For any NFL fans out there who think that officiating hasn’t been at the level it should be, you are not alone. Earlier today, New Orleans’ Sean Payton was interviewed on the Dan Patrick Show and he was asked about how long it takes him to get over a loss. Payton responded that it usually takes about 24 hours, but with a loss like the Saints’ 23-21 Week 10 loss to the Tennessee Titans, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.”
Payton’s problem with the loss was the officiating, and he brought it up unprompted. In the second quarter, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw an interception into the endzone on first and goal, but it was called back due to roughing the passer, specifically, a blow to the head of the quarterback. A slow-motion replay shows that Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss made no contact with Tannehill’s head. The Titans would go on to score a touchdown. Payton also mentioned that officiating might have cost the Chicago Bears a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and NFL Network reported that league officials privately admitted the refs flubbed some big calls in that game.
However, what the NFL doubled down on publicly was Cassius Marsh’s taunting penalty. He was fined nearly $6,000. The emphasis on taunting has been controversial all season. Bears coach Matt Nagy says he has no problem with the way taunting has been officiated in 2021. Patrick asked Payton directly what he thought of this season’s taunting penalties. Payton responded that he believes that taunting is being over-officiated and no one, including himself, who discussed the taunting rule thought that it would be called as frequently as it has been.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said on air today that he understood the rule at the beginning of the season the same way that Payton did. He said that it was explained that penalties were supposed to be called for “egregious” taunting that could create an ugly situation on the field. Marsh celebrating the biggest play of his NFL career by spinning in the air, with no opposing players near him and 35-40 yards from their sideline should objectively be considered not taunting.
With human beings refereeing games, there will always be human error. Calls will be missed and we will always be there to complain. A bad holding call or illegal contact call can be dealt with, but what must stop are these game deciding calls.
Marsh’s sack would have given the Steelers a 4th and 15 in their own territory, with three minutes remaining and the Bears down 23-20. The Bears ended up losing the game 29-27. The roughing the passer call on the Saints happened at a much earlier point in the game, but their quarterback is Trevor Siemian. The longer they can hold a lead the better, and there are few more backbreaking plays in football than a goal-line turnover.
If the referees can’t make the correct calls, they at least need to swallow their whistles in game changing situations as long as a player’s safety wasn’t at serious risk on the play. From the cheap seats to the NFL’s network television partners, no one is paying money to see the striped shirts decide a game. At least that would be consistent. Instead Tannehill gets saved on an interception, and in the Bears game here is a roughing the passer penalty that was called for Ben Roethlisberger and not for Justin Fields. While Fields is the only play that should have even been thought about as a penalty, he and everyone who saw the play could live with it more easily if Roethlisberger and Tannehill hadn’t gotten those touch foul calls.
If the NFL has any interest in fairness, they need to take what Payton said today seriously. The players and coaches put in a lot of work, and some ill-timed losses can cost them their jobs. No team owner is going to remember that they lost two games that kept them out of the playoffs, in two consecutive years, on terrible calls. The defeats will be pointed out, and jobs will be lost.
If the referees have a problem doing their job correctly, the least that they can do is stay out of sight as much as possible and let the people with the most to lose decide the games.