The NFL’s got to clean this crap up. The Thursday night game between the Panthers and Buccaneers was already a hellish, dismal slog, featuring punchless, amateurish offense run by a pair of deeply disinterested quarterbacks. Then the fourth quarter rolled around, and what might’ve otherwise been at least a tense finish in a one-score game turned into an extended and brutally dry exploration of the rules and the replay process, broken up here and there by football plays that had lost any feeling of real-time significance.
The game was a real chore. I wouldn’t dare subject you, the reader, to a detailed recap of anything that happened before the 2:19 mark of the fourth quarter. There were many field goals, and a safety, and Cam Newton was atrocious. There. The Panthers were down six with the ball, and Newton had just badly missed Curtis Samuel on a throw up the right sideline. Except, no, replays showed Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis making contact with Samuel in the middle of his route, as Newton was releasing the ball. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera called for an interference replay review, and Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, and Mike Pereira spent what felt like 15 minutes trying to formulate a coherent assessment of the review’s chances while Jerome Boger watched the replay on the monitor. Pereira eventually talked himself into pass interference; just as he was settling on this conclusion, Boger announced to the crowd that the non-call on the field would stand. This of course necessitated another several minutes of explaining the decision to a very pissed Rivera on the sideline. This is time none of us will ever get back. Ever!
I would just like to say, here, that a sensible interference review process would allow a coach to flag down a ref, tell him that defender hit my receiver in a way that is against the rules, and trust the referee to watch the replay and make the appropriate call. The NFL’s process, because it is not sensible, does not do this. What it does, instead, is it makes the illegal contact reviewable only according to the timing of the throw, which of course has nothing to do with the contact itself. Neither Samuel nor Davis had any idea whether the ball was technically thrown at the moment of contact—Davis threw a forearm into Samuel because he knew he’d been beaten, and he did it in a way that is against the rules. Only a body as dumb as the NFL could make it so the referee has to reference something that happened 40 feet away from that contact in order to determine whether he is allowed to call an illegal play a penalty.
The refs were not done making a dumb mess of this game. Two plays later, Newton hit D.J. Moore on an in-route right at the first-down line. Moore was tackled in such a way that the ball was down at his waist as he fell to the turf, and viewers could see that the play might’ve come up a couple inches short of a first down, especially when the first official on the scene spotted the ball behind the yellow overlay line shown on the broadcast. But then another official came in and unilaterally pushed the spot forward a good six to eight inches, giving the Panthers a clear first down.
Perhaps discouraged by the endless debacle of Rivera’s challenge just minutes—or perhaps a lifetime?—earlier, Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians decided not to throw the red flag. It’s hard to call this a mistake, because at worst the Panthers would’ve been a couple inches short of a new set of downs in a four-down situation, but as we would soon learn, Carolina’s Norv Turner-led offense has some real bad ideas about how to pick up a few crucial inches of turf.
Three plays later, Newton found Samuel for a nine-yard gain on the right sideline. It appeared that Davis yanked on Samuel’s face mask as Samuel was driving back to the ball, and that’s what was called on the field. But no, the replay official then called for a review of the play, once again to determine whether the contact constituted pass interference. And in order to get this call right, the yardage and clock would need to be correctly configured. Another five-plus minutes of your life gone forever, over a nine-yard completion in a Week 2 Thursday night game. Poor Boger could barely articulate the result of the review, he was so tired and flustered.
Three plays later, following a couple ugly incompletions, Newton hit Moore for eight yards to set up a fourth-and-two from the three. The Bucs, who had to worry about having some clock left after a potential Panthers touchdown, called a timeout. Then, with the Panthers over the ball, Arians pulled a Joe Gibbs and called a second timeout, which, by rule, is a delay of game. This penalty moved the ball half the distance to the goal, and set up a fourth and inches. At last we have come to the Norv special, the play that effectively ended the game. The Panthers badly telegraphed a direct snap to Christian McCaffrey and sent him on a long sweep out to the left side, on a play where they just needed a few inches. You will not be surprised to learn that it didn’t work.
But even this play required a review! The referees needed to determine whether McCaffrey extended the ball over the first-down marker before going out of bounds! Pereira was quick to point out that this would be the defining play of the game, and so of course you’d want to get it right, who could possibly complain about using up several more precious minutes of my actual finite life to review that damn play in super slow motion, even though everyone watching it could see the play sucked and McCaffrey didn’t make it.
So the Bucs walked out with a 20–14 win, the first of the Arians era. You would not think anything on television Thursday night could be more soul-darkening than the presidential debate, and perhaps you’re right. But this football game improbably gave that dreary spectacle a real run for its money, which should not be possible. The NFL can’t make quarterbacks play well, and it can’t make linemen block better, and it can’t stop Bucs defensive backs from mugging receivers when all I want to do is go to bed. The only thing it can control is its rules and how they are applied. This simply can’t be what anyone had in mind.