good to complain about the officiating in the NFL. But what should the league do about it? In my humble opinion, they could do two things:

1) Make referees full-time employees. The NFL is far and away the richest sports league in America. The NBA and the NHL combined aren’t worth as much as the NFL. Take some of that fat cash and make referees full-time employees. Sure, it’ll cost money. It might even seem foolish, given that these folks would work less than 20 weekends a year. But a professional core of referees that spend their downtime reviewing game film and studying the game can only make the calls better, not worse.

2) Move replay upstairs. A referee – even a good one – has a million things to deal with during a game. Hostile players. Intimidating home crowds. Since the NFL so wisely decided to place the goofy replay booth in a tent on the sidelines, referees are subject not only to catcalls, but to potentional showers of beer and soda if the home crowd doesn’t like them. For once, college has done something right the first time – hire a crew of “replay officials” whose only job is to review plays. This not only takes pressure off the referees, it should make for better rulings.

After Sunday’s game, the Steelers’ Joey Porter made what some consider to be a controversial statement: “I know they wanted Indy to win this game. The whole world loves Peyton Manning, but come on, man, don’t take the game away from us. That play right there, they tried to take the game away from us.” Given that part of the NFL’s huge popularity comes from the insane amounts of money bet on the games each week, the NFL needs to stop anyone from having this perception. And stop it now.

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