Conspiracy Theories

Barry Reeger/ PennLive

We all love conspiracy theories. They are a great way to deflect some of the deep disappointment one feels when, just to take a for-instance, the team we all thought was ripe for a Super Bowl win instead is playing in the Pro Bowl. So was the problem a misjudgment on our own part as to the actual quality of the team, a blindness on our part as to the manifest and obvious flaws, or [cue sinister music] Is The Whole Thing Rigged?

Furthermore, I don’t know about y’all, but it’s difficult not to feel that if a 13-3 team can’t even make it to the semi-finals, I may never see another Super Bowl game in which my beloved Steelers are a combatant.

On Wednesday I posted a tweet from one of the Football Outsider writers showing the breathtakingly small number of penalties the Patriots have taken compared to other teams and, basically, asked what this tells you.

There are a lot of things it could say, of course. Jim Wexell, who posted it in an article and thus called it to my attention, thought it represented unconscious bias on the part of the refs. One could also posit, of course, that it merely shows the Patriots are a better-coached and more disciplined team than the rest of the league. (Note that the one doesn’t necessarily eliminate the other—in fact, they could be feeding into each other.)

But a third factor which this doesn’t entirely eliminate from consideration is, naturally, the conspiracy theory. One or both of the other things could be true, but there could still be an underlying and sinister desire on the part of the league to see the Patriots in the Super Bowl yet again.

Who knows why? Anti-conspirists, you might call them, have noted Deflategate and the obvious rift between the Pats and the League front office this created. This will not stop a true conspiracy theorist, though, because lo and behold, despite the upheld 4-game suspension for Tom Brady, the Patriots were back in the Super Bowl, a Super Bowl they were losing badly until almost the end of the game.

So to be thorough I went and looked at the box score, and actually the penalties were even in that game, and didn’t increase against the Falcons, as one might suspect. But perhaps the Falcons were supposed to win last year. A small point like this won’t stop the narrative. Nor does it eliminate the possibility that it was a different “fix” last year.

You see the difficulty. According to my husband, the NFL has a perception problem. In one sense it doesn’t matter whether there is much in the way of evidence behind it—the question is, what do people think is going on? When you have an industry that’s dependent upon several things—people watching, people playing Fantasy Football, and people betting, you really don’t want even a whiff of a perception that there is some sort of fix going on, no matter how minor.

Those of you who read the most recent comment to the Nearly-Extinguished Questions will probably realize what prompted this article. In case you didn’t, check it out. George Siegal wrote:

I didn’t buy the conspiracy theories, even though I have been hearing them for years. Then came the James catch. Immediately after the game, my son, a New England fan, texted me that the Steelers were robbed, that there was no way there was enough info to overturn that catch. I re-watched the game. I saw late hits, holding, pass interference etc. that wasn’t called, and let’s not forget the mugging of Eli Rodgers in the endzone on the “interception”. So I watched a few more NE games. Early in the season, that were called for penalties like the other teams. When it looked like NE, Pitt and Jacksonville were fighting for the top seeds, the calls became fewer. Watch the games, the penalties are still there. Then Gronk tried to decapitate a Buffalo player, who was lying on the ground not getting up, when he jumped on him, all 270+ lbs of him, forearm first into the back of his neck and the lower part of his head. A One game suspension… Gronk is too big a star to have on the sideline when they are in a battle for the top seed, had to have him back for the Steelers game. It’s all about match-ups. When NE played Buffalo again, Buffalo had a TD taken away again by prolonged review process, again reversing the call on the field without clear evidence, ensuring a NE win.

So after the season, before the start of the playoffs, I was again talking to my son, I told him who would win each AFC playoff game (I don’t watch enough NFC games to know who the draws will be.) I told him that Jacksonville would beat the Bills, because the Bills came too close to beating NE in week 16. That Tenn would beat KC because KC can beat NE at home. again, it’s all about match-ups and NE is a bigger audience. NE vs Tenn was easy, they want NE in the AFC Championship game. The only game I couldn’t predict was the Pitt-Jville game. Did they want a rematch of last years game? or did they want the #1 offense against the #1 defense. I don’t think this one mattered to them, it was a win-win for the NFL.

So why did Blandino quit right after they decided to make all of the review calls from NY?

That was way too well researched for a “Nearly-Extinguished” answer, so I thought I would give it some more air time. You see what I mean, though? When an (admittedly biased) fan is moved to watch film on another team, something doesn’t smell quite right.

But the most interesting part of the whole thing, to me, was the last line. And it was interesting that Blandino had a problem with some of the calls that benefitted New England this year.

And there is also this—a local, well-known sports writer, on a live game thread last week, noted when the penalties on Jacksonville started piling up, “Right on cue, the penalties on JAX coming in.” If that’s not a perception problem, I don’t know what is.

So how does the NFL fix this problem, if you will pardon the use of the f-word? (“fix” that is…) Obviously, (since Mike Tomlin will be involved) you have to work on the catch rule. And if it is perception you want to alter, perhaps the best “fix” is what it looks like in real time. In bounds, out of bounds, and those sorts of things, that’s a different matter. There isn’t a lot of gray area there. The problem is the whole “surviving the ground,” “making a football move”, those sorts of things, which are highly subjective. If everybody in the stadium, from the officials on down to the defensive players for the opposing team, thinks something is a catch, it’s a catch.

Various methods have been proposed to deal with this, including having a committee of ex-players in New York making the replay calls. But if there is any point at all to having live referees, surely “what it looks like in real time” should be the baseline. Replay was only instituted to be able to reverse the most egregiously bad calls, and has become ever more finicky and intrusive, to the point that games refereed by certain crews are almost unwatchable as it is. And now we have to add 5-minute long reviews in New York? No thanks.

Perhaps holding the referees to a higher standard is a better answer. Rather than long, controversial replay rulings from New York, perhaps slow-motion replays in the week following the game, with consequent fines/suspensions for poorly performing refs, might help. Or perhaps that was the system that wasn’t working well enough, and that’s why the reviews went to New York. I personally think, though, that there should be no slow-motion reviews except in the case of stuff like in-out-of -bounds—things that are cut-and-dried, once you can see well enough. But that in and of itself might be a Pandora’s box.

And while they are fixing what constitutes a catch, perhaps the Competitive Committee should have another look at what constitutes pass interference. In my untutored opinion, they should either call everything—on both offensive and defensive players, which might on occasion hurt the Steelers—or nothing. If the choice is “nothing” and they want to protect the marquee players, then the rules are going to have to be amended such that the defensive player(s) basically can’t touch a receiver who is attempting to make a catch, at all.

Scores will go up, and isn’t that what the public wants (or at least most of the public? Certainly the Fantasy-playing public.) Why do you think the 70s Cowboys were so popular? In a league in which a great many of the plays ended up a few yards from the line of scrimmage, something no one could really follow very well on low-definition, black and white TVs, the Cowboys were chucking the ball downfield. (If I’m displaying my ignorance of that era football, so be it. But I do know my father loved the “finesse” game of the Cowboys, and especially hated the Steelers for their physical game, particularly defensively.)

And while I’m getting real here, there’s a lot to be said for those of us who are at that squirmy place on the fence about the damage football does to the players in having even more rules in place to protect the player, even if that “turns it into flag football.” (Which it won’t, unless the changes are a great deal more sweeping than even I can imagine.) And if those rules are also written in a way such that they reduce the need for referee interference, rather than increase it, as happened with the catch rule, so much the better.

Such things can backfire, of course. It’s ironic to me that moving the kickoff point up five yards, in the hopes of eliminating most kick returns, has recently resulted in kickers getting good at dropping the ball at the two-yard line so that a return is necessary, particularly against teams who haven’t shown a vibrant kick-return game. Almost any rule can be worked around, as Bill has shown us time after time. (Not that I’m implying that kicking short of the goal line is illegal—far from it. But it does subvert the whole point of moving up the kickoff line.)

Will any of this happen? Not likely. The Pandora’s Box I mentioned before has long been standing wide open, and we all know how hard it is to put everything back. But I do think the League is hurting themselves, perhaps inadvertently. And if they indeed are trying to craft a narrative (I leave it to you to determine whether I uses the word “craft” advisedly) then they not only have a perception problem—they are in some pretty troubled waters.

People love stories. But there are plenty of available narratives besides “40-year-old quarterback in the Super Bowl!” I would have loved for there to have been a different one this year. And if George’s comments above have any reasonable amount of basis, there should have been a different one. Perhaps not “36-year-old quarterback in the Super Bowl!” either. Perhaps “For the first time since 2001, two quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, neither of which are named Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, or Peyton Manning.” But then perhaps the ratings would decline.

And speaking of stories, I’m rambling now. Perhaps this is part of the grief process. In which case, I’m sorry you all had to read this. But I’m not the only one who at least thinks the Competition Committee has work to do. Mike Tomlin thinks so, too…


  • Here’s where “conspiracy” meets “pass interference.” Am I the only one who noticed Rob Gronkowski gets away with offensive pass interference at least three times a game. The worst was in that Jets game where everybody remembers the silly Austin Sefarian-Jenkins touchback “fumble,” but to me the worst ball in that game was one where the Jets got called for pass interference on a play where it was clear Gronk had a death-grip on the defender’s face-mask.


  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    It may be a perception problem in which fans think the fix is in or in may be a “perception” problem in which the the fans realize the fix is in. It is hard to tell from here.

    Personally, he says donning his tin foil chapeau, I think it is the Russian Oligarchies backing Kraft! 🙂 I mean if we are going to have a conspiracy, it should be a good one and there is nothing like the introduction of shadowy Russian figures for that. Having said that, I wouldn’t doubt there are groups outside the NFL who wouldn’t mind manipulating results for financial gains. The NFL would be having kittens if this was happening but they wouldn’t be able to bring it out for public discussion as it would damage the brand. Better to keep it quiet while trying work around it.

    I thought of adding in lizard people and space aliens but I thought I would stick to the plausible.


    • I don’t think it goes as far as the lizard people. I may be off base but I do have a suspicion that the potato people are involved,


    • Those refs in the end zone – and the one at the end of the NE-JAX game were straight out of the Robbie Williams’ single, “Party Like an Russian.” They were partying right along with the Pats. Maybe the NFL should bring Robbie at the last minute to sing in the Super Bowl halftime show. The lyrics certainly fit……

      Party like a Russian
      End of discussion
      Dance like it got concussion, oh
      Put a doll inside a doll
      Party like a Russian
      Disco seduction
      Party like a Russian, oh
      Have it like an oligarch.

      With Trump and Kraft, you never know.

      Homer is just sayin’.


  • To a certain extent what the truth of the matter is almost irrelevant. The horse is out of the barn as soon as the questions are raised. If folks are, as has been pointed out, reviewing games to determine if things on the up and up. If, as I was told by a person who is no friend of the Steelers that they were jobbed in both the Pats game and against the Jags because it was beneficial to Vegas. If there is a belief that a thumb is on the scale to favor Fantasy, which is at the end of the day a backdoor gambling platform, then the war is already lost.

    I am hearing people saying that they are skipping the Super Bowl, or just participating for the commercials and snacks. Outside of the hardcore Patriots fanbase (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine) everyone is rooting for the Eagles, even though many despise them, and don’t think they have any chance at all of winning the game because, well you know. This and the safety concerns are challenging the game’s most loyal fans to question the integrity of their continued participation in watching. The NFL as WWE does not work so well.


    • I am skipping it. I skipped the conference championships as well. I might cut on the pro bowl because of the number of Steelers playing, but that is it.


  • Go back and watch a Patriots game when they were behind. Count the number of times where a pass interference call influenced the Patriots ability to catch up and beat their opponent. Then go back and watch the coverage on the Steelers by the Jags where there were almost zero flags and ask yourself if the officiating is balanced and consistent with the rules.

    I’ve been a passionate Steeler fan all my life (54 years) and I’m sure tired of seeing the Patriots but at least when we play them, I know which way the officiating will favor.

    I won’t be watching (I skip all SuperBowls involving the cheaters) but for those of you who do, if the Eagles are ahead toward the end of the game, I got $5 on either Gronkowski won’t be flagged for running over a defender or Brady will throw
    into coverage so the officials can complete the play for him. I live in New England. That’s a safe bet!


  • There is an old baseball legend about a rookie pitcher that got a bad call. “What was wrong with that one Ump?!”

    “Son, Mr. Hornsby Will let you know when it’s a strike.”

    Players develop a reputation over time. It becomes a frame for referees as much as for everyone else. That isn’t conspiracy, it is human nature. Polamalu got calls, and Harrison got called. I think this is a big part of what is going on. It may not be “fair”, but it is only to be expected. I suspect the referees hate it even more than we do when they catch themselves doing it on film.

    What I want to get rid of our the spot films and automatic first down. Automatic first down for a ticky tack defensive holding penalty on 3rd and 57? A 43 yard spot foul on fourth down with a minute left in the game? Talk about deus ex machina! Sure, a bad offsides call on 3rd and 2 can matter just as much, but who let the ball get close enough for five yards to make such a difference? That kind of thing fits the flow of the game even if it shifts it. But the others are game “controllers”, not just influencers.

    Oh, and this is DTH. Can’t get the sign in to work on my iPad.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Great article Rebecca.

    I don’t know, I generally buy into conspiracy theories because they can become an convenient excuse for avoiding self-responsibility (I’m talking in general life terms, not related to football.)

    When the Patriots are involved, this mindset becomes a real challenge.

    Just look at Spygate. The Patriots were clearly caught doing something illegal. Perhaps it wasn’t that consequential, but they went at great lengths not to get caught, including giving their signal stealers fake NFL Films shirts. And when one of Billy B’s assistants out him, Goodell gets the evidence, and then destroys it. Ditto Brady’s cellphone in Deflategate.

    Sure, the Patriots get docked two picks and fined, but Billy B. doesn’t get a slap on the wrist, yet at around the same time Wade Wilson gets suspended for four games for performance enhancers — even if he’s an assistant coach!

    No one on the face of the earth outside of New England thinks that the Patriots got just punishment. And the NFL made it worse with Deflategate by essentially treating it as a makeup call. (Yes, I do think that the Patriots were probably screwing around with ball pressure, and I also think that had next to zero impact on the game.)

    The larger issue is, however, inconsistency.

    And let’s face it, there’s a lot of stuff in a football game that are very fine lines. Think of holding. How many times did we see James Harrison get blatantly held yet no flag dropped? How many times did we see Steelers offensive lineman get flagged for less blatant holding — often times in the same game?

    Ditto pass interference. I’ve always leaned more to the side of allowing some incidental contact, and in some games they do just that, and in others they don’t (remember Martavis, I think it was in the Pats game who had a one handed TD because his arm was being held?)

    But overall you’re right, the league has a perception problem.

    Part of it is the inability or unwillingness to admit mistakes. Does ANYONE think that the Tuck Rule makes sense? Instead of saying, “Yes, the ref on the field screwed up” they make a new rule.

    Its the same thing with replay. Paul Zeise had a great point after the Patriots Jesse James fiasco — if you’ve got to look at something milsecond by milsecond, then how is that indisputable evidence?

    And what’s the point of reviewing things from New York?

    The no matter how many cameras you have , there are ALWAYS going to be times when the official on the field has a better view and a better angle (see Roethlisberger’s TD in Super Bowl XL — the ref who called the TD had a better angle than any camera shot available.)

    So instead of taking steps to empower the officials on the field (ok, let’s admit, we’ve seen refs who’ve been ignorant of basic rules) and working to get them to react to real-time situations, they’re doing the opposite putting them on notice that they’re going to be second guessed.


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