The Bears are down 20-17, but they are driving downfield. Now they are deep in Lions territory with a first-and-10. Jay Cutler scrambles up the right end for nine yards before being drilled by Ndamukong Suh. It is a hard, high hit, and the official flags Suh for unnecessary roughness.
Later, the referee will be asked about the play. He will say that it appeared the runner was going to the ground, and the force of the hit combined with the shot to the head seemed to be unnecessarily rough given the circumstances. It is a judgment call like so many other calls.
On the very next play Cutler hits Brandon Manumaleuna with a touchdown pass. The Bears go up 24-20. The Lions are stopped on their next drive, and the Bears take over and move the ball again into Lions territory. They run out the clock and win the game.
Fast forward. Although not as “controversial” as several other plays that have been discussed to death in sportscaster circles, the Suh hit was just one of many plays that drew the asperity of the commentators as they reviewed the game highlights.
“It was a terrible call.”
“What was wrong with that hit?!”
“NOTHING was wrong with that hit.”
Okay, in the first moment, everyone at the NFL or ESPN is in some kind of rational disagreement with the officials. Then it turns crazy as they start to examine what might have been:
“[the call] gives the Bears a fresh set of downs after what would have been third down…”
“this is a bad call because, otherwise, I think the Lions would have been able to hold them to a field goal, and would have kept control of the ball game.”
“[the call] really changed the whole game.”
Of course, these are just some of the comments…never mind the headline over at NFL.com, which reads something like: “Bears bounce Lions after controversial penalty”
Before I transition back to a larger point, let’s rewind back to the game and review some facts. It is a first-and-10, and Cutler scrambles for nine yards. Therefore, the following play is a second-and-one (not third down, as some were suggesting).
Meanwhile, the Bears are well into scoring range at this point.
Let’s go with the ESPN fantasy where the Lions hold the Bears to a field goal, as there is some shred of reasonability to that one. Let’s pretend that the Bears offense implodes right there—after Suh destroys Cutler. It is then 20-20, and the Lions get the ball back. We already know how that turns out, because the Lions actually DID get the ball back after the touchdown: They are stopped by the Bears defense well before scoring range, so they give the ball back to the Bears.
The Bears move the ball back downfield into scoring position, and end the game by kneeling a few times rather than putting up another touchdown or field goal. In other words, in real life, if Lovie Smith were a cruel coach, the game could have been 31-20 or 27-20. That means that, even with all the generous assumptions of the commentators, the game STILL would have been 27-20 or 23-20 in favor of the Bears.
Even in the fantastical minds of commentators, nobody accounts for the Bears in scoring position at the end. They just don’t mention it.
Nobody is going to dream up what could have been based on the REALITY of the game. This is one big fantasy fest; this is all a tale about how the Lions might have picked off the Bears if only this one call would have gone their way.
The problem with all of these whimsical accounts is that they are the dominant voices in the highlight reels. People who were watching a different game learn about the match-up by catching the highlights. When you tell everyone that this one call changed the whole outcome of the game, they don’t know that you’re looking at that call through the lens of imagination.
To go back to the Bears-Lions example, how might a Packers fan respond, learning that the Bears “won the game on a bad call?”
This has happened so many times this year to so many teams. Watching the highlights of NFL games lately, you are led to believe that the poor judgment of referees determines these ball games, rather than the good effort of coaches and players on one side.
While opining commentators are expected to provide a colorful account of the game, they also have a duty to inform people about how the game actually played out. It is important that they do not spin every other game into a controversy, because it erodes peoples’ faith in the fairness of the game. No doubt, the officials get it wrong sometimes, but it almost never affects the entire outcome of the game.
Opinions stated forcefully by those with power can quickly become public perceptions, and public perception affects reality. For football’s sake, commentators and sportswriters need to be more cautious with words. Loyal and passionate football fans are already very opinionated folks. We don’t need the added element of twisted information to further distort our views.
Meanwhile, as the chorus of unsatisfied commentators finally dies down this week, a Bing poll shows up on ESPN asking which moment was the most decisive in the NFL games. Right at the top, the first option is: “Roughing the passer call on Ndamukong Suh leads to Bears win.”