I lost count how many times the call on the field was reversed after review in yesterday’s New Orleans v. Kansas City game.  But each time the call was questioned on review, it was ultimately rendered correctly. 

For all you Saints fans, yes, Drew Brees was down in the endzone, even though no part of his body had actually touched the turf.  He was “in the grasp” of a massive Kansas City defensive lineman who had rolled Brees over on top of him.  The NFL has a special rule for quarterbacks that provides they are down before they actually hit the turf if they are “in the grasp”, and Brees clearly was.  Actually, it was more like a bear hug than a grasp.  The rule is intended to protect quarterbacks from the injuries that accrue to running backs and the like who get pummeled by follow-on hits on their way down.   Being down in the endzone for a safety when in a defender’s grasp is part of the price quarterbacks pay for enjoying the special treatment the NFL affords quarterbacks, part and parcel of the NFL’s relentless tweaking of its rules to protect its most valuable ratings commodity.  The next time Brees should get rid of the ball quicker, or stay out of his own endzone. 

I didn’t much like the call when the Kansas City receiver went down without being hit, and fumbled the ball after hyperextending his elbow on the way to the turf.  It’s a judgment call, but a player with the ball who goes down voluntarily to end the play can be considered down, and the receiver obviously gave up on the play after injuring his elbow, but before fumbling the ball.  At least the refs didn’t award the Saints a touchdown, and instead gave them possession at the spot of the fumble.  It was a compromise call, but sometimes a compromise is the best can be hoped for. 

In the Sunday Night Game, the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots were pushing and shoving each other around after what seemed like every single play.  While the referees would jump into the melees to break them up, they threw only one or two flags for personal fouls.  While it is genuinely silly to be much concerned that an extracurricular fight breaks out in a game that is itself is tantamount to a fight, the rules provide that fighting/playing must cease on the whistle.  They often didn’t cease on the whistle last night, so much so that Chris Collinsworth, the color announcer, was worried the game might get out of hand.   I wonder, what would it look like for a football game to get out of hand?  A bunch of guys swinging fists at each other’s helmet-cladded heads?  No swung fist could even remotely approach the violence that accrues when two helmets collide at full speed.   Swinging fists might result in a few broken hands, but not much else, so long as the helmets stay on.  I say, if football players are that stupid, then just let ‘em fight.  Hockey practically promotes fighting, allowing the players to drop their gloves and square off against each other, and hockey is not, like football, a sport intended to mimic hand to hand combat. 

I remember in high school when I was on the scout team offense (during practice, we’d run the plays of the upcoming opponent’s offense to prepare our first team defense for what they would face) as a sophomore and I was tasked with blocking our all-state inside linebacker, the nephew of a famous All-American at Alabama.  I’d go out and block him like anyone who is five foot nine and about 150 lbs would block someone who is six-two and 195—I’d go low and try to cut his legs out from under him.  He was a prima donna by then who didn’t take kindly to my technique, and would get up fighting mad the few times I pulled it off successfully, thinking, I suppose, that I was trying to ruin his career or something (but every offensive linemen he would face on opposing teams would be trying to do exactly the same thing).  Though a great athlete, he was stupid, and would start swinging his fists at my helmet.  I’d just laugh.  Did he really think his fists could do something more to me than his knees or calves or feet that I had just intentionally smashed my helmeted head into had done? 

Otherwise, the Patriots/Ravens game was officiated pretty much like any other of the other replacement games.  The referees got a few calls wrong, but instant replay was, like in KC/NO, generously deployed to fix them.   With instant replay, there really is much less leeway for getting a call wrong.  The one call that mattered the most, however, was not reviewable.  Even after looking at the replay several times, it was still hard to tell from the camera angle whether the last-second field goal by the Ravens had crossed the plane of the goal inside of the right goalpost’s imaginary extension skyward, or had passed over the top of it.  The only person with a birds-eye view was the referee standing directly underneath the goalpost, and he signaled that it was good.  Presumably he knew that the goalposts are imagined to extend straight up into the heavens, so would have called a miss had the ball sailed over the top of the goalpost as it passed the crossbar.    

At least the NFL does a better job than FIFA soccer, whose referees often can’t even tell when a goal is scored, yet absolutely refuse to use instant replay to clear things up, and don’t bother to post a referee near enough to the goal to ensure the call is correct.  And forget baseball.  Umpires almost never get the strike zone correct.  If technology were applied to ensure a called strike really had passed through the strike zone over the plate, baseball scores would look more like the game scores in a volleyball match, as legions of runners would simply walk to get on base.   Of all the professional leagues, I think the NBA does its officiating best.  Of course, their definition of traveling and charging change depending on the star power of the player in question, but at least they can review questionable calls in the final minutes about who last touched a ball, or whether a foot was on or behind the three-point line. 

Though instant replay couldn’t have helped New England coach Bill Belichick as he rushed and grabbed an official after the game to argue the field goal (for which he will undoubtedly pay a stiff fine), the first three weeks of the season have shown how instant replay is rapidly making officiating irrelevant, while paradoxically also revealing how utterly dependent on the referees the game has become.  Instant replay can clear up most bad calls—the called touchdown that obviously wasn’t during overtime in the KC/NO game, for instance.   But it can’t do for the NFL what it has increasingly asked its referees to do—to police every aspect of the game so that it achieves its goal of keeping the restless crowds entertained with high-scoring, pass-happy football.  Eliminate the obvious judgment calls—the most egregious of which has to be the beyond-five-yard- no contact rule for receivers—and the referees will play an almost invisible role in the game, which is how things should be.   In fact, the calls that any official, replacement or otherwise, is likely to get wrong most often resolve to those that the NFL has provided to allow an advantage for offenses, particularly the quarterbacks and receivers.   Turn quarterbacks and receivers back into football players, and the game would be far less dependent on the referees becoming something of a benighted judiciary, with the fans, coaches and players becoming erstwhile attorneys before the court.   And then it won’t matter who does the officiating.  If a possession or scoring call is wrong, instant replay can, not so instantly, but usually quickly enough, clear things up.

Football is a game of simulated hand to hand combat.  As both the Marine Corps and Army well know, every soldier or Marine is first, last and always an infantryman.  Even Army and Marine doctors and nurses get trained in the rudiments of infantry combat.   Likewise, every player who steps on a football field should be treated like a football player, no matter the position.  If a quarterback throws an interception, then it shouldn’t be illegal to block him to the ground on the return.  The kickers shouldn’t be allowed to kick without fear of getting hit.  The receivers shouldn’t be treated like ballerinas, too delicate to touch until the ball is safely in their hands. The whole point of football is hitting.  If the hits are too bone-crushing, it’s mainly an equipment problem.  Helmets that are intended to shield the wearer’s head are instead being deployed as battering rams.  Tinker with the equipment, pad the outside of the helmet perhaps, but leave the rules alone.   NFL football is an intentionally brutal game, no matter how many pink shoes and gloves its players wear next month in its inevitable homage to women’s breasts.  Don’t try to make it otherwise.  I understand that women are winning the battle between the sexes, but can’t there be something that they leave guys alone to enjoy?  (Of course the answer is no.   Women are only happy when they know their men are miserable.  If it were solely up to women, men would be required to undergo castration before being allowed to watch football, with the women knowing full well that doing so would eliminate their desire to watch the game.)  I plead with the NFL–don’t allow the women to take over football.  It’s all we gots left. 

In the meantime, I don’t mind the replacement referees at all.  I think they are doing a fine job, calling fewer judgment-type fouls, particularly that five yard receiver rule, and allowing the boys to play.  They get plenty of close calls wrong on whether a player is in or out of bounds, or is down, or has fumbled, but those calls are easy to clear up with instant replay (and the regular guys get them wrong almost as often).  The rest of what the NFL expects of its referees is mostly garbage anyway. 

I like defense.  (What a great defensive victory the Arizona Cardinals enjoyed over the Philadelphia Eagles and its high-powered offense yesterday).  I like to see quarterbacks paying a bit higher price for the glory than occasionally suffering a sack in the endzone because they’re wrapped snugly in a defender’s grasp.  For a brief three weeks, it has seemed like the return of the good old days of football, where defense actually mattered, but with instant replay around the edges.  In four of the games in this third week, the losing team’s offense scored in the single digits.  Is that really so bad?