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Mark Madden: No easy fix for NFL’s officiating fiascos |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: No easy fix for NFL’s officiating fiascos

Mark Madden
| Monday, January 21, 2019 8:20 p.m
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton reacts to a call during the second half of the NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans.

Sometimes a bad officiating decision benefits your team. Sometimes it kills your team.

New Orleans has lived both sides.

In Week 16, a bad interference call on Steelers cornerback Joe Haden greatly helped the Saints beat the Steelers, exiling the Steelers from the playoffs and giving the Saints home field in the NFC half of the draw.

On Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman (the nickel back, one assumes) grotesquely interfered with the Saints’ Tommylee Lewis (doubtless named after Motley Crue’s drummer) but no flag was thrown. It was the fourth quarter. The Saints got a field goal, not a touchdown, and lost the NFC final in overtime.

New Orleans Coach Sean Payton was apoplectic: He said his team will “probably never get over it.”

That’s a bit dramatic. But there can be carryover.

For example, if Haden isn’t flagged and the Steelers win at New Orleans, their playoff destiny is in their hands for Week 17 and perhaps Antonio Brown doesn’t mentally implode, then go AWOL.

Or perhaps Brown does. All that seemed inevitable.

Games are won and lost by bad officiating all the time. But not many games are bigger than Sunday’s, not many decisions worse.

But Seattle lost Super Bowl XL because the Steelers got a few dubious calls, and the Seahawks franchise didn’t fold. Won the Super Bowl eight years later, in fact.

Refereeing has taken over football. It’s too often bad. That’s a shame. It shouldn’t be the main topic the day after the conference championship games.

But no fix seems readily available.

Should the NFL hire younger refs that can keep up better?

Should the NFL make its refs be full-time employees? What tangible good would that do?

Should the NFL make its refs more accountable through fines, suspensions and termination?

Should the NFL simplify its rules and make the game easier to call?

Doing any and all of the above still doesn’t guarantee Robey-Coleman is penalized. It’s a judgment call.

Do you expand replay to include judgment calls? All that does is judge the same play a second time. There’s no guarantee of accuracy in either instance. Slowing the play down can exaggerate what happened. A foul in slow motion might not look like a foul at game speed, or vice versa.

Football is so fast. The NFL’s speed of play makes refereeing extremely tough. The game is faster still when the ball is thrown. With passing emphasized more than ever, difficult calls often come up in heightened situations.

A penalty on a running play can’t move the ball more than 15 yards. Pass interference can move the ball half the length of the field, or more. Receivers have become proficient at angling for interference penalties. Looking for the call, not the ball.

Officiating can’t be made perfect. It probably can’t even be made much better than it is.

Expanding replay will likely be explored. But revisiting judgment calls is a tangled web. The games are already too long.

It’s easy to feel bad for New Orleans. But it’s also easy to get sick of the city, team and fans playing the victim to the hilt.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune called Super Bowl LIII “tainted” in a front-page headline. Fanboy unprofessionalism at its worst.

Saints owner Gayle Benson vowed to “aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again.” But Benson’s outrage was strangely muted when the Saints benefited by the Week 16 flag on Haden. (Ma’am, you’re just mad because your team lost. Now shut up.)

The refs just need to do better. That’s the only realistic fix for NFL officiating.

The format for NFL overtime is another debate.

But the current structure was proven fair Sunday. New England won the toss and won. New Orleans won the toss and lost. 50/50: That defines fair. Defense matters, too. But an overtime setup that guarantees each team a possession might be fairer still.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM 105.9.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM 105.9.

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