Got an interesting email from Al Fama, an Eagles fan unfortunately stuck in Ohio. It's tough living in those places where there's more than one team in your area, because then the local stations have all these weird rules about "primary" markets and "secondary" markets, which really boils down to the fact that you're going to end up getting a crappy local game on Fox and a crappy local game on CBS, rather than just one lousy game a week.
So, Al, I hope you have DirecTV. (Although not for their laughably decaying customer service, but that's another story.)
Anyway, here's his question:
How do you feel about the NFL officiating in recent years?
I heard an ESPN blogger interviewed about the NBA referee scandal and he mentioned that it was more of a question of 'When something like this was going to happen?' instead of 'How could something like this have happened?'
He then went onto elaborate that the NBA refereeing has progressively gotten worse over the years, and that many of the 'good' referees were retiring and they were not being replaced by the same quality.
This got me thinking about the NFL. I can distinctly remember saying, 'This has got to be the worse refereeing I've seen...' for two years straight. Now each time I've made these statements I was watching an Eagles game and I tend to yell at the TV and make rash statements, but I watch football with my wife who is very knowledgeable about the game, and she keeps me honest. During these times she has greed with me.
First of all, you're a lucky guy, Al. When I start screaming at the TV my wife is far more likely to hop up and say, "Well, guess it's time for me to take the dog for a walk."
In regards to your question, I think it's unquestionably true that the NBA has the worst officiating of any major sport not involving Italian soccer teams. Yes, basketball is the toughest sport to officiate, but in recent years that's just become an excuse. It's what the league says when people complain: "Hey look, these guys are really big and fast, what can we do?"
The core problem for basketball is that the game diverged from the rulebook many years ago and now there's nothing left but gray area. In basketball, any physical contact that is initiated by a player and results in an advantage is supposed to be a foul. (In football that's called "blocking.") If you watch old games from the 50s, you'll see a sport that looks nothing like the current game. Players avoided each other and if they bumped, it was a foul.
What that means is that practically every single player interaction on the floor is a judgment call. And for way too long, the NBA hasn't cared a whit about the consistency of those judgments.
Unfortunately, the league is now in a really bad position. Remember the number one complaint about the 2006 playoffs? It was all about offensive players -- particularly Dwyane Wade -- initiating contact as they drove to the basket, bowling defenders out of the way and frequently getting calls in their favor on top of it.
But then what was the number one officiating complaint in the 2007 playoffs (other than overall crappiness)? It was the incessant flopping (or drawing of legitimate charges) by defenders, who waited until the last possible second to slide under an approaching offensive player before flying backwards like they'd been shot.
Now you're stuck. If you want to crack down on flopping, you have to give the offensive players more leeway. But then you're going to be giving Lebron, Dwyane, Paul Pierce and all those guys even greater opportunity to turn basketball into football as they go barreling down the lane looking for contact.
What's the solution? Well, it's going to be painful. If the league is going to fix the contact situation, it's going to have to crack down on the running back swingmen in the league. In the short-term, that's going to lead to FlopFest 2008. It won't be pretty for a few months. But then the players will adjust and stop jumping into each other, and once that happens things will get back to normal, and then the League can pass the Varejao Rule (tm) that allows refs (or the league office) to provide stiffer punishments for guys who incessantly Horry their way to calls.
So that's the NBA. In comparison, the NFL looks fine, although I absolutely think the officiating has gotten worse in the past few seasons for a few reasons:
- Instant replay. Because some calls are challenge-able and some are not, and some might look bad if they were a bit off, the refs are no longer as decisive as they once were. You can almost see the gears turning during one of their little post-play huddles as they all noodle which call would -- if wrong -- be most easily overturned. They also take forever to blow their whistles at the end of plays just in case the ball squirts out.
- Stupid rules. The illegal contact in the secondary rule is way too strict. The refs call it correctly -- it's not their fault that it was "reemphasized" -- but the balance is off. The same thing is true with contact to the quarterback. They're football players, not ballerinas. Patting one of them on the head shouldn't result in a 15-yard penalty, especially when you maimed the guy in front of you to get to him.
- New League directives. Look, you don't get this kind of rapid and sudden change in enforcement without the League doing something to make it happen. The League absolutely told refs to be more lenient with holding calls, and we saw the results on the field. There were any number of occasions last season when pass rushers were deterred in their efforts to get to the quarterback by methods that would not have been remotely legal in previous years.
The real problem with that last bit is that players quickly adapt to these sorts of changes. If you're an offensive lineman who can get away with a little bit more holding, you're not going to last unless you start doing a little bit more holding. It will be up to the League this year to make sure this doesn't continue to spiral downhill.
With that said, I still think the NFL refs are the best in the business. The League has very stringent evaluation procedures and because there are so many zebras on the field at one time, someone usually has a pretty good look at the play.
And while instant replay has made the officiating somewhat worse overall -- I believe -- it has unquestionably fixed the problem of serious, game-changing mistakes being made without any recourse. One fixed spot during the two-minute warning of a close game is a lot more important than some hesitant whistle-blowing the rest of the time.
With that said, there's only one real truth about next season's officiating. Every fan will feel like his team got screwed by the refs.
Especially since -- for the Eagles -- it will no doubt be true.