Bradford Applin

Referee Reform

By: Bradford Applin


When inquired as to my position on the mind-numbing weekend of football that was the NFL Divisional Playoffs, I thought it best to take a cue from everyone’s favorite MasterCard spokesman, Peyton Manning: “I’m trying to be a good fan here-but we had referee problems.”  Not to be confused with “protection problems,” which Peyton Manning referred to in his post-game comments after their 21-18 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

Now, to be fair, he was sacked five times and intimidated so much by the “Blitzburgh” defense that he had to resort to tapping each lineman on the back of the shoulder before every play and assign him who to block.  I can imagine the exchange was somewhere along the lines of, “See No. 52 out there?  That’s James Farrior ” the guy whose sacked me two-and-a-half times…would you be so kind as to bloc- (Farrior whistles and grabs the air in a pulling motion, signifying the impending departure of the pain train) ” Stop the train!  Stop the train!  Hutt-Hutt!  Hike!”

            Still, it would not be advisable to reveal your lack of confidence in the very men assigned to protect you (and who played a major role in your past success) leaving them feeling under appreciated and unwanted heading into the off-season.  Yet, I fail to have the same reservations about criticizing the officials; I do not have a vested interest (namely keeping all of my limbs attached) as does Peyton.  The worst retaliation the referees could inflict on me would be a repeat performance aimed at causing me to finally prove to the scientific community that spontaneous combustion is possible.  Let’s take a look at some of the questionable (translation: awful) calls during this past weekend of playoff football, and see what can be done about them.


The Phantom Pass-Interference:

            The first half was drawing to a close with 1:52 left in the 2nd quarter.  The Broncos, though only down by a field goal, had failed to put any points on the scoreboard, and frustration was setting in.  That is, until a gift was signed, sealed, and delivered to them in the form of a 39-yard pass-interference call against Asante Samuel who was covering Ashley Lelie. 

The call was ridiculous for two reasons: First, the ball was well overthrown and pass-interference cannot be called when a ball is un-catchable.  Second, Samuel’s physical contact with Lelie never went beyond raised arms while he was turned and looking for the football.  Sadly, these plays happen too often, and it is the receivers who are the best actors (they do their best Vlade Divac flop impression) who get the calls. 

The solution is simple: allow pass-interference calls to be challenged.  The coaches would still be allowed only two replays per game, so it would not slow the game down anymore than the existing system.  The league could even put a stipulation on the rule, saying that the penalty must be for at least twenty yards or for a first down in a 3rd or 4th down situation.  The fact is that these pass-interference calls can have just as much of an effect on the outcome of a game as a fumble or turnover, and therefore should be open to the challenge system.


The (Not-So) Obvious Pass-Interference:

            I’ll make this one easy to digest: Steelers up 14-0 on the Colts and driving when Pittsburgh’s Antwaan Randle El is tackled by Indianapolis’ Marlin Jackson approximately 3 hours before the ball reaches them.  Ok, so maybe it was closer to 3 seconds, but the defender clearly dove on top of Randle El well before the football arrived.  The announcer went so far as to say, “Blatant Pass Interference.”  Yet, no yellow handkerchief on the field.  For the solution to this problem, see the paragraph above.  In other news, no word yet on whether or not the officials were paid in cash, or given complimentary MasterCards. 


The Touchback That Might Have Been:

            With 12 minutes left in the 4th quarter, Thomas Jones was diving for the touchdown, trying to cut the Panthers lead over the Bears to just 3, when Julius Peppers knocked the ball loose before the football could break the plane and count as a touchdown.  Instead, the loose ball rolled into and out of the endzone, which should result in a touchback (the other team receiving the ball at the 20-yard line). 

The only problem was, the official on the field called it a touchdown.  In the end it did not matter, as there was a facemask penalty on Carolina which made the play a moot point, but the truly frustrating thing was that the official was in the right position to make the call.  He had the proper angle to see the play, yet the incorrect call was made. 

Replay would have corrected this call, but the referees have to be able to consistently make the easy calls.  While the cross-promotional opportunities with Mister Magoo could be promising, it tends to irritate the fans.  The flow of the game cannot be constantly interrupted to examine plays that everyone on the field knows the answer to.


The “Do-Over”:

            In the Steelers vs. Colts matchup, the officials threw a flag before the snap, indicating either an offensive false start or a defensive offside.  After consulting with each other, it was decided there was no penalty.  In other words, “We were intimidated and confused by the players on both sides so we are just going to pretend like that never happened ” our bad.”  This just proves the need for better training and more experience for the referees, period.  Unfortunately for Colts fans, Mike Vanderjagt’s protests for a do-over after missing the game tying field goal were denied.  


The 100-Yard Interception Return ” That Wasn’t a Touchdown:

            Here we have a case of a call that was not obvious one way or the other, but the problem rests with the preparation and the equipment, not the referees.  Champ Bailey intercepts Tom Brady in the endzone and is about to finish returning the ball for the touchdown when Ben Watson comes from out of nowhere (perhaps driven by the ghosts of dynasties past) to knock the ball loose. 

The call on the field was he fumbled the ball and was knocked out of bounds at the one-yard line.  The play was challenged, but there were no angles that showed if the ball had been fumbled and crossed the endzone line before going out of bounds, hence, the play stood.  If the league had a camera set up on the goal line, it could have been proven either way.  Instead they assumed that since the Patriots were about to score on the other side of the field, an endzone camera there would have been useless.  In the playoffs, where there are about 999,999 cameras pointed at the field, it’s inexcusable to not have one pointed straight down each endzone line.       


The Overturned Interception:

            Always keeping in mind you, the reader, I saved the best (or is it the worst?) for last.  With the score 21-10 and the Colts attempting to mount a comeback, Troy Polamalu dove and catches Peyton Manning’s pass, rolled on the ground, knocked the football out of his hands with his knee in an attempt to get up, and then recovered the fumble.  The original call on the field was an interception, which was unanimously agreed upon by the announcers and fans alike to be the correct call after the conformation of several replay angles.

However, the official, Pete Morelli, stood watching countless replays for a good 5 minutes before finally coming onto the field to overturn the call and rule it an incomplete pass.  His explanation included the words, “after catching the ball,” (which means an interception right?) and attempted to clarify by saying he fumbled while in the act of a football move with his right knee still on the ground. 

While everyone in America gave him a collective look of bewilderment, the Colts happily ran back onto the field and almost came back to win the game.  Afterwards, Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter protested, “I know they wanted Indy to win this game; the whole world loves Peyton Manning. But come on, man, don’t take the game away from us like that.”  The NFL even came out to apologize on Monday, saying the original call was correct and should not have been overturned. 

            In thinking of a solution for this problem, I quickly realized that the referees are biased and should not be looking at the replays, nor should the decision be entrusted to one man.  Pretty soon, visions of a “Supreme Court of NFL Challenges” were floating around in my head.  Which of course led to the question of who would select these judges; which led to the creation of a Senate to conduct hearings.  Before I knew it I was giving teams equal representation and letting the fans vote on who would lobby for them. 

I expect no one to join me on this crusade, but I must now leave to draft the Declaration of Replay Challenges.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all referees are created equal-“       


Bradford Applin is a sophomore majoring in aerospace engineering.  He is running for president of his newly established football government, and needs YOUR vote.  He can be reached at with comments on this article or observations on sports in general.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *