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Friday, December 7, 2007

NFL's Paler Shade of White

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Professional football used to be a game where winners were decided by objective criteria. You take a hand-off or catch a pass, then advance the ball until you're downed. Move it beyond the span of chain measuring precisely 10 yards to the link, and you get another four downs. Your goal is a well-delineated broad white line beyond which, multi-colored grasses spell out your team name or that of your opponent. Tally the scores each time you cross it and the one with the most, wins.

There was very little latitude for interpretation. If it wasn't black, then it was white.

Watching the NFL today, it is clear this is no longer the case. Yes, we still keep scores and the team with the favorable delta gets to douse its coach with ice water. But now, it is a much fuzzier matter as to how far a runner advanced, whether a catch was made, a ball tucked, an arm moved forward. Players have gotten quicker and stronger; coaches more innovative at gaining every edge. The game has grown harder to objectively officiate.

In 1986, limited use of instant replay became every official's first weapon against player evolution. Two years later, a replay official was permanently added and life was good — for awhile. Replay officials dutifully made all requisite corrections. Celluloid evidence even assisted the New England Patriots in winning the 2001 Super Bowl, and brought less dramatic justice to every team.

Alas, it didn't take long for another slide. Referees began to subordinate their own faculties to technology. Their calls took on all the slop of a drunken tightrope walker who knows there's a safety net below. On-field rulings were reduced to SWAGs awaiting correction by digitized images. Then, in 2006, they started blowing even these calls when Pittsburgh Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu quashed an Indianapolis Colts' drive with an interception during their AFC divisional playoff game. Emerging from the replay booth, referee Pete Morelli ruled the pass incomplete despite visual evidence to the contrary. The fairest arbiter of them all had been corrupted by excess diagnosis, and on the grandest stage.

That ripple has become today's whitecap of uncertainty, both on the field and along the sidelines. During the Colts' Week 13 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, referees went behind the curtain three times in the game's first 26 plays. It's to the point where you can't recognize officials from the knees up. There's an implied mandate to scrutinize brought on by new-age technology and a fear of being wrong — or wronged.

As if the castrating effect of instant replay on the decisiveness of officials is not enough impairment to the objective determination of victor, we have the Bill Polian-era NFL now instituting uncertainty over matters exclusive of the review booth — namely, penalties.

Through the Indianapolis GM's vigilantism in neutralizing his biggest obstacle to a Super Bowl, the NFL's Competition Committee enacted more stringent rules on pass interference before the start of the 2004 season. Although the effect has been favorable to Polian's national treasure that is the cadre of Colts receivers, these rules have done nothing for the raw energy and spontaneity of the game, let alone its ability to distinguish between the better of two teams taking the field.

Week 13 featured no less than three contests involving the NFL's top teams — Dallas, Indianapolis, and New England — all directly decided by pass interference calls or its first cousin, defensive holding. Whether right or wrong, fans of each losing side — Green Bay, Jacksonville, and Baltimore, respectively — believe their team was deprived a win. This isn't how objective measurement is supposed to work.

What's worse, the replay-immune pass interference call is now being levied by popular vote. Whether a flag was merited when Miles Austin of the Cowboys and Tramon Williams of the Packers entangled their legs — Mike Pereira, Vice President of NFL Officiating, said they got it right — the several-second delay before throwing it as Texas Stadium reverberated in protest didn't help on credibility. It was akin to watching a "Dancing With the Stars" show, except that fans register their choice with catcalls rather than a 900 call. Pereira later explained on NFL Network's Official Review that the delay was due to the intervention of a sideline judge who apparently had a better angle on the play. In other words, Polian might be watching.

Back in Indy, a 28-25 victory over Jacksonville that virtually assured the home team of another AFC South division title was aided by a touchdown drive prolonged by a third down pass interference call on Jags' corner Rashean Mathis. There was no delay in making this call, but Jacksonville fans have to see Mathis as the latest in a line of defensive back victims of the fan-tom flags that seem to drop from the ceiling each time crowd noise — real or recorded — shakes the RCA Dome rafters.

In another Official Review segment, Pereira went on to defend the pivotal fourth-and-five holding called on Baltimore's Jamaine Winborne that gave New England a first-and-goal, ultimately resulting in Jabar Gaffney's winning touchdown catch with 44 seconds remaining. Those flags were admittedly thrown into the teeth of hostile objections from the partisan crowd, but Ravens linebacker Bart Scott's uncharacteristic tantrum spoke volumes on the growing anarchy in officiating even as teammate Chris McAlister's words prophesied its natural evolution.

"It's hard to go out there and play the Patriots and the refs at the same time," McAlister quipped to the Associated Press after the game. "They put the crown on top of them. They want them to win."

There was a day we as fans could simply laugh at a ref crew's incompetence, and christen them in quasi-derogatory names like zebras. But now, their motivation has come into question and with it, the integrity of the game.

Various remedies ranging from reviewable penalties to full-time refs have been proffered, but as of yet, no fix is imminent. Any genuine movement to determine Sunday's winners with more credibility than America determines the best dance pair has to begin with less intervention on the part of the Competition Committee. It is time to put football back in football.

Until that day, we must weather the newer, more subjective standards now employed in adjudicating the advancement of ball between goal line and goal line, broad and white as each thankfully remains.

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