NFL Referees Under Scrutiny

Ken WagonerContributor IJanuary 3, 2009

I've been watching NFL (and AFL—that's how old I am) football for almost 50 years.  Like every other fan who's watched professional football for any length of time I've had my share of rage and blessings of the calls made by the men wearing black and white stripes. 

The first call I can ever remember having that sort of feeling about was during one of the Denver Broncos dismal years in the late '60s when it seemed that there was a cabal to call holding on them on successive plays.  Those of us who were Denver fans were vindicated in our rage when it was learned that Rozelle had listened to the complaints of the Phipps brothers and had actually looked at game film. 

Lo and behold it was noted that a certain official was reaching for his penalty flag prior to the snap of the ball.  In other words he was a little too anxious to make the call.  The referee was dismissed to a very low fanfare, and time went on.

The first one I remember going my way was during the 1977 AFC championship game between Oakland and Denver, at Mile High on New Year's Day, 1978.  Early in the first half, Rob Lytle dove into the line at about the two yard line and fumbled the ball, with Oakland recovering.  That was a huge play and it could have very easily slammed the door on any momentum Denver had going in that game, particularly with that great Oakland team. 

Frantic whistling by head linesman Ed Marion stopped the play when he ruled that Lytle was stopped, and the play was dead prior to the fumble.  Denver kept the ball, and if I remember correctly scored on that drive when John Keyworth took an option into the north end zone.  Denver eventually won the game 20-17.

Early this season I was both delighted and appalled at the call made by Ed Hochuli in the Denver-San Diego game up at Invesco Field.  As you've probably read Hochuli blew the whistle on a Jay Cutler fumble, ruling it an incomplete pass.  The call was wrong, and Hochuli admitted it immediately. 

My delight was in being a Denver fan, my being appalled was as a result of not wanting the officials to make the difference in the game.  And despite my total and consuming loyalty to the Broncos, I have to say that this particular call was the difference in the game.  That's not supposed to be the case.

The first time this season when I really sat up and took notice of an official's call was in the San Diego-Pittsburgh game.  As many of you will remember, that game finished with the Steelers ahead by the score of 11-10.  There was a very controversial call on San Diego's last possession when the Charger's apparently lost a lateral which was run in for a touchdown by Pittsburgh. 

Not so fast, ruled the officials. 

The lateral was forward, not backward, and besides, there had already been a pass on the play, which meant the ball was dead where the forward lateral occurred, and that the return by Pittsburgh was not valid.  I thought the ruling was suspect, based on my repeated viewing of the lateral in slow mo, and super slow mo thanks to a DVR.  I had one conclusion on the play.  If the "Music City Miracle" was a lateral, so was this play. 

Pittsburgh won either way, you might note, so whats the big deal?  The betting line was the big deal.  Pittsburgh was a three-point favorite, meaning that if the Chargers stayed within three points, those who bet on them would win.  If the touchdown is valid, the successful bettors are on the Steelers, who then cover a three-point spread.  That really got my attention.  One call by a referee, in a very close could-have-been-either-way situation, and millions of dollars are swung.  Hmmmmm.

I listened to the explanation from the league regarding the discussion among the referees, and the replay booth, and it just didnt' ring true to an unbiased or uninvolved discussion.  It smelled, in my opinion.

Fast forward a few weeks to the Bears and Saints game.  With the Bears trailing by three points near the end of regulation play, they're driving on the Saints, and have the ball at the nine yard line.  On second down with 0:12 on the clock, Orton faded back and lofted a pass towards Greg Olson in the end zone.  Olson was blatantly interfered with by Saints defensive back Jason David in the end zone. 

David had his arms wrapped completely around Olson before the ball ever hit Olson, and was in the process of tackling him when that took place.  There was no interference call, just simply "incomplete."  Bears fans went nuts, as did the announcers up in the booth who couldn't understand the non-call.  Interference in the end zone results in the ball being placed on the one, and the bears would have had a shot at ending the game in regulation, as there were still nine seconds left after the play. 

One more shot at the end zone from the one, and still enough time to call time out for a field goal to tie the game if the play failed.  No call, and even though Orton was sacked on third down, he had the presence of mind to call time out and allow Gould to kick the field goal to tie the game.  The Bears eventually won the game in overtime when he kicked another one.

Once again, Chicago won either way, you might note, so whats the big deal?  The betting line was the big deal.  The Bears were a three-point favorite, meaning that if they score a touchdown in that situation, those who bet on them would win. In reality for the major lines, no one was the winner as the game was a tie (for bettors) or a push.

But hold on.  Many of the betting sites don't allow push games, so they add or subtract an additional 1/2 point to the line to avoid that. 

Now, the situation in the Bears-Saints contest is exactly the same as in the Pittsburgh-San Diego game earlier.  In this case a referee's non-call resulted in a swing of millions of dollars wagered on the game.  Once again, hmmmmm.

I don't have any proof of anything or I'd be talking to a grand jury or district attorney or something.  I do have concerns that with the amount of money wagered on these games legally and otherwise there's a potential for a disaster similar to that facing the NBA after it was learned they had a referee tainted by gamblers. 

I have questions, and doubts about their honesty now.  And that's sad. 

Thanks for reading this.