It’s always been my policy not to complain about referees after my team loses, because – right or wrong – it sounds like sour grapes.
So, now that the Eagles beat the Falcons, 18-12, last Thursday night let me say this: Officiating is ruining the NFL. Our favorite sport has become a sleep-inducing three-hour festival of zebra parades, flying flags and mind-numbing explanations that sound like someone parsing the federal tax code.
Last week's opener featured 26 penalties totaling 236 yards – more yards than the Eagles gained on offense. You certainly can blame the two teams for sloppy play, in part the result of putting many of their starters in storage through the preseason.
But it’s a lot more than that. There are ever-evolving regulations governing how players can use their helmets and how they can hit quarterbacks. Most players – and even some referees – admit they have no clear sense of what’s allowed this season.
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So the refs tend to call everything. Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett got flagged for roughing Eagles quarterback Nick Foles on a play where the only way he could have avoided a penalty would be to turn his body into a human magic bullet and defy the laws of physics by flying away in midair.
Overall, there were 226 penalties for 1965 yards in the first 14 games of the NFL season. And that doesn’t include those that were declined. Watching a game on TV means focusing your eyes on the corner of the screen after every big play, waiting to see that red “flag” graphic and muttering under your breath as it’s called back.
It’s easy to figure out why this is all happening. First, the owners are aiming to increase player safety – whether because of conscience or fear of another lawsuit. That’s a noble intent, but probably impossible unless they really do turn the sport into two-hand touch.
Secondly, those new rules, coupled with today’s incredible camerawork, have made on-field refs tentative. Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to monitor every movement of 22 large, violent men speeding around a football field. The camera upstairs is going to get it better. So, human nature is, when in doubt, call it all.
And call it wrong. At least that’s what we saw last Thursday. On an Eagles' fourth-quarter punt, the refs called offsetting penalties, negating a 59-yard boomer by Cameron Johnston.
Only problem? There were actually two penalties on Atlanta during the play and none on the Eagles. The refs, playing “whisper down the lane,” lost the facts while communicating with each other.
My penalty screed here doesn’t even include the “what’s a catch” question, which seems as tough to solve as a Gordian knot. If you watched last Thursday’s game, let me know if you comprehend why Julio Jones’s juggling 51-yard grab near the sidelines was ruled a no-catch. Hey, it went in the Eagles’ favor, but honestly . . .
And, so, here we are. Our sport is polluted by outcomes too often determined less by great players than by self-doubting functionaries who fret about getting a nasty phone call from Roger Goodell. The rhythm gets destroyed, coaches get frustrated and fans throw up their hands in disbelief.
Football is the most marvelous sport in the world – but only when the players get to play it.