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…