Surprise, officials make mistakes
The recent hullabaloo about officiating errors made during the NFL conference championship games highlights several of the current problems with the world of sports.
It used to be that when officials made mistakes nobody knew for sure.
There was seldom absolute video proof of mistakes, leaving some level of subjection to what actually happened.
Spectators at a game tend to be wildly biased, and will often see what they want to see.
Games which were televised had just a handful of cameras, which did a good job of showing play around the ball, but often failed to catch peripheral activities. Even the action where the ball was might only be covered from one angle, so when there was controversy the video was seldom conclusive.
Now with cameras showing the action from all angles nothing gets by armchair quarterbacks watching college or professional sports from the comfort of their recliners.
As a result, the outrage when a call is blown has never been higher.
The final outcome of both the New England Patriots versus the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams versus the New Orleans Saints both had late calls that were clearly mistakes.
In both cases, those mistakes had a direct impact on the outcome of the game.
The roughing the passer call, on Chiefs' defensive lineman Chris Jones, which led ultimately to a fourth quarter Patriots touchdown, was clearly not a foul. An official who had no line of sight to the play made the call based on what he thought he saw.
The penalty gave the Patriots a first down when they would have had to punt, and the extended drive ended up in a touchdown.
Lets face it, it was a terrible call.
The call that is really getting all the negative press, however, wasn't a call at all. Rather it was the helmet to helmet contact and pass interference (two serious penalties on the same play) that weren't called in the Rams-Saintsgame that has really gotten all the attention.
Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was fined an undisclosed amount for his hit on wide receiver TommyLee Lewis, but incredibly,two officials, each within five yards of the play, failed to make the call.
Had a penalty been called, the Rams would probably never have gotten the ball back, and the game would have never gone into overtime.
Making the situation worse is that, once in overtime, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw a pass that was ultimately intercepted that also appeared to be pass interference.
NFL rules experts have all said that league officials rarely call pass interference on plays where the quarterback is hit and the ball is thrown short.
That was the case on the play in question. What is perplexing is that defensive back John Johnson was holding receiver Michael Thomas prior to the pass being thrown and was still holding him when Thomas attempted to turn back to the ball.
The play may not have been pass interference — although it looked like it to me — but it was clearly at least defensive holding.
Either way, instead of the Rams getting the ball leading to their eventual victory, it should have been a Saints first down.
Fans of both the Chiefs and Saints are understandably upset about the officiating errors that they believe cost their teams an appearance in the Super Bowl.
Coaches and players are also upset. All this is natural.
There are several things that need to be kept in mind when looking at these mistakes, though.
First, they were far from the only mistakes that officials made in either game. If you go back and look at film, there were missed calls and penalties that probably shouldn't have been called against all four teams throughout the two games.
The calls that get all the attention were bad, but the reason they are under such a microscope is because of when they occurred.
Had the calls, or non-calls, occurred early in the game, people would still be talking, but there wouldn't be the same kind of outrage.
In fact, that's why the blown call in the New England-Kansas City game hasn't received as much press as the non-call in the Saints-Rams game.
It's hard to feel sorry for the Chiefs when they had a chance to stop the Patriots in overtime and allowed Brady to lead a drive through their defense that looked like a hot knife going through butter.
Play defense and they could have overcome the mistake.
With the Saints, it was a little different because the second no-call took away their opportunity to overcome the mistake.
I will admit, my initial reaction was that both the Saints and Chiefs were robbed. I have no doubts that both games and the officiating gaffs that occurred will be talked about for years to come.
I also believe that the wrong teams probably reached the Super Bowl.
And I guarantee that the officials feel terrible that they made mistakes that impacted the outcome of their respective games.
However, I believe the knee-jerk reactions around the country begging for official reviews of judgement calls for things like roughing the passer and pass interference are misguided.
If you look at football under a microscope, you can see uncalled penalties on virtually every play.
Do we really want games stopped during a late fourth quarter drive to micromanage the officials and hunt for calls that were either incorrect or that went uncalled?
Take holding for example. Something which looks legal at full speed may look very different in replay when viewed from multiple angles in slow motion.
Sure, review corrects some mistakes. However, the review system in place now is far from perfect. Making games longer while someone hunts for officiating mistakes will not only disrupt the pace of the game, but may actually lead to more egregious errors, or major delays.
Put yourself in the officials' position. What are you going to do when it is third and 10 with 30 seconds left in a game and the home team is driving for the go-ahead touchdown.
When a pass receiver is held up at the line of scrimmage, are you going to call a penalty? Are you going to call a penalty and hope it isn't reversed by an official upstairs, or are you going to swallow your whistle knowing that the play will be reviewed and they will eventually get the play "right?"
All that will happen is smart coaches and smart receivers will find a way to game the system.
Officials will be under even more of a microscope than they are now, and games will still have mistakes.
Remember, under review, rules calls may only be reversed if there is conclusive proof. That means that even with the best of technology, and even with the most vigilant review system imaginable, there are still going to be mistakes.
I have no clue why the officials chose not to make what seemed like a pair of obvious calls in the Rams' playoff win. And you bet that I would like to see the calls corrected, but sometimes mistakes happen and sometimes you have to live with them.
Such is the case here. There is no redress, and reviews won't fix it. Two teams are in the Super Bowl and two other teams will always believe that they were robbed. Such is the nature of sport.
Officials at the professional level make a good living for what they do, so if they take a little heat for their mistakes, it's just part of the job.
The same isn't true of high school officials. They aren't well paid, so bad sportsmanship is a problem.
As bad as sportsmanship sometimes is, it's nothing like when I was playing college basketball in the 70s.
At the time, cheerleaders even had cheers designed to heckle the officials, cheers that "playfully" suggested lynching refereees, or chants like "Nuts and bolts, nuts and bolts, we got screwed."
Compared to that era, things seem calm, but we still have a long ways to go when it comes to good sportsmanship.
Officials still take a lot of heat. So much so that young officials often quit after less than two years of officiating, citing crowd behavior as their No. 1 reason for quitting. On both the local and national level, we are seeing a serious shortage of qualified officials.
It's a problem that need to be addressed.
High school officials don't really make enough money to it to be worth the hassle. They officiate because they like the sport and are there to help facilitate a game. And yet they probably take more heat than professional officials do much of the time. Not because the fans are louder or more obnoxious, rather because with fewer fans yelling it's actually easier to hear what is said.
I have seen many officials apologize to coaches for blown or missed calls. When I was coaching, that acknowledgement meant a great deal.
The next time you go to a game, remember that the officials have a tough, and they are not the enemy. Without them there would be no game and they should be treated with dignity and respect even when they make mistakes. It's all part of the game.
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