Macnow: Inept refs tarnish a great NFL weekend

NFL New Orleans Saints Los Angeles Rams Tommylee Lewis Nickel Robey-Coleman
Rams cornerback Nickel Robey-Coleman, right, got away with a blatant defensive pass interference on New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sunday’s conference championship games were both overtime thrillers. The four best teams (sorry, Eagles fans) were led by brilliant quarterbacks. The coaches were creative and the defenses intense. It was compelling TV.

The post-game online chatter and Monday morning office banter should have focused on the upcoming Super Bowl. Can Tom Brady and Bill Belichick win one more? Are Jared Goff and Sean McVay ready to steal the title?

But, of course, that wasn’t the talk.

Instead, the water-cooler conversation centered on how both games were impacted by egregious officiating. Hey, Eagles fans are still smarting over that “non-fumble” debacle of a call in Dallas six weeks ago. Imagine waking up as a Saints fan.

The NFL bureaucrats on Park Avenue steadfastly deny it, but the simple truth is that our favorite sport has an officiating crisis. You witnessed it at its worst on Sunday when the refs ignored a blatant pass interference (and helmet-to-helmet) call deep in Rams’ territory with 1:45 left in regulation. You saw it when an invisible “roughing the passer” call against the Chiefs kept alive a Patriots’ scoring drive.

If you watched both games for seven-plus hours, you saw phantom penalties; flags tossed and then picked up by insecure officials; garbled, inane explanations; and coaches fuming over obvious miscalls they were not permitted to challenge.

As marvelously as the players performed, the narrative was stolen by zebras wandering around looking dazed and confused. As a viewer, you couldn’t watch a single play without your eyes sneaking up to the top right corner of your TV, waiting for that yellow graphic, indicating a penalty was forthcoming.

Each network now employs a former NFL ref to explain to viewers what the hell is actually going on in these cases. With the festival of flags, I felt at a certain point CBS should have just let Gene Steratore call the game, and go to Jim Nantz for occasional check-ins.

You don’t need me to recite every blunder from Sunday. Frankly, this column isn’t long enough to cover them. And you can argue that coaches, particularly the Saints’ Sean Payton, had the opportunity to overcome the ref’s mistakes.

But that’s not the point. The issue is that a gripping day of America’s game at its finest should be cause for celebration. Instead, we’re staring at its shortcomings. When fans and broadcasters and anyone with a TV monitor knows the refs botched one, it erodes the NFL’s credibility. 

Back judge Todd Prukop witnessed the mugging of Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis and decided it wasn’t pass interference. Prokop’s name deserves to go down in history with baseball’s Don Denkinger and hockey’s Leon Stickle as refs who choked during a huge moment.

So what should the NFL do? The dilemma here is that what might help the standing of the game would also hurt its entertainment value. No fan enjoys the long replay breaks, and no one wants to further legislate the game.

But the obvious solution is to allow booth replay of judgment calls – pass interference, roughing the quarterback and the like. Those penalties (or missed penalties) often change the outcome of games, as they did Sunday. In this case, getting it right is more important than getting it fast.

That’s just one solution for one aspect of a larger predicament. And I suspect the league will dispute there’s a problem at all. Huge ratings for next month’s Super Bowl will allow Commissioner Roger Goodell to stay in denial.

But players and coaches deserve better. And fans need to trust they’re not watching pro wrestling. The NFL may not realize it was humiliated by what went down on Sunday but it was.

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