Our Long National Nightmare Is Over – The NFL Referees Are Back.

According to some, it has been the closest thing to the Apocalypse since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The “regular” NFL referees were not on the field for the first three weeks of the season.

Call out the National Guard. This madness has to stop!

Luckily, (we guess) the NFL and the referees reached an agreement to span 8 years and the “real” referees were back on the field for Thursday’s Cleveland Browns at the Baltimore Ravens game.

There were a couple of problems with the replacement referees that were used for the first few weeks. First, they were not “crews.” Oh, they were a bunch of guys with the same funny looking striped shirts on, but a good “crew” is a team. Teams take some time to know the way each other thinks, reacts, etc. There are standards for where an official is supposed to be and what area they are supposed to watch, but as the game is so fluid, there are a lot of dual coverage areas. Knowing where your crew mates are looking, and where they are going to be is a trust issue and that takes time to develop.

The referees that were on the field never had the chance to develop that team work. How that translated on the field was the long conferences between the officials. Pundits, coaches, players and fans eviscerated the referees for conferencing forgetting they were conferencing to get the call right.

For all the people who always claim they want officials to “get the call right,” they only want the call “right” if it takes an amount of time they feel is appropriate.

Second problem was the speed of the game. The referees that were used were not from the FBS (formally Division I) ranks. These guys were from lower college divisions. There are a couple of reasons for this. When the strike became eminent. game assignors in the major college conferences sent out emails and letters informing conference referees they had a choice to either work the college conference or the NFL. They could not do both. These decrees were made for the purpose of supporting the NFL Referee union. Secondly if a FBS official wanted to work the NFL games, he would forever be branded as a “scab” by the referee’s union. He would literally have no future in the NFL at all.

There is a huge difference in the speed of the game and the players at non-FBS conferences and FBS conferences. There is also a leap from the FBS conferences and the NFL. Players are bigger, stronger and faster. The NFL was forced to use referees that were not used to the speed of the players within the game. But make no mistake about it, the NFL was boxed in because of the actions of the NCAA conferences supporting the NFL Referee’s union.

Game management was also an issue with the replacement referees. This came in two forms – meeting the contractual obligations to the television networks and dealing with the coaches and players. The first is difficult unless you have done it. Knowing when a network wants to take a commercial break comes from not only knowing the rules governing the breaks, but never having looking for or administrating the breaks as second nature. It became a mess.

The second part of game management – dealing with players and coaches – became problematic when the players and coaches started acting like spoiled brats who didn’t get their way. We don’t know this for a fact, but we guarantee the officials were told in the first week not to throw flags for unsportsmanlike conduct because the acceptable behavior in the NFL is different from that in colleges. That hamstrung the officials. Instead of being able to control and manage the game, the players were like students with a substitute teacher.

The only problem is that instead of supporting the replacement refs like schools and teachers support substitutes, the players and coaches were allowed to keep doing what they were doing. No one stood up for the replacement refs until it was too late.

By then, the narrative was set: the officials were incompetent.

People who had never stepped on an athletic field as a sport’s official were suddenly judging the officials despite not ever having set through a rule clinic.

Talking heads loved the controversy. It drove ratings. The same people who watched the games in bars were suddenly “experts” on NFL officiating.

The situation came to a head on Monday when the Seattle Seahawks came back to beat the Green Bay Packers on a last second “Hail Mary” pass from Russell Wilson to Golden Tate. (You can see the play here as the NFL site does not allow embedding video.)

The controversy on this play centers around two things, but we believe there is a third one as well.

There is pass interference on the play. Most people are upset about the push by Seattle receiver Golden Tate against Packer defensive back Sam Shields. It is a valid complaint and one acknowledged by the NFL.

However, before the push by Tate, there is another case of pass interference. Green Bay defensive back #24 Jarrett Bush crashes into and wipes out Seattle receiver #14 Charly Martin, knocking Martin to the ground.

It is two – not one – “missed” pass interference calls. The two calls would have offset and the down have been replayed.

What really has people going is the “simultaneous catch” which gave a touchdown to Seattle.

Here’s what the NFL said about the play and the rules covering the simultaneous catch:

A player (or players) jumping in the air has not legally gained possession of the ball until he satisfies the elements of a catch listed here.

Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL Rule Book defines a catch:

A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and

(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and

(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).

When a player (or players) is going to the ground in the attempt to catch a pass, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 states:

Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

There are a lot of elements here, but suffice it to say the following things are deciding factors:
1) It doesn’t matter how many hands M.D. Jennings had on the ball while in the air. This is because by rule, he could not be legally in possession of the ball until he returned to the ground on two feet or in this case, held onto the ball when his body hits the ground.
2) The ball in Jennings’ hands can be seen moving around. Even if one were to (erroneously) assume he had possession because his hands were on the ball, because he cannot make a “normal football action” with the ball, by rule he doesn’t have possession.

Jennings and Tate fight for the ball in the air and on the ground each trying to gain control of the ball until it is clear both of them have legal possession of the ball.

This is a simultaneous catch and the catch is awarded to the offense.

Touchdown Seattle.

The referees got the call on the actual catch right.

Instead of being congratulated on a very tough call they got correct, people that had never heard of a “simultaneous catch” are ripping them apart. Listening to the broadcast, you can hear the idea of a simultaneous catch never enters the mind of so called “experts” Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden.

It never crossed their mind.

Yet every official we have talked with said that was the first thing that crossed their minds. They watched the play in real time and thought “that looks like a simultaneous catch.”

On “Monday Night Football,” ESPN used former official Jerry Austin to say he thought the call should be an interception. What was left unsaid was Austin helped form the NFL Official’s union. Is it possible there could be a bias there?

Former NFL official Jerry Markbreit appeared on ESPN’s Mike and Mike Show to discuss the play. In the conversation, he says that he was the head of crews that were marked down for not calling the type of push by Golden Tate on Shields. His crew never stopped allowing that type of a push, but only they were marked down for it. (And by the way, Markbreit is a former head of the Referee’s Union and claimed the replacement refs were actually dishonoring the refereeing profession by working the NFL games.)

The point of this post is that while we understand that there are always going to be people that will criticize referees, let’s at least try and have some consistency in the complaints and no hypocrisy.

What do we mean by that?

The original “Hail Mary” play was a play from Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson against the Minnesota Vikings. The play is remembered as one of the seminal moments in the NFL. Only one problem – Pearson pushed Viking defensive Nate Wright to the ground in order to make the catch. Sound familiar?

Fans want the game to be “decided by the players” and then get upset when a call is made or not made. The final play of the Seattle / Green Bay game is a great example of “letting the players play,” and yet people are upset. It is mind numbingly hypocritical.

The hypocrisy from fans continues in Seattle in that during Super Bowl XL, the Seahawks Darrell Jackson caught a pass in the first quarter for a touchdown only to have the touchdown wiped off the board for an offensive pass interference call: Jackson had pushed off.

Seattle screamed long and loud about the call and others that day and later head coach Mike Holmgren outright accused the referees of cheating.

(Newsflash to Seattle and the NFL fans: none of those referees were replacement refs.)

We’ll even go back to the sad case of NFL referee Phil Luckett who on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1998, had the misfortune of applying a rule correctly, and eventually losing his career over it. You may remember the play. In overtime, of a game between Pittsburgh and Detroit, Luckett asked Steeler captain Jerome Bettis to “call it in the air.” Bettis said “head-tails.” Luckett, hearing “heads” first, ruled Bettis had called “heads.” The on field microphones only picked up Bettis saying “tails.” When the coin landed with “tails” to the sky, Bettis thought he had won the toss. People howled and screamed how Luckett had screwed up something as simple as a coin toss.

But he hadn’t. Later audio analysis showed Bettis had indeed said “‘ead tails.” Luckett was right and yet the so called “experts” in the stands claimed he had made the wrong call.

Anyway, the “real referees” are back in the NFL. The replacement referees had no real chance at success and while we accept that is part of the business, we just can’t wait for the first time a team says “that referee missed the call.”

The player will be joined by thousands of people sitting on their butts drinking a beer who, frankly, don’t have the guts to step onto a youth athletic field as an official much less a field with 100,000 people in the stands and millions on TV watching.

We too will say a referee missed a call. We said it during the lock out of the NFL referees. It is not that referees miss calls. What we can’t understand is how people won’t accept the guys on the fields are human. They are going to make mistakes. Just like a receiver will drop a ball, a running back will fumble or a quarterback will throw an interception, referees will make mistakes. They don’t do it on purpose. They don’t do it to cheat a team. They don’t make mistakes at that level because they are incompetent. Referees don’t care who wins or loses.

It is the fans, the coaches and the players who care and who throughout history have watched games with biased eyes and opinions. (There is a reason the word “fan” is short for “fanatic.”)

If we can’t see our own bias and accept that people will make mistakes, we are in deep trouble……

…..really deep trouble that goes beyond a game on a field.

One Response to “Our Long National Nightmare Is Over – The NFL Referees Are Back.”

  1. Ryan Walters says:

    Spoken like a man with understanding and experience in such matters. It’s always good to see the frame of reference of an individual with applicable knowledge, as everyone turns into an “expert in an armchair,” when these incidents take place. Now, if only we take, and run with the notion you cover in your last statements on this post. The notion that, one never knows until they have spent time filling those particular shoes. Again, well said, sir.