However, this week I was repeatedly wondering what was going through the refs' minds when making some of these calls.
They picked up an intentional grounding flag after Ryan Tannehill threw the ball out of a tuck position and it landed about a yard in front of him, well behind the line of scrimmage. As far as I'm concerned, that was blatant grounding.
They missed some holding calls that were painfully obvious. I remember one non-call in the Seahawks' backfield in which a lineman basically gave a Cowboys player a big ol' bear hug from the side. Two refs were right in the area, neither reached for his flag.
The refs also gave the Broncos 11 yards for a pass interference penalty, when the penalty should have only given them five yards. There's no way to tell what would have happened had the correct penalty been enforced, but it's worth noting that the Broncos scored a touchdown with only six seconds left in the half on that same drive.
But you know what? All these blown calls aren't the end of the world. As NFL fans, we have learned to live with controversy and ambiguity when it comes to officiating, and though there is a little more than normal this year, we'll get over it. While those types of blown calls aren't a huge deal, however, there are some blown calls that are. These blown calls are ones that have to do with player safety.
The replacement refs seem to do everything slow. When it comes to throwing flags, discussing penalties, reviewing plays, etc., it's not the biggest of issues. However, when they are late to break up post-play scuffles, they risk the possibility of a real fight breaking out. If a real fight were to happen, the refs would just have to hope that the players' involved have teammates who will pull them away, because physically, the refs can't do a thing about it.
That's still not really the biggest concern here. My biggest concern is that the refs allow for big, vicious, dirty hits that put players at a severe injury risk. I saw several players go right into ball carriers with their heads on Sunday, but nothing was called. I'm a guy who thinks that the defenseless receiver rule (when the receiver has the ball in his hands) and the crack-back block rule are absolutely absurd, so I'm not talking about what many would consider ticky-tack penalties.
The most common non-call I saw was quarterbacks getting hit after sliding. The rule is simple, when a quarterback slides, the defender has to avoid making any contact with him, unless he's already lunging at him, of course. Though much of the contact wasn't severe, I saw plenty of plays in which quarterbacks slid and defenders went in and made contact that could have easily been avoided.
The most concerning of these was Lions' safety John Wendling's hit on 49ers' quarterback Alex Smith. Smith was blatantly going into a slide, and instead of stopping, turning, or jumping, Wendling dove straight down at Smith's head. The result was a Wendling forearm to Smith's face and bloody mug for the San Francisco signal caller. The penalty was blatant to pretty much everyone watching the game, besides the referees who were officiating it.
The more players realize that they can get away with things like that, the more they'll test their limits. Dirty hits will become more and more common as long as replacement officials keep missing the calls. Don't blame the officials, however. I'm sure they're not out there keeping flags in their pockets because they want to see players get hurt. The replacement refs are doing the best they can. The NFL are the ones doing the disservice to their players by allowing this to go on.
With all of the fines and suspensions that Roger Goodell has handed out for illegal hits since taking over as commissioner, you'd think that he would be quick to get the replacement officials off the field and bring in guys who can control the game better. So why isn't he or the rest of the NFL trying to give the real referees what they want? Well, replacement officials don't affect Goodell or the NFL. No one's going to say, "I was going to watch Monday Night Football, but these replacement officials make the game uninteresting to me." The league will still remain as popular as ever, and maybe even more popular with all of the controversy and attention in the media. As long as the NFL continues to receive their colossal stream of revenue, they'll be in no rush to cave to the NFLRA's (the referees union) demands and increase the safety of their players.
It's really hypocrisy of Goodell to preach player safety and act like one of his main goals as commissioner is to keep football players safe across the country, then put his players at risk when the money has to come out of his pocket. It's really a shame that this has to happen, and hopefully the NFL and the NFLRA can get this figured out soon. Unfortunately, it may take a devastating injury with subsequent media mayhem for the NFL to bite on the NFLRA's demands.
Let's take a moment to remember what happened to Trent Green as the result of a very similar play to the Alex Smith/John Wendling encounter. This is the kind of injury that could become more common should the NFL not put referees out on the field that will keep the games clean and in-check. Green was unconscious after this play.