After the Steelers' game-winning "plane-gate'' touchdown in Baltimore, I don't know what passes as indisputable visual evidence these days, but I do know one thing that's indisputable in this 2008 NFL season: The league's game officials are having a bad year.
We all know there are replay beefs, questionable calls and outright mistakes made by the men in zebra stripes each season. But this year's crop of controversial judgments have packed a notably high-impact wallop, with two of the most memorable examples having potentially decided two of the NFL's eight division races.
Hyperbole? We think not. If referee
And then there was Sunday's contretemps in Baltimore, where I watched that final-minute
It's not as if Pittsburgh's 13-9 win was a gift from the NFL sent from heaven above, but let's face the facts: That call was the pivotal moment in a game that settled the AFC North in favor of the Steelers, and put Pittsburgh into position to chase the AFC's No. 1 postseason seed this week at Tennessee. You don't have to play the six degrees of separation game to make the case that Coleman and crew could wind up playing a significant role in determining who represents the AFC in Tampa this February.
Those were our two bookend moments in the annus horribilis that 2008 has turned into for NFL game officials, but to be sure, there were other low-lights. To wit:
-- Baltimore got the short end of the stick in Week 5 as well, when it lost 13-10 to Tennessee thanks in part to a very questionable fourth-quarter roughing the passer call on linebacker
-- Our man Hochuli was back under the microscope in Week 4 when he ruled Carolina defensive end
-- In a crushing Week 5 loss at home to Minnesota on Monday night football, the Saints were jobbed when Hochuli and crew missed an obvious facemask by the Vikings on running back
-- In a Week 10 loss at Arizona, again under the glare of the Monday night spotlight, the 49ers cried foul after referee
-- And just last Thursday night, though it didn't wind up costing the Bears a game they had to have against New Orleans, who knows what the officials were watching when Saints cornerback
More and more in my travels around the league, I'm hearing the growing perception that this season has been the worst officiated in years, and the natural question then becomes: Will the powers that be in the league -- read: the NFL's competition committee -- take any steps designed to tweak the replay system or improve the imperfect science of game officiating?
Don't hold your breath waiting for the big fix. It's not likely to come. On Tuesday morning, I talked to one general manager from a team that has reason to feel aggrieved this season, and while he admits this year's controversial calls have been more magnified, he doesn't know how you would improve the current replay system or ever completely eliminate human error.
"There have been quite a few controversial calls,'' the general manager said. "But I've never felt at any point this season like we were victims.''
Which is probably not entirely the same sentiment of outrage shared by his team's fans, coaches and players. The sentiment "We wuz robbed'' has hung heavily over the NFL landscape at times this season.
Although there's still plenty of time for another high-profile questionable call or two to spur the league into action, according to the sources I talked to, nothing concrete seems to be in the air at the moment.
Other than the general, nagging consensus that this has not been the best of years for the NFL's whistle-blower set.
• Later today, the NFL's Pro Bowl teams will be announced, and that always serves to remind me of one thing: I hate the Pro Bowl. It may be the biggest joke in professional sports, depending on how seriously you take
It's not solely that I take exception with the idea of the fan balloting aspect of the Pro Bowl selection process, or that it's merely a popularity contest that often rewards undeserving players who go back to Honolulu every year because, well, they've gone before.
It's that the game is inherently meaningless, and winds up being waged by far too many third alternates and injury replacements to deserve true all-star billing. If the majority of players don't care, and they really don't other than having the negotiating leverage of a Pro Bowl selection on their résumé, why should we?
I know the league believes moving the game to the weekend between the conference title games and the Super Bowl might jack up fan interest, and it might. But not much. Now you're going to have Pro Bowl teams that can't have any players representing that season's Super Bowl teams, and that's a ridiculous situation that only waters down the significance of the game in and of itself.
In the contact sport that is the NFL, it's just a flawed concept to think you could have an all-star game with any real intensity or significance. It just doesn't work as a postseason game, and it'll never happen in season. Name the Pro Bowl teams and let the record book show who made it in any given year. Just don't bother with the charade of playing the game. The Pro Bowl is a perennial bore.
• Here's something remarkable to consider as we stare down the final two weeks of the regular season: From the 1970 merger on, 203 teams have won at least 11 games in any given season, and 202 of those have made the playoffs. That's a 99.5 percent success ratio, with only the 1985 Denver Broncos bucking the trend (sorry for the pun).
But this year, we could have an 11-5 non-playoff qualifier in each conference. And it's not even all that implausible. New England in the AFC and Atlanta in the NFC are both 9-5, but out of the money in the playoff chase at the moment. If form holds, both the Patriots and the Falcons could join the '85 Broncos with that dubious distinction.
And if you're wondering why I didn't include the 9-5 Jets and 9-5 Dolphins alongside the Patriots as potential 11-5 playoff no-shows, it's because New York and Miami play in Week 17, meaning one of them would have to win the division at 11-5 in this scenario, and one of them would have to finish 10-6 and out of the postseason.
• Last year at this time, the Giants'
I give Fox a clear edge over Dallas'
• And so ends the long reign of
Yeah, me neither. I'm still not even sure how it happened once.
• Let's see how long it takes
• Can you believe that Eagles cornerback
I would have bet the Wall Street bailout that another Philly player wouldn't have tried that asinine routine at any point this season after the Eagles rookie receiver got away with it (sort of) in the Monday-night Week 2 loss at Dallas.
What could Samuel have possibly been thinking?
• OK, it can't be mere happenstance at this point. Cleveland receiver
I get liking the camera and the spotlight, and Edwards told me in training camp how eager he was to play on Monday nights with the whole NFL world watching. But Braylon, try to mix in a decent Sunday afternoon game now and then.
• Did you notice that in reaction to my dropping
• What would be the more remarkable accomplishment, the Raiders' streak of six years in a row with at least 11 losses (already done), or the Colts' streak of six years in a row of at least 12 wins (almost there)?
I say the Raiders. It's hard to stay down that long in this league.
• Oakland interim head coach
That's like begrudging someone for leaving the Titanic -- women and children first -- and I suspect Cable's really mad about either not getting an invitation to Knoxville himself, or the fact he has to finish out the season in Oakland.
• Mark my words:
• Interesting turn of events in Minnesota, where defensive tackle
Maybe Minnesota can get that federal judge to put forth a preliminary injunction against Williams' injury. Because at this point we know God is obviously a league-office man.
• If the Redskins are even considering the firing of first-year head coach
The Redskins went with Zorn last January despite knowing he would be doing some on-the-job training as a head coach. But they invested in his potential, and now's the time they need to remember where their never-ending search for instant gratification has gotten them in the past.