I have spoken often here of the finality of the end of the NFL season, whether after the last game of the regular season or the postseason. The game ends, and within 24 hours the frenetic in-season energy in the building evaporates as the focus turns to exit mode. Coaches, for the first time since late July, are dressed street clothes and not team-issued sweats. Players quickly disperse for a CBA-mandated three-month vacation; the bustling locker room of yesterday turns into the ghost town of today. This change happens suddenly and, it seems, without warning.
For players, coaches and staff of the New Orleans Saints, this year’s change is particularly sobering—due to what could have been and, more appropriately, what should have been. The 2018-19 NFC Championship was ripped from their grasp when two fouls by a Rams defender were inexplicably ignored. And while other variables certainly affected the outcome of the game, this is certain: If either call—pass interference or helmet-to-helmet contact—were enforced, the Saints would be heading to the Super Bowl instead of the Rams. And now history will look at these Saints players and coaches, at Drew Brees, at Sean Payton, etc., in a different way. When so many speak of “rings” and number of Super Bowls made or won, there is no official asterisk on careers related to poor officiating.
The top priority for every league and commissioner, above all else including even revenue generation, is to maintain (1) integrity, and (2) competitive balance. The NFL now has to now respond to an obvious error made in front of 50 million people and restore integrity in its product and to deal with this egregious error, both internally and externally.
Internally, the NFL is a complicated political being, trying to appease its 32 owner-operators with as close to equal treatment as possible. And I know this from my time in the league: Every NFL team front office and coaching staff has some level of paranoia that the league office treats other teams better than they treat them. In Green Bay, our paranoia and inferiority complex was due to not having an owner; other teams felt the same for different reasons. Now, with the Rams benefiting greatly from missed calls on Sunday, this paranoia will be exacerbated internally, with team antennae raised about preferential treatment for the Rams.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke rarely attends league meetings and can hardly be called an active league partner. He was certainly less of a league loyalist than Chargers owner Dean Spanos, who was advocating for relocation to Los Angeles in a different stadium and location. Yet it was Kroenke, not Spanos (or Mark Davis), who was awarded the keys to L.A. by the league and its owners. Kroenke is the wealthiest living team owner (since Paul Allen’s passing) and is privately financing a $2 billion stadium in Los Angeles. Money talks, and Kroenke’s substantial resources carry weight. And now a blown call has sent his Rams, rather than the Saints, to the Super Bowl. Connecting those dots, of course, is perception more than reality, but perception matters.
Externally, even casual NFL fans—the ones who tune in this time of year only—are seeing the replay of the non-calls on loop and have to wonder “What the…?”
The NFL, however, knows there is always a new news cycle to dissipate whatever “crisis” may be in the news. And lucky for the league, the discussion has already turned to the Super Bowl, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, etc. It is not a good look for the league. And in a world of real problems, this “problem” for the NFL is really one of perception more than true consequences (except for the Saints).
And although this error may be the most egregious we have seen, we have seen this movie before. We will hear about the league “looking into” rule changes and further replay, perhaps even for pass interference calls or non-calls. However, when the Competition Committee gathers in a conference room of a ritzy hotel in Florida or Arizona in March, the emotion of the moment is long gone. The problem, so fresh in January, is now a memory being dealt with in a sterile environment in March with the discussion standing between the group and a beach, sunshine and good food. And as usually the case, nothing changes.
Despite any use of replay, human error is inevitable. The problem for the NFL is that the stated goal of replay is to fix human error, especially game-deciding errors for the most important games of the year. But when these errors do not involve turnovers or touchdowns and involve non-reviewable actions, what can be done? One clear answer is an upgrade in technology and innovation.
On Sunday night, after watching all the NFL highlights, I switched channels to the Australian Open tennis tournament. There, as with all the major tennis tournaments, players could challenge a line call and—within seconds—the umpire, player, crowd and television audience all know if the ball was in or out with microscopic certainty. Technology and innovation have overcome human error—a trained line judge’s call—within seconds. The difference and timing of replay from one sport to another was striking.
Yes, I realize NFL officiating is more complicated than ball placement—which, by the way, still has antiquated methods of determination—but what exactly could not be improved with advanced technology? Why couldn’t the NFL have a way, through technology that is certainly available, to determine if there was contact with a receiver prior to the ball arriving? Could not some sort of chip in the ball or the players’ shoulder pads be used to overcome human error?
The NFL rightfully toots its own horn about advances in safety, in data and, yes, in technology. We see what are essentially NFL infomercials about how fast and far balls travel, how fast and far players run, the amount of force involved in collisions, and more. Surely if the NFL could determine this, they could determine if player contact was made before the ball arrived. Cost is certainly not an issue. As for the inevitable question about timing and holding up the flow of the game, I revert back to tennis: It can be done in seconds. The NFL sometimes cannot get out of its own way in delays on replay. It takes college officials seconds to change a call without looking under a hood; the NFL can do better.
Answer this: What is the most innovative technological addition to the NFL product we have seen in recent years? The Pylon Cam perhaps? Despite the yellow line, first downs are still determined by the referees’ subjective judgment from 20 yards away from the ball, affirmed or denied by a chain held by two guys with sticks. For the clout and resources that the NFL has, it appears woefully behind in matching advances in technology with its product. And with annual revenues approaching $15 billion per year, the lack of innovative technology appears at best a lack of forward thinking and, at worst, negligent.
The NFL is certainly not ignorant to the changes in consumer demand. It knows its biggest challenge to maintain its prosperity and popularity: attracting and maintaining younger viewers. Legalized gambling and more interactive use of data will help, as well as having fewer commercial breaks, as consumers will not continue to sit through a 200 minute product for 11 minutes of action. Related to this and beyond it, the NFL must purposefully embrace technology. They have already made deals with digital media giants Yahoo, Twitter and Amazon and we expect the same with Google, Facebook, YouTube, and others. The key question for the league is, beyond revenue generation for media deals, can these partners provide a value-add to produce a superior product technologically? If so, the NFL will continue its dominance; if not, the NFL will not recede into the background but it will lose a younger demographic.
This is 2019; we cannot continue to have a game where the referee announces to an international audience to have the game clock operator add two seconds to the game clock. The league’s popularity and integrity—as well as team and player legacies—depend on it.
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