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 Ed Hochuli's inadvertent whistle hadn't negated that Jay Cutler fumble late in a Week 2 Chargers-Broncos game, San Diego and Denver could be entering Week 16 tied with records of 7-7, heading for that winner-take-all Week 17 showdown in sunny Southern California. As is, Denver (8-6) leads San Diego (6-8) by two games with two games remaining, and the Chargers need a mini-miracle to punch a playoff ticket.
And then there was Sunday's contretemps in Baltimore, where I watched that final-minute Santonio Holmes catch be ruled no touchdown, then somewhat surprisingly reversed to a touchdown after a replay review. Referee Walt Coleman botched the explanation of the reversal, failing to even address the central point of whether the ball broke the plane of the goal line, and for my money the call stretched the word "indisputable'' beyond recognition. (After all, one man's indisputable is another man's disputable).
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:
-- Referee Scott "Vegas'' Green getting the Troy Polamalu touchdown wrong at the end of that 11-10 Pittsburgh win over San Diego (to the ever-lasting enmity of point-spread gamblers everywhere).
-- 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 Terrell Suggs. The penalty came on a third-and-10 Kerry Collins incompletion, and while Suggs was whistled for hitting the quarterback in the helmet, replays did not remotely support that conclusion. The call wiped out a Titans false start on the play, because referee Bill Carollo said the players did not hear the whistle, with the personal foul superseding the false start. Greatly aided by the phantom call, the Titans drove for the game-winning touchdown and remained undefeated.
-- Our man Hochuli was back under the microscope in Week 4 when he ruled Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers had roughed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, which took a Panthers interception return for a touchdown off the board. Replays showed Peppers hit Ryan as the quarterback released the ball -- not late -- and led with his shoulder, not his helmet.
-- 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 Reggie Bush, who committed a pivotal fumble later on the same play.
-- In a Week 10 loss at Arizona, again under the glare of the Monday night spotlight, the 49ers cried foul after referee Tony Corrente and crew moved the line of scrimmage of the game's final play from the one to the two-and-a-half-yard line based on a replay review. San Francisco's play call was based on being on the one, and the chaotic ending of the game didn't bathe anyone in glory in the five-point 49ers defeat.
-- 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 Jason David mugged Chicago tight end Greg Olsen in the end zone in the final seconds of regulation? On some level, pass interference in the NFL has to be like that famous Supreme Court definition of pornography: You know it when you see it.
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 Dancing With the Stars.
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).
Dan Reeves' team that season went 11-5, but lost out on the two AFC wild-card berths in the NFL's then 10-team playoff format to the Jets and Patriots, who were both 11-5 as well. Making the Broncos even crazier was the fact that Cleveland won the AFC Central that season at a dazzling 8-8.
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' Tom Coughlin was in the process of going from a guy who was coaching for his job in 2008 to winning a Super Bowl title. If there's a coach I would deem most likely to make the same journey this time around, it'd be Carolina's John Fox, who entered this make-or-break season after having survived speculation last winter that he was in jeopardy of being bounced by the Panthers.
I give Fox a clear edge over Dallas' Wade Phillips, Minnesota's Brad Childress and the Jets' Eric Mangini in the from-the-hot-seat-to-the-victory-parade standings.
• And so ends the long reign of "King Carl'' Peterson in Kansas City. Do you imagine they'll ever be another NFL general manager/team president who gets 20 years in his job without at least getting to one Super Bowl?
Yeah, me neither. I'm still not even sure how it happened once.
• Let's see how long it takes Marty Schottenheimer to apply for Kansas City's general manager opening? And to repeat, I don't think Cleveland has interest in Schottenheimer in any capacity. Those recent headlines were all trial balloons floated in order to make it known Schottenheimer has interest in Cleveland.
• Can you believe that Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel pulled a DeSean Jackson and intentionally dropped the ball shy of crossing the goal line on that interception return for a touchdown Monday night against Cleveland?
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 Braylon Edwards, he of the wholly disappointing season, has just three 100-yard receiving games this year, and they're all in Monday nighters?
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 Vernon Gholston completely out of my first-round NFL draft re-do last week, the Jets on Sunday made the sixth-overall pick inactive for the first time this season? Coincidence? Entirely.
• 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 Tom Cable on Monday went off on Raiders assistant offensive line coach James Cregg for leaving now to take a job on Lane Kiffin's University of Tennessee staff.
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: Cortland Finnegan is going to make Titans fans -- and maybe his teammates -- want to kill him at some point with another one of his patented unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
• Interesting turn of events in Minnesota, where defensive tackle Pat Williams will miss two-to-six weeks with a broken scapula, after last week dodging the league suspension StarCaps bullet -- for now. With the Falcons and Giants coming to town in the next two weeks, the Vikings are going to miss one of their leading run defenders.
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 Jim Zorn -- and my strong hunch is that they're not -- it would make a mockery of everything Washington owner Daniel Snyder has said about trying to take a more patient, more mature, less-reactionary approach to chasing a Super Bowl championship.
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.