By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- We watch our sports because we enjoy seeing the greatest athletes in the world compete on the grandest stages. We marvel at their feats, at the spectacular plays, at the unforgettable and unbelievable moments. We watch because we know that at any point, history may be written on the field.
One thing that is never the reason for our viewership is the officiating. We do not tune in on TV or shell out hundreds of bucks for tickets in order to see The Referee Show.
Yet the NFL has itself an officiating problem, one that's popped up more often than not in the league's prime-time games this season, and one that's receiving more attention than ever before.
While complaining after the fact has always been a part of consuming sports, we're now at the point where we know so much about the men in stripes that folks are preemptively complaining about bad officiating that has yet to happen. And those concerns are legitimate.
The issue this week is that the NFL deemed referee Pete Morelli and his officiating crew to have done a poor job last week in the game between the Cardinals and 49ers. Such a poor job, in fact, that it became necessary to remove that crew from the prime-time game on Sunday night. Considering we've seen botched calls on Monday Night Football (Detroit losing on a non-call of an illegal bat in the end zone in Seattle; the Bills being robbed of a Hail Mary opportunity in a game that also featured an inadvertent whistle; 18 seconds vanishing from the clock in San Diego; the Ravens' getting hosed when the referee failed to notice a player declaring himself as an eligible receiver; the Ravens later getting the benefit of being offside on the game-winning field-goal block, to name a few), and considering this past Sunday night's game included far too much involvement from Tony Corrente's officiating crew (the same crew from the Seahawks-Lions controversy, not-so-coincidentally) in what would have been a marvelous Patriots-Broncos game without overzealous and inconsistent officials, Dean Blandino figured the best way to quiet the national conversation about his inept officials is to take them off the night-time games, sweep the problem under the rug, and hope nobody notices.
In other words: Standard operating procedure at 345 Park Avenue.
The issues in prime-time games only accentuate what has been a league-wide issue throughout the year. Just last week, Yahoo's Eric Edholm tackled the ambitious task of listing the five worst calls of the season in the NFL, a list that became instantly obsolete just a few days later. On Monday, he had to write about all of the controversial officiating from Sunday night's game, and on Tuesday he had to write about the Browns potentially getting hosed at the end of Monday night's game as well as an article on Morelli's crew getting yanked from prime time.
That is the life of an NFL writer these days -- you're forced to spend as much time discussing the officiating as you spend on the game itself.
That's not how this is supposed to work.
And in the case of Morelli's crew, the NFL's decision to reassign them will certainly prove to be a counterproductive move, as a giant spotlight will now shine upon Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon when the Patriots host the Eagles. This is the same crew that last week forgot how to keep track of what down it was, and they performed so poorly that the winning head coach and a losing player felt compelled to discuss just how terrible they really were.
"I'm not really too worried about getting fined. I thought those refs sucked," 49ers guard Alex Boone succinctly stated. "It's guys like that, working in this league, work on this field, and we have to deal with it. You know, whatever. It was a terrible call. They've had terrible calls all game. I don't care what the league says. I don't care what Roger [Goodell] says. It's the truth. You don't like it, get the hell out of here."
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians wasn't any more pleased with the officiating, despite the victory.
"The officials were struggling ... mightily. They can't count to three," Arians said. "It was a FUBAR on their part. They can try to explain it. They're wrong."
If this were a one-time thing, then it might be excusable. But this is the same officiating crew that was in charge of what was arguably the most poorly officiating playoff game in NFL history -- last season's Lions-Cowboys game.
That was a game that featured an instance of obvious pass interference lead to a flag being picked up after a very long huddle by the officials, and it led to the NFL having to admit that the officials not only flubbed the pass interference call but also missed an egregious holding penalty on Dallas that went uncalled on a key fourth-down conversion during the Cowboys' game-winning drive. Detroit was flagged for two defensive holding penalties after that, as well. The officials also missed a defensive holding penalty before they missed that pass interference call -- on the same play! All of this has only led to more controversy and more speculation that still continues to this day.
"I have a special place of, I would say for someone I haven't met, hatred for this particular crew that is coming in," said Fred Toucher, Sports Hub morning co-host and native son of Detroit, on Wednesday morning. "The league came out after the game and went, 'Whoops-a-daisy! Here's about 14 mistakes Morelli's crew made! The league came after the game and said, 'Here's all the ways they F'd up. Tough.'
"I truly believe -- I have no evidence, I have no insider information -- that someone on Morelli's crew had a fix in on that game," Toucher continued. "And I've said it a bunch of times. Morelli's crew is exceptionally incompetent. ... And how they got a [dang] playoff game is beyond me. ... How this crew is still working is beyond me."
While it's hard to believe, earnestly, that the game was truly fixed in a Tim Donaghy type of situation, the fact that the officials performed so poorly, were publicly reprimanded, and yet continue to work will continue to leave people trying to figure out why and how it's allowed to continue.
And Toucher isn't the only Michigander in the building, as Rob "Hardy" Poole remains scarred from the events of last January in Arlington, Texas.
"At the end of the day, this is a bad crew that shouldn't be calling NFL games if they continue to be questioned and sanctioned and, as in the case with last weekend and in the playoff game last year, corrected by the league long after it's too late," Hardy said. "At what point do you look at these guys and say, 'OK, they're just not up to the job?'
"I can't come up with a good reason why they would pick up the flag [in the Lions-Cowboys game]. It was pass interference," Hardy continued. "At best, they're ridiculously inept. That's the best-case scenario for these guys, that they're just awful, awful at their jobs and don't deserve to be out there. If you don't believe that the NFL would continue to hire and put these guys out there when they're so obviously ill-equipped to do their job, what does that leave you with? They're being instructed or influenced by outside factors to call the game in favor of one team over another."
Hardy, admittedly a life-long Lions fan, said the impact of the mistakes of Morelli's crew was and remains significant.
"It denied them a second playoff win in my lifetime," he said. "How sad is that?"
Sad, for sure (poor Hardy), but not nearly as sad as Blandino's attempt to stand in front of the exploding building that is NFL officiating and try to convince everyone that there's nothing to see here.
Blandino, the NFL's VP of officiating, talked to Dan Patrick on Wednesday and said that Morelli's demotion was not a demotion. It was merely ... well, let's allow Dean to explain.
"There's no demotion. This wasn't a disciplinary thing, because every game is equally important," Blandino said, presumably with a straight face (it was a phone interview, so we can't know for sure). "The reality is that the prime-time games, there's more focus and attention on those, and there's no way around that. But every game is equally important. There's playoffs involved, there's jobs on the line, and we look at every game the same way, and we want to be as consistent as possible for every game."
Essentially, Blandino admitted that the NFL's solution to an officiating crew that performs poorly is to simply assign them to a different game that fewer people will see. It is, in a word, brilliant.
Instead of it being a "demotion," Blandino characterized it as putting "our crews in the best position to be successful." In the case of Morelli's crew, their best chance to be successful comes only if fewer people can see them do their jobs. (It's a shaky proposition, when you figure that the entire country was not exactly glued to their TVs on Sunday to watch the 49ers play. Morelli and his crew's performance was indeed so bad that it attracted nationwide attention, even in a game that was most likely one of the lowest-rated games on the entire NFL slate last week.)
Blandino said in one breath that the officiating this year is no better or worse than it's been in other years, and in the next breath he said that scrutiny is at an all-time high. His explanation for all that added attention was so preposterous that it certainly had to have put a smile on Goodell's face, as it can't even be measured on The Disingenuity Scale.
"I don't know if that's just the culture and the environment that we're in today and there's more outlets for people to have an opinion and to communicate that opinion," Blandino told Patrick. "But I think it just goes to show that people love the NFL and they love everything about the NFL and they debate a lot of things in the NFL, and officiating is part of that."
Ah, yes. People rant and rave about horrible officiating because they love the NFL. If that's not a whistling past the graveyard statement, I'm not sure what is.
Whatever Blandino wants to say to try to preserve whatever shred of "integrity of the game" the league claims to maintain is his prerogative. Blandino signed a blood oath to Protect The Shield™ at all costs, so that's what he must do. But those of us who continue to watch the games and see the officials chipping away at the enjoyment of Sunday afternoons know the truth.
The fact is, all anybody wants from officials is simple: Be equitable, be consistent, remember that nobody is tuned in to see you, and remind yourself at all times that the phenomenal athletes on the field are the ones who should decide the games. You're making $100,000 or more to work a side job one day a week, and your extreme focus is needed for a maximum of three hours.
Do better. We're watching. But if the officiating continues on this track, and if Blandino continues to use doublespeak to let his officials off the hook, don't be surprised when we stop.
for more features.