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Week 17 of the NFL summed up the league and this season in a microcosm. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s baby is spoiled. The number one sport in the country just isn’t what it was. Forget about the great run of the 80s and 90s that solidified football as America’s favorite, it doesn’t even measure up to the product we saw a mere five years ago. This past weekend was a nice sample of the downfall.
Three huge games on Sunday were impacted in a big way by the officiating and overall environment of the softer, gentler NFL.
Kansas City at San Diego, Green Bay at Chicago, and Philadelphia at Dallas all had major playoff implications. While the Chiefs were already in, the Chargers needed to win and get some help to earn a postseason berth. For the Packers, Bears, Eagles, and Cowboys it was win or go home. The last thing players, coaches, and fans needed was a bevy of bad calls, clock malfunctions, and timid players, scarred by the rules. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we got.
First, the debacle at Qualcomm:
Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop missed a 41-yard field with four seconds to go that would have won the game for Kansas City. Based on a new rule, however, the Chargers should have been penalized on the play. The rule concerns the overloading of one side of the formation when defending a field goal try. San Diego had seven players on one side of the snapper; one more player than the rule allows. No flag was thrown.
If the call were made, the Chiefs would have had another shot at the field goal from 36-yards out. If it were good the Bolts would have been eliminated and the Steelers would have captured the final Wild Card spot in the AFC. Instead, the game went into overtime and the Chargers won, punching their ticket to the postseason and erasing Pittsburgh in the process. The NFL later admitted the call was blown.
At Soldier Field, the Bears were victims of the refs and the current state of the league before they were officially ousted by the arm and wherewithal of Aaron Rodgers. On a third down play in the first half, Rodgers was sacked by Lance Briggs. Shea McClellin was also in on the hit. McClellin’s momentum had him in the air, and he made contact with Rodgers a fraction of a second after Briggs did. The officials called a late hit. Truly one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen on any level of any sport. Instead of a fourth and long setting up a much tougher field goal attempt, the drive continued and ended with a relatively easy field goal. Three points that may have come in to play later.
The next time the Packers had the ball, things got really wacky. Rodgers was hit by Julius Peppers and fumbled, but all 22 players on the field thought it was a forward pass. Everyone stopped. The ball ended up in the hands of Jarrett Boykin, who eventually heard the urging from his sideline to run. He did just that and scored a crucial touchdown for Green Bay. The call was right. Rodgers did fumble. The question is, why in the world would all of these high-paid professionals just stand there when they’ve been taught since Pop Warner to play to the whistle? Some of them were clueless for sure. This is after all a league where many players don’t know a lot of the rules. Remember Donovan McNabb admitting he didn’t realize games could end in a tie? But in this instance I think there’s more to it. While some just blew it by not continuing to play, others are so worried about late hits and the touchy-feely NFL of today that they have been conditioned to pull up. They’re conditioned to assume. They stopped because of plays past. They are subconsciously afraid of the big, bad league office and the whistle, whether it blows or not.
In Dallas that night the Cowboys were driving late in the game with the NFC East championship on the line. After tight end Jason Witten reeled in a first down catch, the play clock reset to 25 seconds, not 40. The officials didn’t notice. When the ball wasn’t snapped on time, a delay of game was called. Instead of first-and-10, the Cowboys faced a first-and-15. The drive did culminate in a Kyle Orton to Dez Bryant touchdown, but the clock miscue still came into play. Dallas called a timeout during the sequence that they otherwise could have used later. No matter how you look at it, the clock mishap is inexcusable.
While the NFL is worried about head trauma studies, doling out fines, and making phantom calls to protect a select few players, the game we love is eroding before our eyes. Perhaps Goodell and friends should pay more attention to faux pas like we saw on Sunday. Boneheaded calls and missteps may have changed the playoff picture.
Sure, the Steelers, Bears, and Cowboys could’ve done more on their own to make the postseason, and the Chargers, Packers, and Eagles all certainly deserve to be in the tournament. But, for a league that always talks about “getting it right” they sure did get a lot wrong this past weekend and all season long. More to come I’m sure. When are we getting rid of those dangerous kickoffs, Roger?