Commentary

NFL officiating reaches new depths

League faces major credibility crisis if labor debacle doesn't get resolved soon

Originally Published: September 18, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Champ Bailey turned his back and said something about not trying to be rude, but he wouldn't talk about the debacle that was the officiating in the Falcons' 27-21 win over the Broncos on Monday night.

Radio silence for a reason. "You'll get fined," Broncos safety Mike Adams said to Bailey with a laugh.

And that would be a shame. No one should have to pay money for speaking out about the train wreck that the performance of replacement officials has become. Week 1 was one thing. But now in Week 2, we've seen just how incompetent these officials are. Players know. Coaches know. Everyone is pushing. And intimidating. And trying to get an edge any way they can.

It is what men in the National Football League do. They look for an edge. And gaining an edge over the underqualified and overmatched officials has led to problems on the field. Some games are longer. The first quarter Monday night lasted an hour. Players are griping on the field. Coaches are getting frustrated. The overall product is taking a hit.

The next time an official calls illegal contact after 5 yards will be the first, one player told me. Defensive backs are taking advantage, trying to gain back at least a little of the ground they have lost in recent years as the league has skewed the game toward the quarterbacks through rule changes.

In the Denver-Atlanta game, there were three calls overturned on replay in the first half. There were 18 combined penalties and one six-minute skirmish that was a direct hit to the shield the NFL wants so badly to protect. There was a phantom pass interference call on Broncos cornerback Tony Carter. There was a defensive holding call against the Falcons on which the Broncos were awarded 11 yards, rather than 5.

After a Knowshon Moreno fumble late in the first quarter -- Denver's fourth turnover of the quarter -- a skirmish ensued. Seemingly half the Broncos' players were on the field, and Atlanta defensive end Ray Edwards bumped referee Ken Roan. There was pushing and shoving. Pandemonium for six minutes. Edwards was the only player or coach flagged. He was called for unnecessary roughness, but he should have been tossed from the game for physically contacting an official.

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
AP Photo/David GoldmanBroncos coach John Fox gives field judge Jimmy Buchanan a piece of his mind during Monday's game ...

The Broncos might not have wanted to talk about any of it, and that's understandable, but everyone who watched the game knows the officials were a joke.

Consider what one veteran offensive player told me on the condition of anonymity, because he also didn't want to get fined: "One of the things that's tough as a player, in all honesty, is just the amount of time every call takes. That's one of the things that is really frustrating. Hopefully, they'll get it fixed and get it back to normal."

It all was ugly and embarrassing for the league and commissioner Roger Goodell, whose stated mission since becoming commissioner has been to protect the league's image and value player safety. He has done such strong work in both areas, paying close attention to personal conduct, player safety and concussion awareness. It means something to him. Which is why what transpired inside the Georgia Dome was so unfortunate. It sullied the shield. Officials looked weak and lost. Players looked overly aggressive. Broncos coach John Fox looked like a whiner.

The ugliness overshadowed what was supposed to be one of 17 Monday night celebrations. These weeks and games are too precious to be marred by such antics. Players were frustrated, and for good reason. Manning pleaded with officials several times. Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley pulled on the back of his jersey to show he had been interfered with on a crucial fourth-and-1, and the official threw the flag. Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon signaled for a false start penalty against Denver and, when he didn't get it, made his way into the Broncos' backfield to have a word with umpire Timothy Morris, who, to his credit, put his hand up as if to say, "No."

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images... and doesn't seem pleased with the explanation.

What we should be talking about was the smothering performance of the Falcons' defense, which intercepted Peyton Manning three times in the first quarter to grab hold of the game. We should be talking about Falcons safety William Moore, who had the game of his life with an interception and a sack, and about Roddy White, who put on a show with eight catches, 102 yards and one touchdown. We should be talking about Matt Ryan, who threw his 100th career touchdown pass and had another stellar performance, completing 24 of 36 passes for 219 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

We should be talking about the emergence of the Falcons as one of the best teams in the NFC and one of six 2-0 teams left in the NFL, of Ryan finally winning on Monday night in his fourth try, of all of Atlanta's offensive weapons, and about creative defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who dialed up a game plan that frustrated one of the most unflappable quarterbacks the game has ever seen.

But no, we aren't doing that, because the NFL and its real officials can't come to an agreement on a fair and equitable new collective bargaining agreement. It has gone beyond the point of mattering who is right and who is wrong. What matters is that the games are becoming jokes, and it is only going to get worse the longer this drags on.

This is the National Football League. Fox called the game "controlled chaos" but said he would not use officiating as an excuse. "I guess that's a side note," Fox said.

A side note? Longtime Denver Post columnist Woody Paige responded, "Do you really believe that?"

"I said it," Fox said.

At least he said something. Unfortunately, the officials' performance Monday night said everything. The NFL has to get a deal done with the regular officials, before this officially gets out of hand.

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