In this the year 2020, here’s where I think the NFL is headed in its continual quest for the utopian world of Perfect Officiating.

Following a disputed call — and that’s pretty much all penalties these days — they’re going to send forensic teams onto the field in white lab coats — you know, like the guys and gals on “CSI.” They’ll take fingerprints and make plaster casts of footprints in the turf. They’ll swab for DNA and vacuum uniform fibers from blades of grass. They’ll take statements from the relevant parties and maybe take them downtown. They’ll study videotape like it’s the Zapruder film, going frame by frame, over and over and over again (wait, they already do that).

The NFL has become almost unwatchable for all the interruptions that must be endured while referees peer into hooded cameras trying to determine if a crime occurred on the field, and you know it’s only going to get worse.

Here’s where it all went wrong: The NFL married itself to TV a long time ago, and TV — with its slow-motion replays and camera in the sky and so forth — exposed officiating for the imperfect system it is, and as a result the NFL feels compelled to make officiating perfect via TV technology. They have video reviews of touchdowns, first downs, penalties called and even uncalled, all of them reviewed by the Wizard of Oz thousands of miles away in New York.

And after all that, they still can’t get it right.

An official calls a timeout as a malfunctioning camera sits on the field in the first half of a wild-card playoff football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in New Orleans.
Brett Duke, Associated Press

During Sunday’s wild-card playoff round, the Eagles lost their starting quarterback on an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit when he was on the ground, defenseless. There was no penalty. They lost a close game to the Seahawks.

In the day’s second playoff game, a Vikings receiver committed offensive pass interference against the Saints, pushing the defender away with a stiff arm in the process of making the game-winning catch in overtime. There was no penalty — the Wizard of Oz took only seconds to review the play, saying there was no need for a deeper look.

”We looked at all angles that Fox afforded us, and (TV) gave us some great views,” said the NFL’s vice president of officiating, Al Riveron. “There is contact by both players, but none of that contact rises to the level of a foul. This is consistent with what we’ve done all year long, we left the ruling on the field. We let it stand.”

Two former NFL referees disagreed. Terry McAulay, a lead official for three Super Bowls, tweeted, “It is illegal for an offensive player to extend his arm or arms and create clear separation from the defender. That was OPI (offensive pass interference).”

Another former official, John Parry, tweeted, “The last play of Vikings at Saints is OPI. By written rule and on-field philosophy, Receiver clearly created an advantage. If called and reviewed, it stands. The consistent standard for creating an overturn remains a topic.”

That this would happen to the Saints — the most star-crossed team since the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s — made the blown noncall all the more painful. A year ago the referees swallowed their whistles on an obvious pass interference during the Rams-Saints NFC championship game, costing the Saints a berth in the Super Bowl. (The year before that the Saints lost to the Vikings in the playoffs on the last play of the game on a huge blunder by their secondary).

In this Jan. 20, 2019, file photo, Los Angeles Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans Saints’ Tommylee Lewis during the second half of the NFL football NFC championship game in New Orleans. Louisiana’s Supreme Court has refused to revive a New Orleans Saints fan’s lawsuit against the NFL over officials’ failure to call a penalty at a crucial point in a January playoff game. The court denied a motion to rehear the case without comment Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
AP

As a result of last year’s no-call pass interference, the league announced in the offseason that it would review potential pass interference situations even if the refs didn’t flag the play. In other words the only reason Sunday’s touchdown was reviewable is because of what happened to the Saints last year. And it still failed them. Given what happened to the Saints a year ago, you expected game officials to give this latest fiasco more than a cursory look.

Now what will the league do in its ongoing quest for perfection? The NFL is a mess. The games are punctuated by starts and stops from start to finish. No one even knows what a catch is — or a touchdown, for that matter (hold applause while the Wizard of Oz figures it out; he’ll get back to us). Coaches toss their little red flags for reviews, even though they are right less than half of the time. Even men who study football for a living can’t get it right.

The flaw of the replay system was revealed during the Dec. 28, 2019, College Football Playoff game between Clemson and Ohio State on a key play late in the game. When watched in real time, the receiver fails to make the catch and therefore when the ball comes loose, there is no fumble; when watched in slow motion, he makes an apparent catch and therefore when the ball comes loose it’s a fumble.

Well, there’s no going back; there’s no putting it all back in the box and returning to a simpler time when we relied simply on the judgment of referees for better or worse, without an appellate court of cameras and replays and the Wizard of Oz. Sometimes, don’t you wish we could?

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