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Throwing the Challenge Flag on Inconsistency

NFL officials have the thankless job of making real-time decisions after processing information in the blink of an eye. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, but why do the rules always seem to be changing?

Game officials are never going to get many holiday cards. They’re easy targets to loathe. The widespread use of replay in HD has made it even easier to take issue with the men in zebra stripes. “How could they not see that, it was blatant?!?” legions of fans scream as they review plays, frame by frame, from their couches.

I view calls like a bad or lucky bounce: it’s part of the game, and they mostly even out. They are the “rub of the green” in golf parlance. In other words, those are the breaks—even if they are sometimes really tough breaks.

But the most maddening part of officiating is one that can, should and must be fixed: the widespread inconsistency.

Take the Cardinals’ 24-21 loss to the Eagles on Sunday. There were two huge defensive holding calls that affected (but didn’t determine) the outcome.

Clinging to a 24-21 lead with four minutes remaining, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was hit as he threw and ended up throwing a terrible interception. But he was saved by a flag on the play. Safety Tyrann Mathieu was called for defensive holding. The interception was wiped away, and the Eagles had a new set of downs.

Here’s the penalty:


It looks bad in a still frame, but in reality, Mathieu actually did a poor job of holding Eagles wideout Jason Avant, who ended up getting open after receiving minimal contact.

With 1:42 left to play, Foles was sacked on third down, but another defensive holding penalty was called on linebacker Matt Shaughnessy. Game over. Shaughnessy was correctly called for holding because tight end James Casey had gone past Shaughnessy, who yanked his jersey to prevent him from getting further into his route.


Technically, both calls were correct. But here’s where Cardinals fans (or any fan, really) has a right to moan: the lack of consistency. In between those two Eagles drives, the Cardinals had one of their own. On a first-down pass to Andre Roberts, wideout Larry Fitzgerald and tight end Rob Housler were each contacted beyond the five-yard jam zone. But no flag was thrown.


On a third-down incomplete pass to Roberts, Fitzgerald’s route was again impeded, but again no flag.


Then, on fourth down, wideout Michael Floyd was bear-hugged by cornerback Bradley Fletcher on a pass that—unlike the plays the Cardinals’ defense got penalized for—was actually thrown to Floyd. Still no flag.


I don’t have much of a problem with the officials calling the Cardinals for their defensive penalties because they were technically correct (although I wish the NFL would concentrate more on infractions that actually impact the play; off-ball penalties are so lame). But Cardinals fans should be irate because of the blatant inconsistency.

So should Broncos fans, because Patriots corner Aqib Talib was allowed to grab the jersey of wideout Demaryius Thomas on a key third-down play in Week 12. No flag.


Same goes for Chiefs fans, because on Sunday tight end Sean McGrath was held by Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan well beyond five yards on the final fourth-down throw into the end zone.


We all know there are going to be calls that aren’t perfect. There’s a human element to officiating, and we can deal with that. But all lovers of the NFL should demand better consistency. Right now, the league doesn’t have it, not even in the same game. The NFL can, should and must do better.