Though the enlightened French philosopher made that sarcastic observation a few centuries ago as the world emerged from a similarly dark period, the words could easily apply to the National Football League, which finds itself on the defensive after a championship Sunday that was rivetingly nonsensical and nonsensically riveting.
People understandably have their knickers in a knot over the non-pass interference call in the NFC title game which cost the New Orleans Saints a trip to the Super Bowl. Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman admitted afterward he was so badly beaten on the play that he attempted to prevent a touchdown by plowing into wide receiver Tommylee Lewis well before the ball arrived. Incredibly, no flag flew. Even Robey-Coleman, the former Buffalo Bill, was shocked — and undoubtedly relieved over this unexpected reprieve. (Interestingly, if he had just turned around rather than keeping his back to the play, he would have been able to intercept the pass from Drew Brees, and we’d be having a different discussion.)
Instead of a first-and-goal at the spot of the foul with an opportunity to run the clock down to its final seconds before kicking the winning field goal, the Saints were forced to boot the go-ahead three-pointer with enough time left to enable the Rams to stage a furious comeback and win the game in overtime.
The outcome clearly would have been different were pass interference calls reviewable. They are not. So, the simple solution, going forward, is to make pass interference calls, and any call for that matter, challengeable. There was a pivotal play in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game where Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones was penalized for roughing the passer. Replays showed that Jones’ hit on New England quarterback Tom Brady was perfectly legal. Chiefs coach Andy Reid should have been able to challenge that call, which would have been overturned, forcing the Patriots to face a third-and-seven instead of being awarded a first down that wound up sustaining a touchdown drive.
To prevent my review proposal from becoming unwieldy, I would continue to limit coaches’ challenges to two, but would give them a bonus one if they won their first two challenges. Everything would be subject for review, but you’d need to use them judiciously because you’d only have three challenges, max.
Interestingly, one of the things we discovered from Sunday’s infamous non-call is that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell actually has the power to go back in time and right a wrong that determines the outcome of a game if he believes the error was so egregious it led to a grossly unfair result. Don’t mean to bog you down with legalese here, but Rule 17, Section 2, Article 3 of the NFL rule book tells us the Commish can reverse a game’s result or reschedule a game, “either from the beginning or from the point” at which an “extraordinarily unfair” act occurred. This, of course, would open up a stadium-sized can of worms, so I don’t see it ever being used. But it is an intriguing option. Clearly, Goodell has stuck his nose into other matters that weren’t considered extraordinarily unfair. (Remember Deflategate?)
Championship Sunday also reminded of us of how unjust the NFL’s overtime rule is, where games can be decided by coin flips. The Patriots won the toss, took possession of the ball, and Brady masterfully marched them down the field for the winning touchdown. The Chiefs and their otherworldly quarterback Patrick Mahomes never got their hands on the ball during the extra session. Game over. Season over. See you in the fall.
Yes, I realize the Chiefs had a big say in their fate. You want to go to the Super Bowl? Well, stop Brady, force the Pats to punt, and then, as late Chiefs coach Hank Stram used to say, “matriculate down the field” and kick the winning field goal.
I believe the college overtime system is a fairer one. Each team gets a shot from the other team’s 25-yard-line, and you play until someone scores and stops you from scoring. This way, each team gets an equal number of possessions. Perhaps, instead of starting on the 25, you could start on the 45. Either way, it’s a more just way of doing things. You can’t tell me that most football fans wouldn’t have loved to have seen Mahomes try to match Brady, possession for possession, in OT. Heck, given the way those guys were flinging it, the game might still be going on.
Regardless, how much tweaking we do to the rules and replay review system, mistakes will continue to be made. Refs are going to blow calls. Players are going to miss tackles and blocks, fumble balls and zig when they should have zagged. Coaches are going to call for runs when they should have called for passes, play prevent defense when they should have blitzed, and mismanage the clock. And replay officials are going to get it wrong, too, the way they did during the “Music City Miracle” in the 2000 playoffs, when that forward pass on the Tennessee Titans game-winning kickoff return was ruled a legal lateral, costing the Buffalo Bills a legitimate shot at a fifth Super Bowl appearance.
But, hey, human errors are a part of football and life. Outcomes aren’t always fair. And common sense isn’t always common.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.