There is a crisis of confidence in the NFL. It seems that in most NFL games, especially the recent slew of controversy-ridden playoff matchups, nobody — not commentators, coaches, or referees — really knows the rules. So here’s a refresher course for both NFL referees and armchair coaches as we head into conference championship weekend.
The one area where this lack of knowledge is most glaring concerns replay review. Nobody can seem to remember what types of plays can be reviewed. The category that proves to be most troublesome is when a ball-carrier loses the football and the play is ruled either as a fumble or a down by contact.
The rules are simple. A play ruled a fumble can be reviewed to see if the player was down, but a play blown dead by the officials and ruled down by contact cannot. Logically, this makes perfect sense. The ruling of a fumble can be overturned and the ball given back to the offensive team. However, it wouldn’t make sense to change a call from down by contact to a fumble. How would you know who would have recovered the ball had the whistle not blown?
As simple as the rule is, there are an inordinate number of mistakes. During last Saturday’s Steelers vs. Titans game, Antwaan Randle El was returning a punt and fumbled the football as he hit the ground. The Titans recovered the ball and returned it for a touchdown. However, the official had correctly ruled that Randle El was already down when he relinquished the ball. Meanwhile, CBS commentator Dick Enberg suggested that Titans coach Jeff Fischer should challenge the call.
After some time, Enberg realized that the play was not reviewable. Unfortunately, commentators and coaches have been making these mistakes throughout the season. The mistakes made by these men are only annoying. Isn’t it the job of on-field referees to correct the inaccurate appraisals of coaches and television personalities alike? Well, not in the last two weeks.
The trouble started in the wild-card playoff game between the Falcons and Packers. With the Pack already trailing 14-0, Atlanta’s Kevin McCadam pushed Green Bay’s Tyrone Williams into Williams’ own punt returner, Eric Metcalf.
The officials ruled that the ball had hit Williams and was therefore a fumble, which Atlanta recovered deep in Green Bay territory. Replays clearly illustrated that the ball had struck McCadam, not Williams. Had Green Bay coach Mike Sherman challenged, the Packers presumably would have kept the ball. However, Sherman did not challenge and the Falcons scored six plays later.
It is unclear why Sherman failed to challenge the play. Sherman claims that an official told him that the play could not be reviewed. The officials deny that any of them misinformed Sherman.
The end of the Giants vs. 49ers game was the scene of perhaps the greatest officiating gaffe of the last two weeks. With six seconds remaining in the game, Matt Bryant was set to attempt a game-winning field goal.
However, the snap was bad and holder Matt Allen bobbled the ball before picking it up and rolling out of the pocket. He attempted a long pass to Rich Seubert, who was dragged down by Chike Okeafor before the ball even got there. A flag was thrown, but only to penalize the Giants for having Tam Hopkins illegally downfield.
Nobody pointed out that Seubert was eligible. There should have been offsetting penalties for Hopkins’ infraction and the pass interference by Okeafor, which was somehow not called. Meanwhile, FOX commentator Chris Collinsworth was suggesting that Allen should have spiked the ball into the ground in order to give the Giants another field goal attempt. Somehow, he didn’t realize that if Allen did so, he would have been flagged for intentional grounding, ending the game.
Finally, there was the end of last week’s Steelers vs. Titans game. The Titans’ Joe Nedney missed an attempted game-winning field goal in overtime, only to get a second chance after Dewayne Washington was flagged for running into the kicker. The game will be remembered for this call, but the officials made another mistake.
The Steelers tried to call timeout to ice Nedney before his final kick. Replays make it obvious that the Steelers clearly called for the time-out before the snap. However, the officials ignored the call, which they should have been expecting. Steelers captain Jason Gildon claims that an official told him the Steelers were out of timeouts. The Steelers did have two timeouts left, a fact that was obvious to anyone who looked at the scoreboard. I have no idea how the officials blew this one.
The officiating over the last two weeks has been so disturbing because the key mistakes have centered not on judgment calls, but on ignorance of the rules. The officials are receiving their share of the blame, and many are suggesting that the NFL make officiating a full-time job. However, the officials are not the only incompetent party. The commentators make numerous errors, and none of them noticed the officiating mistakes in the Falcons vs. Packers or Giants vs. 49ers games. Meanwhile, I don’t think Mike Sherman or Giants coach Jim Fassel had a clue about the rules that contributed to the disastrous debacles that befell their teams.
Even the NFL is not safe from clerical errors. The league itself made an embarrassing blunder with regard to the upcoming draft. Originally, it had ruled that the Cowboys and Cardinals would have to flip for the fifth pick in the draft. However, because the Cardinals beat the Cowboys this year, the Cowboys should pick first.
The bottom line is that nobody knows the rules. I think that the officials, commentators, coaches and clearly members of the league office need to spend this offseason studying the rule book in order to prevent future disasters. The least they can do is ensure that blown calls do not overshadow what should be a great weekend of championship football.