Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 29, 2010

James Cook: Bad calls take away from NFL


---- — Three weeks in, and the NFL season thus far has been a giant disappointment.

The games have been good in general. But for each spectacular play, there seems to be a corresponding horrible officiating call that overshadows it.

The Calvin Johnson non-catch is one instance. But that's not as much an officiating blunder as just a horrific rule.

And this isn't just about just one game, although there are many you can point to. It's the whole body of work.

Replay limited

If coaches are limited in the number of times they can challenge a play, then why can they only challenge certain things? Why not allow them to challenge whatever they want? Since they only get a maximum of three challenges, it wouldn't add to the length of the game (like a string of needless holding and false start whistles do).

Detroit's Jim Schwartz could have challenged the erroneous holding call on Dominic Raiola that stalled the potential game-tying score.

Mike McCarthy could have challenged the blown Matt Forte fumble when the refs didn't see that he was not down by contact because he was laying on top of a Packers defender and had not touched the ground before the ball was ripped from his arms by Charles Woodson.

Baltimore's John Harbaugh could have had a roughing-the-passer call and a tripping call reversed. Both penalties allowed Cincinnati to score the winning touchdown and deny the Ravens a spot as one of the league's unbeatens.

Each of those are potential game-changing calls in close games.

All the while the bad calls are allowed to be made — and stand — commish Roger Goodell has no quarrel with calling out anyone else associated with the game and doling out fines and suspensions publicly. Yet nothing is done — at least that we know of — to referees such as Ed Hochuli who have repeatedly made blunders and wrongfully decided entire games.

It was Hoculi's crew who decided they could read Brett Favre's mind and determined that he intended to throw the ball forward, when it was obviously a backwards pass and should have been ruled a fumble. They also called pass interference on Detroit's Chris Houston on a play in which Vikings receiver Greg Lewis never knew the ball was coming his way and tried to run through Houston's press coverage. Houston had as much right to go after the ball as Lewis, and Houston got to the ball and picked it off, but it was called back (if nothing else, the pass was uncatchable for Lewis, because he wasn't even looking). A roughing-the-passer call where a Lions defender just grazed the helmet of Favre negated a fumble that was recovered by Detroit.

The list of questionable calls goes on and on, but the accountability doesn't.

Even Major League Baseball, run by a commissioner who avoids instant-replay talk like it was the plague, allows referees to speak for themselves after games, much like Jim Joyce did after his bad call cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

Yet NFL referees are silent, even if their calls are the focal points of the game.

Ruling class

Part of it is officiating, and a big chunk of some fans' frustration comes from the rules themselves.

With the rules on quarterback contact, QBs might as well wear a pink helmet and tutu. Even a finger grazing a quarterback's helmet is enough to overrule a Favre fumble. But what about the linemen who smack helmets on every play; where's the protection for them? None to be found.

The "completing the process" rule that robbed Johnson and Lions of a last-second win over the Bears is so ridiculous and confusing that many officials don't understand it, let alone the players.

All the while, the rules have done nothing but restrict defenses and make it harder and harder for defensive backs to cover receivers. Pass interference calls have become a crutch for refs who don't want to deal with whiny receivers and can often be game-changers. No wonder receiver has become the NFL's diva position; they are coddled almost as much as quarterbacks.

False start penalties have become too common and a big waste of time, even at the slightest "flinching" that is often not much more than heavy breathing by a 300-pound guy who has been lugging around another 300-pound guy all game. False starts need to be limited to more blatant infractions that actually draw a defender off-sides.

When zebras attack

And then there's this interesting trend: In the NFL's prime time games this season, 57.3% of the penalties go against the road team. Of course, the 18-5 disparity in the Green Bay-Chicago game is part of that, but it's still worth noting.

If you watched this week's Monday Night Football game, you probably noticed the Bears got called for three early penalties and then only two the rest of the way. Meanwhile, visiting Green Bay was whistled 18 times — 10 more than the Packers' total for the first two games combined. The Bears were handed 64 yards in penalties in the game's final seven minutes, committing one of their own for 10.

Yes, most of Green Bay's were indeed penalties, but if you saw the game, you know many Chicago penalties were simply ignored (such as some blatant holding of Clay Matthews).

There's not likely any dark conspiracy here. But referees are supposed to be impartial. And swallowing the whistle to appease the home crowd is definitely not impartial, but there's enough of a history of the hosts getting the majority of the calls late in a close game — remember the Lions getting jobbed out of the last-second game-winning touchdown in Tampa Bay a few years ago? — that Goodell should address it.

Goodell, before you expand to an 18-game season in order to make more money, make sure the 16-game variety is well-officiated to make some disgruntled fans happy.