I shouldn’t be writing this. I should just marvel at the obscene right arm of Aaron Rodgers, gawk at the ghastly Detroit Lions Hail Mary defense and celebrate one of football’s zaniest endings. Those are the reasons everyone watches sports – brilliance, drama, chaos – and what formed the residue of Green Bay’s insane 27-23 victory Thursday night over Detroit. I’ll wander into the snake pit, anyway: Don’t blame the refs.
Taking the officials’ side this NFL season is like buddying up to Goldman Sachs executives at a Bernie Sanders rally. Incorrect rulings and questionable calls have loomed over high-profile games in high-profile moments all season. It happened again Thursday night. Before Aaron Rodgers unleased a 61-yard Hail Mary pass, officials called a facemask penalty on Lions defensive end Devin Taylor that was somewhere between close and dubious, which gave the Packers the untimed down Rodgers used to launch a pass three-quarters of the field.
The flag prompted many to pin the Lions’ heartbreak on the officials and place an asterisk next to Rodgers’s heave. The play never should have happened, and it invalidated the result, and the referees ruined everything. Again.
Sorry, but the referees did not cost the Lions a victory, and one call did not decide the game. The result hinged on so much more, the officials deserve a break on this one, and the perceived solution would only create more problems.
The Hail Mary ended the game, but the Lions should have never been in a position to lose it. They led, 17-0, at halftime and 20-0 deep into the third quarter. There were 125 plays from scrimmage, plus kickoffs, before Rodgers dropped back on the final play. If the Lions didn’t want it to matter, they had plenty of opportunity. And it still took Rodgers’s jet-fuel-powered throw, Richard Rodgers’s leaping catch and the Lions’ batty formation – in which they prepared for a gaggle of laterals and not a heave – to win the game. That’s on the Lions, not the officials.
The flag itself was not an obvious sin. It looks that way in slow-motion replay, from a perfect angle zoomed in to a near-atomic level. Taylor brushed Rodgers’s facemask and then yanked him down from the shoulder pads. From behind the play at full speed, Taylor appeared to snag Rodgers’s facemask and wrench Rodgers’s neck. In another era, it may have been let go. The NFL has emphasized rules pertaining to player safety – and facemasking is one – so much that for head linesman Kent Payne, the 12-year ref who threw the flag, it had become instinct to throw a flag at any hint of such a play. If you want to blame the call, at least direct your ire toward the league, which through its unceasing points of emphasis has rewired officials’ instincts.
One standard response Friday morning has been to make every play reviewable, so referees could have ruled on the play from a perfect angle zoomed in to a near-atomic level. No. God, no, do not make every play reviewable.
Here are the relevant portions of the rule: “No player shall grasp and control, twist, turn, push, or pull the facemask of an opponent in any direction. … If a player grasps an opponent’s facemask, he must immediately release it. If he does not immediately release it and controls his opponent, it is a foul.”
If officials reviewed the call on replay, do you know what we’d be talking about this morning? The meaning of the word “immediately.” Taylor’s hand touched Rodgers’s facemask, for sure. Did he release it immediately? It becomes a subjective matter, anyway. Replay would help inform opinion, but it would not provide a definitive answer. It would waste time and make everybody even crazier. The pursuit of officiating perfection tends to create more problems than solutions.
The NFL has had a subpar officiating year, and technology and poor timing have made it look abominable. Thursday night’s classic ended with another debatable call. The league needs to improve its officiating, and they can do it with better training, slowing turnover and making some referees full time, which it needs the NFL Referees Association to get on board with.
All of that is true. So is this: The Packers won, the Lions lost, and the officials weren’t the reason.