Go ahead, Roger Goodell. Be bold.
As the biggest event on the NFL calendar looms, it figures that the embattled commissioner has another crisis on his hands. Like clockwork.
Every year, it seems that Goodell steps onto the Super Bowl stage trying put out one fire after another – Deflategate, Lockout Countdown, Domestic Violence, Anthem Protests, to name a few issues from recent years. Now there’s an officiating crisis stemming from the debacle at the Superdome in the NFC title game and so far, with his silence, it looks like Goodell has stepped on a slippery banana peel.
Take it from Ben Watson, the thoughtful New Orleans Saints tight end who happens to be one of the most respected player voices in the league.
“Your continued silence on this matter is unbecoming of the position you hold, detrimental to the integrity of the game and disrespectful and dismissive to football fans everywhere,” Watson wrote about Goodell in a statement he posted Friday on Twitter.
“From the locker room to Park Ave., accountability is what makes our league great. Lead by example. We are waiting.”
Watson knows what we all know: The Saints got hosed when referee Bill Vinovich and crew didn’t throw a flag on the most obvious defensive pass-interference case you’ll ever see – Rams nickel back Nickell Robey-Coleman crashing head-first into Tommylee Lewis before Drew Brees’ third-down pass arrived. Nickell-Robey, subsequently fined $26,739 for the infraction, was willing to accept the consequences of a penalty that never came late in the fourth quarter than to give up a possible touchdown.
What should Goodell do now?
One solution is to empower NFL officiating director Al Riveron with the authority to use instant replay to overturn any call or non-call – on any type of play inside the final two minutes — as an emergency measure to protect the integrity of the game.
I mean, Big Brother is already watching from the replay command center at league headquarters.
Goodell can take an out-of-the-box leadership approach as Super Bowl LIII looms and allow Riveron to rule to correct an obvious blunder – even on plays that are not typically “reviewable” under replay guidelines — in a high-stakes contest that hundreds of millions can see for themselves on TV.
Not that Riveron would use such authority often. Maybe it comes up every five years. Or never.
Yet the idea is to ensure a safeguard, figuratively like a red button enclosed by glass to be broken only in case of emergency. I’m thinking that would help the NFL restore some lost credibility.
Institute a new rule like that now, without a vote of NFL owners, on the fly?
Sounds about as crazy as an official missing pass interference and a helmet-to-helmet violation – on the same play.
Goodell already has the power to enact such an extreme measure. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks – believed to be in the $50 million-per-year range – to make such major executive decisions.
Besides, in Super Bowl LII it seemed like the catch rule was altered in allowing Eagles touchdowns by Zach Ertz and Corey Clement after replay reviews, despite the slight ball movement on the receptions. Last spring, Riveron disputed that standards for a catch were liberalized for the last Super Bowl, even though we saw receptions with ball movement disallowed throughout the regular season. He maintained the Super Bowl TDs were allowed due to a lack of “indisputable” evidence to overturn.
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In any event, when the NFL modified the catch rule in March – finally — such movement was allowed. The theory is that the league used a modified catch rule in the Super Bowl, weeks before it was officially adopted by NFL owners.
And let’s not forget that standards for enforcing the helmet rule and roughing-the-passer sure seemed to be altered on the fly this season – with the drama including an early season, emergency conference call that Goodell demanded for the competition committee and leaders of the officiating department.
So you can’t say what you can’t do.
Of course, Goodell probably won’t take my advice. The issue will undoubtedly roll into the NFL meetings in March as owners, coaches, officials and others debate whether to expand instant replay. Even without the fallout from the New Orleans episode, expanding replay to include helmet-to-helmet violations needed to happen — like last year when they instituted the new rule in the first place.
Think about another high-profile non-call that involved the Saints: Alvin Kamara knocked woozy by Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith on a helmet-to-helmet blow in crunch time. Smith, like the Rams’ Robey-Coleman, even crowed afterward about his enforcer mentality in breaking the rule.
Maybe there will be momentum for the idea that Patriots coach Bill Belichick has proposed on multiple occasions – that any type of play is allowable for replay. I hope so.
That wide-ranging possibility doesn’t mean there would be replays on every play. Coaches would still be limited to two challenges (and a third, if successful on the first two). It would just mean that a coach could challenge DPI or holding or maybe a chop-block if it’s critical enough.
Any discussion of expanding replay will surely raise concerns about prolonging games. But again, with a finite number of challenges, I’d doubt the games would get much longer. Besides, the NFL has done an admirable job in recent years in trimming time off the games.
The average game time for the 2018 season: 3 hours, 4 minutes, 27 seconds. That’s the lowest in at least five seasons – and more than 7 minutes less than the 3:11:56 mark in 2012.
The NFL would be wise now to use some of the time it has saved to close the gap on blown calls. I mean, Mike Tomlin, the Steelers coach who was fined $25,000 in October for criticizing officials, was absolutely right: They need to do better.
It should also be noted that amid the Mardi Gras Pity Party – and in light of the pitiful demonstration by a Louisiana senator in a session on Capitol Hill, despite the real-world crisis of a government shutdown — the Saints still had chances to win after the blown call. But they didn’t stop the Rams from driving for the game-tying field goal that forced overtime. And after winning the coin toss to start overtime, Brees threw an interception that set up Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning, 57-yard field goal that was no kind of a chip shot. Give the Rams their credit. They are not in LIII by default.
The Patriots won in overtime in Kansas City in the AFC title game, with Tom Brady seemingly determined to lead his team to a touchdown – while never letting Patrick Mahomes back on the field. Sean Payton’s team, with Brees at the trigger, had that same opportunity, in its own stadium, after winning the toss.
Just like the officials, the Saints blew it, too.
Otherwise, the clamor now might be about changing the overtime rules. Instead, it’s about Roger, challenged to come out of hiding while his leadership is under fire. Again.