Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Zebra Stampede

In 2012, National Football League owners had a brainstorm. They could play hardball in contract negotiations with the game officials because refs really were not that important a factor in the sport's commercial success. A few high-visibility disasters by the replacements in the early part of the regular season, and the owners were disabused of their delusion.

In 2014, the NFL, which always and forever means, by a consensus of team owners, instructed the refs to be very strict in calling contact by pass defenders against receivers. One has to assume this was in response to the Seahawks, a team built on uninhibited pass defense, winning the Super Bowl and humiliating the league's MVP (Most Visible Player) Peyton Manning in the process.

So instructed, so carried out. The letter of the law, hell, the punctuation of the law, has been enforced to the fullest in the exhibition season, to the point of absurdity and to the more salient point of rendering preseason games even more of an unwatchable mess than usual, no mean feat. Commentators, especially commentators paid by the league's TV partners, have begged, cajoled or screamed, at the NFL to cut it out and resume violent business as usual.

The universal assumption is that the league has been hoist on its own touchdown besotted petard. The refs, who hoisted said petard, are assigned the passive role of order-followers.

I wonder it that's entirely true. The NFL's decades old effort to portray its refs as anonymous robots has succeeded to an extent outsiders tend to forget two salient facts about officials. One is that they're smart. The second is that they are highly skilled professional athletes. They're middle aged men instead of young Goliaths, but calling a pro football game can't be assigned to some random chess master. It's a physical endeavor.

As highly skilled athletes, referees have highly developed egos. And I suspect that the flag storms of August 2014 are a demonstration of professional pride. Also of professional power.

All sports tweak their rules in search of improving their entertainment value (and to be fair, sometimes on behalf of improving the experience of playing). No other, however, does so as ceaselessly and extensively as the NFL. The kickoff, which has only been part of the sport since the first damn game in 1869, may not live out the decade. Same goes for the extra point.

For the past several seasons, NFL rules changes have stemmed from the laudable and necessary goal of player safety. Here commerce and virtue work in tandem. A stream of broken bodies are bad for the conscience and the bottom line.

Every rules change, no matter how beneficial, gives the officials more to do. It's not like football didn't have a great many rules back in 2000. But refs have indeed attempted to enforce the newer safety rules to the limit. After all, keeping an unsafe game as safe as possible has always been their prime directive.

Then this spring the officials got a new directive. Intervene to make the competition between pass receivers and pass defenders not safer, but more one-sided. Strictly enforce a rule which does not affect safety, only the scoreboard.

This instruction was an unintended insult to the officials, a denigration of their most cherished professional ability -- good judgment. All sports which involve physical collisions between players would be unwatchable if all their rules were strictly enforced at every moment. Deciding which illegal collisions impact the outcome of a play enough to warrant sanction is the essence of competent officiating.

The new "point of emphasis" on contact between receivers and defenders was a statement by the NFL that it found its officials' judgment inadequate. At least, I believe that's how the officials, probably still a mite touchy after 2012, saw it. And the officials have responded with one of the most ancient job actions in labor relations -- mutiny by obeying orders. They are working to rule. As always happens, work to rule has resulted in a drastic decline in production, the product in question being good football.

I note that the reaction of journalists and broadcasters far closer to the NFL than the rest of us is that the penalty parade will peter out as the regular season begins. Those more inclined to see the world from the league's point of view say this is because defenders will adjust to the new order. Others just sort of say it will without stating a reason, assuming no one will tolerate 30 penalty games that matter to millions of fans, fantasy players and gamblers as a self-evident truth.

My guess is the refs' job action has already succeeded and that pass defense in 2014 will be pretty much like pass defense in 2013 with a few high-profile exceptions to maintain the pretense the new  point of emphasis is the rule. The officials have proved that meddling with those rules can ruin the sport as a spectator experience. They have reminded the NFL powers-that-be of their own power in the bargain.

And those powers-that-be had best take the officials' warning to back off. The refs have an even more powerful rule to work to left in their bag. Offensive holding, if called to the letter on every play, would result in a weekly feast of three and a half hour games ending in scores like 10-6.

Better for the NFL to let Richard Sherman and Darelle Revis get away with the more than occasional downfield bump. Far better.


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