The NFL has a problem on its hands. That problem was magnified on Sunday when a terrible call went against the Lions in a crucial moment in their playoff loss to the Cowboys. But that problem goes far beyond one play or one game.
The problem in the NFL is that too many officials are bad at their jobs, the rulebook is overly complex, and the league office stands by and does nothing about it.
In Sunday’s Lions-Cowboys game, a pass interference penalty was correctly called on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Referee Pete Morelli turned on his microphone and announced the penalty. And then he inexplicably picked up the flag, decided not to enforce it, and didn’t turn his microphone back on to explain why.
This was a terrible call, and it turned out to be a season-ending call for the Lions. Detroit, to be blunt, got screwed.
Let’s get all the conspiracy theories out of the way: No, I do not believe NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino fixed the game for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones just because Blandino was seen on Jones’s party bus. No, I do not believe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered the officials to make sure the Cowboys win because the Cowboys bring big TV ratings. No, I do not believe one of the officials is the NFL’s version of Tim Donaghy. No, I do not believe there was any type of conspiracy against the Lions.
What I believe went against the Lions is incompetence. And incompetent officials blow calls every week in the NFL. And the league office lets it happen, week after week after week.
Players get cut every week when they screw up. Coaches’ jobs are on the line every season. When was the last time a referee got fired for a pattern of bad calls?
This isn’t a call to fire Pete Morelli because this isn’t just about Pete Morelli. In fact, I don’t think Morelli is even close to the worst referee in the NFL. That honor belongs to Jeff Triplette, whose blown calls are so legion that I’d get depressed if I listed them all here. (It says something about Triplette that he once seriously injured a player by throwing a weighted-down penalty flag in his eye, and that wasn’t even close to his biggest blunder.) Triplette is so bad that when he blew a replay review last year, the NFL responded not by firing him but by changing the entire replay review system. Now all referees have to get on the phone with Blandino while they’re reviewing a replay to make sure they’re not screwing it up. Triplette can’t be trusted to get it right on his own.
Triplette keeps his job because NFL officials aren’t held to anywhere near the same high standards that NFL players and coaches are held to. That’s a big part of the NFL’s problem. The NFL needs to fire the officials who get the lowest scores on their evaluations, just as players and coaches lose their jobs when they’re at the bottom of the league. And the NFL needs to replace those fired officials with the best officials in college football, just as the best college players push veteran NFL players out of their jobs every year. That’s the way football works.
Rather, that’s the way it should work. In the NFL, it doesn’t work. In the NFL, officials are handled with kid gloves and coddled with perks like playoff assignments even if their work is below average in the regular season. What the NFL should do is assign the four best officiating crews to the playoffs and have them each work one wild-card game and one divisional game, then have the two best officiating crews work the conference championship games and the best officiating crew work the Super Bowl. Instead, the NFL allows 10 different officials at each position to work in the playoffs, and the league mixes and matches those officials so that they’re often working with fellow officials they’ve never worked with before.
There was obviously some kind of communication breakdown that led Morelli to wave off the flag on the crucial pass interference penalty against the Cowboys. Perhaps if these officials had worked together before Sunday, they would have been better able to communicate together and get the call right.
It should be noted, in defense of the officials, that the NFL puts them in a bad spot with an overly complex rulebook that is incredibly difficult to decipher, even for the professionals. And the NFL draws some odd distinctions about which kinds of plays are reviewable on replay and which plays aren’t. If Lions coach Jim Caldwell had been permitted to challenge the pass interference non-call on replay, perhaps Morelli would have gotten the call right.
Every year the NFL tweaks the rulebook and makes changes to the way the officials do their jobs, but if you’re hoping for real improvement, don’t hold your breath. The league office knows that Americans love their football so much that they’ll keep tuning in. Even when a game gets ruined by the refs.
Here are my thoughts on the four winners from wild card weekend, and their divisional-round matchups:
Ravens at Patriots
Baltimore has a knack for playing well in New England in the playoffs. The Ravens won the AFC Championship Game at New England two years ago, and a year before that the Ravens were a missed field goal away from forcing overtime in the AFC Championship Game at New England. Six years ago the Ravens blew out the Patriots in New England in the playoffs.
I believe the Ravens present a real threat to the Patriots this time around in large part because Baltimore is a complete team: On offense, defense and special teams, it’s hard to find a weakness in the Ravens. Even their injury-riddled secondary held up very well against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Saturday.
Can the Ravens play that well again in New England this week? I believe the Ravens will play well, but actually going to New England and beating the Patriots is going to be a tall order. The Ravens are going to have a tough time stopping Rob Gronkowski, and it’s easy to see why the Patriots are favored.
Panthers at Seahawks
The Panthers have won five straight games, by an average margin of 16 points a game. Yes, it’s true that they haven’t exactly played a murderer’s row of opponents -- they closed the regular season with the Saints, Buccaneers, Browns and Falcons before playing the Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals on Saturday -- but winning five in a row by 16 points a game isn’t easy against anyone in the NFL.
As for beating the Cardinals on Sunday, obviously, those were not the same Cardinals teams we saw earlier in the season when they were quarterbacked by Carson Palmer, and even when Palmer went down and was replaced by backup Drew Stanton. Lindley is a bad quarterback, and the Panthers took advantage of that. There are no Ryan Lindleys left in the playoffs, and so the Panthers won’t get that lucky again. Luke Kuechly, don’t expect to have another playoff quarterback throw a pass right to you the way Lindley did.
Still, even with Lindley at the helm the Cardinals managed to rack up 397 total yards a week earlier against the 49ers. The Panthers held the Cardinals to 78 yards on Sunday. Let’s give the Panthers defense plenty of credit.
And then, after we’ve given the Panthers credit, let’s acknowledge that it’s very unlikely they’ll beat the Seahawks. Seattle is the best team in the NFL right now, and it’s really, really hard to see them losing at home in January. The Seahawks are the team to beat in the NFL this postseason.
Cowboys at Packers
I love the way Tony Romo played against the stellar Lions defense on Sunday. That Detroit pass rush was devastating, getting to Romo all day, and Romo said after the game that the Lions were the best defense the Cowboys faced this year, by far.
And yet Romo hung in there and completed 19 of 31 passes for 293 yards, and two touchdowns. He was sensational.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys have to expect Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sensational in Green Bay on Sunday. And the Cowboys’ defense is going to struggle mightily both with Rodgers and with Packers running back Eddie Lacy. Beating the Lions at home was a struggle for the Cowboys. Beating the Packers in Green Bay will be a much bigger struggle.
Colts at Broncos
Andrew Luck had a good answer when asked about facing Peyton Manning in next weekend’s divisional game.
“We face the Broncos,” Luck said. “I’ve never been into the quarterback vs. quarterback thing. We’re not on the field at the same time.”
Prepare to get sick of the overplayed storyline of Manning against his old team and its new franchise quarterback this week, because you’re going to hear too much of that -- and not enough about the matchups that will actually determine that game, like Broncos cornerback Chris Harris against Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, or Colts offensive tackles Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz against Broncos pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
My own feeling is that at this point, Luck just might be a better quarterback than Manning, who began to show his age late in the regular season. But the difference in the Colts-Broncos battle won’t be at quarterback. The difference will be that the Broncos’ defense is a lot better than the Colts’ defense, which means Manning won’t have to do everything himself. That’s why this game will be so tough for Luck and Co.
What we’re left with, then, is four games in which the home team appears to have the advantage. Especially if they get a hometown referee.