As far as football goes, the past few days have been some of the worst in history for me. My high school got matched up against a powerhouse in the CCS playoffs, Stanford suffered a horrific loss to the Men of Troy, the 49ers couldn’t put away the Saints and oh yes, my Patriots lost on Monday Night Football. About the Stanford loss I shall not speak one word, for that wound is still far too raw.
However, I have no such qualms regarding the 49ers and Patriots. I have a lot to say about both cases, but for the sake of decorum, I am going to limit this column to the 49ers. That example is all you need to realize that the state of refereeing in the NFL is atrocious.
Let us begin with the much-hyped San Francisco-New Orleans matchup that took place Sunday afternoon. Due to the huge playoff implications, many across the country, including yours truly, closely watched the outcome. With the game on the line and a bit of free time on my hands, I watched as 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks sacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees with the 49ers clinging to a 20-17 lead and the Saints threatening to score. I gasped as the ball came loose, and I cheered as the Niners ostensibly came up with the game-sealing turnover. However, joy turned to disbelief as that ever-feared yellow piece of fabric came out of the referee’s pocket and landed on the turf. The call was a personal foul on Brooks for a “blow to the head and neck area” of the quarterback.
I sat and watched the replays in slow motion, fast motion, and stop motion for about 20 minutes. I am watching a GIF of the sack replay over and over even as I type these words, and the call still sickens me.
What do you want Brooks to do in this case? He is running full-sprint toward Brees, having used his speed to get around right tackle Zach Strief. If you watch the replay closely, you can see that there was no physical way for Brooks’ arm, bent as it is, to have made contact with Brees’ neck. Moreover, in the instant before the sack, Brees ducks his head ever so slightly, such that what would have been a perfect form tackle around the upper shoulder pads shifted towards the dreaded neck area.
By the letter of the law, the call was (maybe) made correctly, but my biggest frustration is with the spirit of the law itself. Football shouldn’t have to be a complicated game, but with all the years of rule changes adding up and a newer emphasis on “player safety,” what used to be simple calls are now anything but.
Brooks himself had a fair point when he alluded to the star treatment meted out to famous quarterbacks. I can personally attest to similarly vicious hits received by Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum and the like — rookies who have yet to establish themselves as international superstars like Brees. But by far the more salient point is the fact that the league claims to be mindful of “player safety,” when in reality it mostly cares about offensive player safety. High-scoring games make for good television, and high-scoring games require high-scoring quarterbacks. Thus, we have a slew of defenseless-receiver and quarterback rules that make it virtually impossible to defend a passing attack.
Meanwhile, crack-back blocks, chop blocks and facemask pushing remain legal weapons for offensive players to exploit. The double standard is palpable. So palpable, in fact, that both Ray Lewis and Tedy Bruschi offered to pay parts of Brooks’ fine out of sympathy for his plight.
Put simply, the rules of football are starting to get unwieldy. Some rules conflict with each other, some rules are getting too verbose or complicated, and there is just a lack of parity when it comes to the rules for offenses and defenses. As a result, it is becoming nigh impossible to ref a game properly whilst upholding the letter and spirit of the law as well as the letter and spirit of the game itself.
For now, I will keep watching football. But my disillusionment with the sport is very high — a few more calls like these and I may have to take my viewership elsewhere.
You know that this problem is serious when Vignesh Venkataraman, himself a former quarterback, is getting angry about the rules regarding quarterback and receiver protection. If you’re looking for somebody to commiserate with, direct all of your refereeing complaints to viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.