It’s a visceral feeling. We all go through it. Team A fails to convert on third down, and yet the flag alert on the score bug pops up, and you get this sinking feeling (unless you’re a fan of Team A, that is. I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never seen Justin Fields get a roughing the passer call). The camera pans to the referee, because it’s always the referee who throws this particular flag. He’s walking with righteous confidence to whatever spot he’s deemed to be his stage to turn on his mic, an assigned bravado that shouldn’t be part of his carriage with the knowledge he’s about to flip the game on its head. Almost always, there’s an incredulous defender behind him, with arms outstretched, his confusion and dejection palpable oozing out of his helmet. The ref declares a roughing the passer penalty, and he is drowned out by either raucous cheers or enraged boos, depending on the setting. Everyone knows these 15 yards are a game-turner, the deflation coming out of the defense almost always means points are coming (I have no evidence of this, it just feels that way).
The dance isn’t over, though. Once you hear the call, and you know the replay is sure to follow, you’re sure that it will expose yet another silly, if not downright ridiculous, call. A quarterback tapped on the head like he was a well-performing kindergartner. Or lightly pushed as if it was the world’s lamest moshpit. Perhaps just tackled. Something like this:
And then Twitter explodes. “This isn’t football!” “Quarterbacks aren’t statues!” You’re never too far from someone referencing female anatomy, because Twitter is so very classy (and as if female anatomy wasn’t actually the most resilient of human biology. Betty White was a genius).
It’s infuriating for most because those calls end up mattering so much. A 1st down and 15 yards in an era when playing defense is next to impossible is severe. And it does seem anathema to the whole oeuvre of the game.
Here’s the thing, though. All those former frat brothers screaming on Twitter about how the game is ruined and then some joke about Kylian Mbappe or Neymar, they’re almost certainly the same ones beseeching Justin Herbert or Patrick Mahomes to throw for four TDs so they can win their fantasy matchup that week or to cash in on a same-game parlay. How do they think that happens?
What NFL fans don’t want to admit is that this is the game they want, and they’ve told the NFL that every season when new viewership records are set, more people are betting on the game every day, and fantasy football “experts” get prime spots on every big website and full TV shows. They live to bitch about these calls while soaking in the game it has created.
It’s no different with pass interference, as receivers are allowed to run wherever they want unmolested or require a halo to make every catch. They even can run screens for each other and yet how often do you see offensive PI? It’s the game that has been ordered.
We all go through the pantomime of throwing our hands in the air and bemoaning for a time when the game looked like what we think it did when we were kids. Chances are if we went back and actually watched Chuck Long or Boomer Esiason bear crawl and dry hump their teams up and down some concreted astroturf field for a 21-10 win over the Colts we’d have the same expression as we did the first time we attempted to digest Brussel sprouts. But let’s just face the truth. This is the NFL game that the audience had decreed, decisively, that it prefers. You’ve got a stupid fantasy trophy to win, after all.