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Does the NFL need to give its officials a copy of the rulebook for Christmas?

Judging by Week 13, that seems to be on at least a few wish lists for Santa
12/03/2013 12:40 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Who is the bigger turkey: Mike Tomlin for his chicanery, or the official who didn't penalize it?(AP)
Last year, many NFL pundits attributed a highly-controversial call at the end of a tight Packers-Seahawks game as the impetus for the end of the replacement referees era.

So then, if all it takes is one mistake (or two or three) to make a positive change, then what’s going to happen to the current “real” NFL referees after the debacle that was Week 13?

Sure, NFL officials blow calls every now and again, and as anyone will claim, could call a penalty (especially holding) in almost every play if they truly held to the letter of the law – but with all eyes on them after the scandalous officiating at the end of the Patriots-Panthers Monday night game a couple weeks back, one has to wonder just how they can get away with the pair of egregious miscalls that happened – on national television, no less – this past week.

The first, of course, came during the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game on Thanksgiving night, as one of the officials failed to call a penalty on Steelers coach Mike Tomlin for not only stepping into the six-foot-wide white “restricted area”, but also nearly stepping on the field during a third quarter kick return by the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones – even though the official HAD TO RUN BEHIND TOMLIN to keep up with the play.

Now, anyone can say it’s impossible to know and to properly call every rule in the rulebook, but let’s take that one step further: shouldn’t, then, certain officials at least strive to know the ins and outs of the rulebook within their jurisdiction, i.e. a side judge knowing the entirety of the letter of the law on boundaries?

If ESPN and other media outlets can look up that section of the rulebook with ease within a few hours of the infraction, shouldn’t that official have known that was a penalty – and even worse, shouldn’t common sense say that you should throw a flag when a coach steps on the field and nearly trips an active player as you’re running by him.

It’s not like this is the first time something of this scope has happened, either, as any Jets fan who remembers “Trip-Gate” can remind you.

A few days later, we have an officiating crew almost single-handedly costing one team a game, based on one of them not knowing that a ball spotted short of the first down marker is not, in fact, a first down. That happened in Sunday night’s Redskins-Giants game, when at least one official signaled a first down on a second and eight play where the ball’s progress was spotted a good yard short, even prompting the chain gang to move the markers – but after Washington threw a long incompletion on what they thought was first and ten, referee Jeff Triplette informed coach Mike Shanahan that it was actually fourth and one, and the previous play had really been third down.

While it didn’t end up “mattering” in the long run, Mike Shanahan admitted after the game that the situation changed his play-calling, and that’s understandable; most teams wouldn’t throw a 30-yard pass over the middle on third and short, and likewise, most wouldn’t call a short hitch on second and ten.

Luckily for all involved, the Redskins completed the next play to (in theory) pick up a first down, although New York’s Will Hill stripped the ball away from Pierre Garcon to give the Giants possession and end the game – but imagine how much worse it would have been had the ‘Skins not converted that second-turned-fourth down?

And while we’re thinking about it, how much worse would it have been if Baltimore hadn’t won Thursday night, and how much would that have been blamed on Tomlin – whose actions, people would say, may have cost Jones a return touchdown and set up drive where Baltimore had to settle for a field goal?

As it stands, the league will review both incidents, Tomlin will be surely fined, and realistically, the Redskins (and maybe the Giants, to be fair) weren’t in the playoff hunt anyway, so all ends up in the wash there.

But what happens to those officials? They may be disciplined, but will they be named and shamed by the NFL? Of course not, and chances are, they may not even be reprimanded more than a fine (which, for many of them, means they simply lose a little off their “extra” paycheck from a side job) and no one will ever be any wiser for it.

Sadly, that’s not the way it should be, especially when you make a big mistake on a public stage like that, because in most professions, a mistake that basically amounts to gross negligence – especially if it directly impacts peripheral events in a negative way – would be cause for punishment, up to and including termination.

You can even apply that philosophy to other walks of life. Think about it this way: how appalled would you be if you had to go around someone parked illegally in the fire lane in front of a store, and that caused you to get into an accident? Or, how mad would you be if a rep from your bank tells you a deposit is cleared, so you make a purchase – only to find out that you’ve gone into overdraft because that deposit in fact was short?

In a season where we’ve already found out that one official knew of a rule change that bans defensive players pushing teammates forward on field goal attempts (another subject Jets fans know well), it’s hard to believe some of them don’t know what pass interference, obstruction, or simple math are.

If life is going to imitate art sometimes, then maybe it’s time for the NFL’s art to imitate life and take some sort of public action, whether it be punitive or corrective, to combat gross negligence within the ranks of its officials.

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