NFL fans could not have asked for a better pair of conference championship games. The four best teams in the league had all advanced, and the two remaining games promised to feature beautiful, high-scoring football played by some of the best young and old players the league has to offer. We got some of that, but we also spent way too much time frowning over the application and interpretation of the NFL rulebook.
I don’t wish to be one of those people who say that both of yesterday’s games were ruined by bad officiating, because no football game is decided by one play, and that argument could be made after just about any football game in history if you went looking hard enough for blown calls. But the officiating in playoff games is inherently under more scrutiny, and yesterday it felt like football was as damaged as its ever been by its years-long transformation from a sport into a protracted legal proceeding carried out in front of thousands of drunk people.
No matter who you were rooting for yesterday, it’s likely you still have a number of questionable and agonizing officiating moments replaying in your head this morning. There was the blown pass interference call in the Rams-Saints game, of course, which will go down as one of the worst missed calls in NFL history. There was also the other pass interference penalty the Rams got away with, the cheap roughing the passer call that kept the Patriots alive, Dee Ford canceling a game-ending interception by lining up in the neutral zone, catches by Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan that maybe weren’t catches because we still somehow don’t really know what a catch is, and all those minutes we spent trying to find the grain of synthetic material on Edelman’s glove that may have caused a muffed punt.
These moments were frustrating for different reasons and to different degrees, but they are all symptoms of the same problem. The complexities and clunky design of football will always require the existence of a giant rulebook stuffed with inelegant solutions to unavoidable problems, but where the NFL has failed is in its insistence that the best way to fix the sport is just to create more rules, and to grant more opportunities to apply those rules through frame-by-frame scrutinization of every blade of grass on the field. The Chiefs were penalized for gently dropping a hand onto Tom Brady’s shoulder not because anyone in the stadium or on the field or in the grand expanse of the universe actually thought his health and safety were put at risk in that moment, but because the unceasing growth and mutation of the NFL rulebook demanded that the act be interpreted as such.
The experience of watching an NFL game is now a crazy-making one. It’s a sport that requires you to sit on your couch for three hours and spend the whole time questioning if what you saw is really what you saw, and to never really be given a satisfactory answer. At one point during the Pats-Chiefs game, while officials were reviewing a Chris Hogan catch that was ultimately ruled incomplete, color commentator Tony Romo attempted to explain how Hogan’s catch differed from a similarly questionable catch made earlier in the game by Julian Edelman, which was upheld. “It did look a little different than the last one,” he said. “Like it was just a little more... oh this one’s on the ground... like... whereas Hogan had his hand under it... or Edelman.” If there’s one thing that defines modern football, it’s poor Tony Romo trying to parse exactly how much of the ground a ball is allowed to touch before it crosses over from caught to dropped.
The worst thing about all of this is that as fans we are told that football games need to be repeatedly interrupted by these spells of legalistic rulebook interpretation so that we can always be assured that the the ultimate outcome of the game is true and just. Sure, we have to sit there and watch a pixelated football sail beyond Julian Edelman’s pixelated thumbs in slow motion for five minutes, but it’s the price we have to pay in order to get things right! That all sounds good until you witness Nickell Robey-Coleman just straight up plow into a receiver and send the Saints home on some extreme bullshit.
If yesterday’s games are proof of anything, it’s that it is becoming harder and harder for football to wriggle free of its self-made restraints. Those were good games yesterday—great ones, even!—featuring four talented teams pushing each other into overtime. There was Jared Goff proving himself, Patrick Mahomes capping off his MVP season with another collection of breathtaking throws, and Brady and Belichick once again showing what perfectly executed football looks like. The football itself, the small dose of action that fans gave away their entire day to see, was sparkling. But there was also all that other shit, and I’m still not sure if it was all, in its totality, much fun to watch.