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Bad Calls All Around

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Officiating is supposed to get better as the games become more meaningful. The NFL does its best to try to ensure that by assigning the top crews in the league to the playoffs, so you'd think the conference championship games would be officiated cleanly and without controversy. That was hardly the case yesterday.

Let's start with the AFC title game, where officials made some of the most egregious errors all season.

With seven minutes to play in Pittsburgh's 23-14 win against Baltimore, the Steelers were punting on fourth down and 17 from their 34. Punter Mitch Berger fell as the Ravens' Daren Stone dove at his feet trying to block the kick. Stone didn't get his hand on the ball and landed harmlessly near Berger's plant foot.

Officials didn't see it that way, calling Stone for roughing the kicker. The phantom personal foul forced Baltimore to start at its 14-yard line, and four plays later, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu intercepted Joe Flacco and returned it 40 yards for the clinching touchdown.

Officials, however, didn't wait until the fourth quarter to start issuing questionable flags. Nope, their first puzzling call came midway through the first quarter, when Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes caught a pass inside the Ravens 5, put his hand on the field to brace himself and appeared to get the ball across the goal line before his knee touched the ground and the ball popped out.

Officials ruled Holmes down at the 1, and Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin threw his red challenge flag. After a lengthy conference, officials not only failed to award Holmes a touchdown, but they ruled incomplete pass, saying Holmes did not have control of the ball.

The officials weren't done yet. On the next play, Holmes ran a deep pattern down the left side and was trying to make a catch in the end zone. Cornerback Frank Walker made sure that didn't happen because he had a hold of Holmes's arm. Officials overlooked that infraction too, letting the play go without calling pass interference.

It wasn't much better in Arizona's 32-25 victory over Philadelphia in the NFC championship game. Officials missed several calls in that one as well.

Take the odd play in the first half, when with Arizona leading 21-6, place kicker Neil Rackers booted a short kickoff to the Eagles 27-yard line. Defensive end Victor Abiamiri tried to get to the ball, but it squirted away, and the Cardinals fell on it.
Officials ruled the ball was out of bounds, although replays showed the ball never touched the sideline, and the Eagles were fortunate to gain possession.

"The line judge ruled that the ball touched the receiving team player, and then touched out of bounds, which makes the ball dead at the spot, the Philadelphia 27-yard line," referee Walt Anderson told a pool reporter.

Arizona Coach Ken Whisenhunt's requested a challenge, but officials did not allow it.
"Once we ruled that the kick touched out of bounds, the play is dead," Anderson said. "It is not reviewable, so we did not enter the replay process."

The league needs to examine what is reviewable as part of its offseason agenda. The competition committee must take a long, thorough look at those rules, because they often seem arbitrary.

Why not make everything reviewable? Coaches have only two challenges anyhow, so it's not like they will be challenging frivolously. Those challenges are too important to waste.

By Gene Wang  |  January 19, 2009; 6:42 AM ET  | Category:  Refs Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Getting It Wrong, Playoff Edition | Next: Super Bowl Blunders

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It may be my imagination but on the out of bounds call following the Az kickoff it seemed to me that the officials did review the call on the field and change it - even though they didn't change it to the right call. The line judge initially threw a flag and the officials initially placed the ball at the 40 yd line. This seems to indicate that the line judge thought the kick was out of bounds (without touching a Philly player). So I'm not sure what really went on in their discussion but it the whole thing is an example of how reviewing some calls for accuracy creates an expectation that any mistake that can be righted by video review should be. When some calls are righted and others aren't - for technical reasons or otherwise - you probaby end up just making the players and the fans even more unhappy.
Regards,
KL

Posted by: leithkeven | January 19, 2009 11:04 AM

Did I miss something? I admit I didn't watch the whole Steelers-Ravens game, but there was also a phantom roughing-the-kicker call was in the first half. It gave the ball back to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers drove into the Red Zone before poor play execution/calling caused the clock to run out before they could get down the ball for the field goal attempt. I'm not sure if this is the play you are referring to, or if it happened a second time, which would be even more egregious. It seemed like a perfectly reviewable call ... so I agree; if the refs can review where to spot the ball, moving it inches on a close-to-first-down play, it seems they could review something as blatant as a roughing-the-kicker. Here's an idea: at least review personal foul calls! A lot of fights catch the retaliation, not the instigation, and that's correctable as well.

Posted by: gso-chris | January 19, 2009 12:00 PM

How about the atrocious missed PI against Kevin Curtis that cost the Eagles the game? That was God awfully bad. Hochuli wouldn't have missed that

Posted by: DutchyDC | January 19, 2009 1:35 PM

The roughing the kicker penalty was in the first half. The personal foul on the punt in the fourth quarter was a stupid play by a raven who threw down the man he was blocking out of bounds. It was an easy call. Flacco's completion erased most of that penalty anyway before the big INT/TD to end any real hope for Baltimore.

Posted by: scmtneer | January 19, 2009 2:01 PM

The terrible officiating will continue until: 1) The league hires full time officials who are good enough athletes to run (not walk) the field and be reasonably close to the plays they call. 2) Clears all personnel from a five-yard strip beyond the sidelines--so that the officials may run freely in that area while watching the play, and not having to look where they're going 3) Make any call reviewable.
If he status quo continues, I'll conclude that the owners, players and league honchos simply don't want things to change.

Posted by: stuck_in_Lodi | January 19, 2009 2:42 PM

"Officials didn't see it that way, calling Stone for roughing the kicker. The phantom personal foul forced Baltimore to start at its 14-yard line, and four plays later, Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu intercepted Joe Flacco and returned it 40 yards for the clinching touchdown."

This is completely mixing up different events throughout the game. On the roughing the kicker, the Steelers of course kept possession. They drove down to around the 20 but the clock ran out before the half. The pick of Flacco happened after a personal fould on a punt return later in the game. The Ravens got a huge return but it was nullified after one of the Ravens blockers took a Steeler gunner and mercilessly threw him around out of bounds unnecissarily.

Posted by: CheddarPlex | January 19, 2009 3:20 PM

On the kick off call in the cards game: They got the wrong call but in a different way and andy reid should have challenged the call. the ball bounced in bounds then hit the eagles player AFTER HE WAS OUT OF BOUNDS. By rule if a player has a foot out of bounds his entire body is out of bounds as it relates to the ball. since he touched the ball while he was out of bounds and not before, the kick off should have been ruled out of bounds and the ravens should have taken the ball at the 40

Posted by: remain | January 19, 2009 4:24 PM

your right, every flag should be reviewable, no if ands or buts!! why should the refs have the last word on only certain calls, not only in the playoffs, but all games. it could evntually leave a team out of the playoffs in the first place.

Posted by: BRIANSWARTZ | January 19, 2009 5:19 PM

your right, every flag should be reviewable, no if ands or buts!! why should the refs have the last word on only certain calls, not only in the playoffs, but all games. it could evntually leave a team out of the playoffs in the first place.

Posted by: BRIANSWARTZ | January 19, 2009 5:20 PM

Making ALL plays reviewable is nuts - but - the replay guys in the booth are (or should be) part of the officiating staff - so - why not allow the officials in the replay booth to overturn a bad call on the field in a situation like the roughing the kicker call against Baltimore - leave the coaches out of it since it's a judgment call but let the replay ref overrule the field ref if the video evidence is clear. Limit the overrule rule to one per half ???

Posted by: loboboy69 | January 19, 2009 6:13 PM

Mr. Wang - were you watching the game? The phantom roughing the kicker call happened shortly before halftime. Pittsburgh kept the ball as a result, but did not score. The personal foul on Stone was anything but phantom - he was 5 yards out of bounds when h threw the Steelers player to the ground, and not one Raven player even raised an argument about that obvious call. That's what set the Ravens back and led ultimately to the Polamalu interception.

Posted by: libyre | January 19, 2009 11:34 PM

About the Steelers-Ravens game, you write: "Officials ruled Holmes down at the 1, and Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin threw his red challenge flag. After a lengthy conference, officials not only failed to award Holmes a touchdown, but they ruled incomplete pass, saying Holmes did not have control of the ball." Here you are wrong. Coach Harbaugh of the Ravens threw his challenge flag on the same play, and the replay camera confirmed that Holmes did not have control of the ball. The incomplete pass call was correct.

Posted by: eduncan2 | January 19, 2009 11:46 PM

Also-Pitt/Balt game, on the Holmes TD not TD. Both coaches threw the red flad. Why was Baltimore charged with the review...because they won it? And why are you allowed only 2 challenges? Baltimore challenged and was upheld, so they should get another. It stunks that with half the game to go, the Ravens would be unable to over turn an egregious officiating error.

Posted by: wagz20 | January 20, 2009 4:49 PM

Well Wang, if you are going to whine about the officials you might try to get the facts right.

Posted by: spidey103 | January 22, 2009 9:25 AM

replay has made officials very tentative and, in some cases, dependent on the replay....the best bet would be to get rid of replay and let the officials make the calls without worrying about "Big Brother" in the review booth.....

as for replay the way it is used, it is absolutely ridiculous to use slow motion and freeze frames. The plays don't happen in slow motion, so how is it fair to on-the-field officials to replay them in slow motion? Replay at regular speed, and you can see how the ref saw the play....there are so many complete passes ruled incomplete by slow motion replays that it takes away from the game. Besides, camera angles lie b/c they are two dimensional....

it's laughable how the NFL was worried about games taking too long, yet they keep replay (which adds minutes to game while officials watch television monitors), and conversly, they change one of the basic tenets of the game, which is the clock stops when the ball goes out of bounds....

if the trend continues, I look for television ratings to seriously drop in the next few years

Posted by: ptandcarol | January 24, 2009 9:54 AM

What makes for presumably "bad calls" is the amount of scrutiny one gives them. Everyone would agree with that, I think.

What is less obvious is that all that scrutiny is useless in determining who the better team is that day. Reviewable plays might just as well be decided with a coin-flip. A receiver does not plan to land with one foot a millimeter in-bounds, nor does a defender plan to knock the ball loose a nano-second before the knee hits the ground. Plays this close do not determine relative skill levels; they are decided by chance. So in my view, since neither the referees call, nor the review booth call is a meaningful indicator of skill, just play on. The entire review process ruins the flow of the game and accomplishes nothing.

Posted by: dane1 | January 24, 2009 12:16 PM

If we're talking about bad calls, someone needs to mention that the Refs hardly ever call holding on whatever OT is guarding James Harrison. He's practically getting clotheslined every play and it never draws a flag.

Posted by: Sayne | January 24, 2009 9:28 PM

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