The NFL has a potential problem approaching on the horizon of which the hierarchy is more than aware. Attendance is down league-wide, and TV ratings have diminished as well. This has affected merchandise sales and forced some franchises to consider reducing ticket prices. The league has taken note of this worrisome trend but the bigger question is, what to do about it?
First, they need to ask themselves what has caused the recent downward trend in the first place, and what can be done to stem the tide moving forward. Some of the reasons why are obvious, and easily identified. In the last few years, fans have been bombarded with a variety of issues that have affected our enjoyment of this great game. I could list everything from the discovery of CTE, and how it’s changed how we view players taking big hits and getting their bell rung, or the backlash from the national anthem protests which thrust politics dead center into an activity we migrate toward to escape from such discussions.
Fantasy football has helped maintain interest in the product, but it’s not creating true football fans out of the younger fans. They’re checking in each week to manage their fantasy team and find out how their individual players are doing, but they’re not identifying with a specific team and achieving shared memories—the very foundation for creating lifelong football fans. It may all come down to the fact there are so many available forms of entertainment now than there were just a few years ago. While all of these issues are real concerns for the NFL, I want to focus for a moment on the latest elephant in the room, so to speak, which has yet to be discussed: The state of officiating in the NFL.
Let me start by saying officials are only human and nobody’s perfect. We need them to make sure both teams adhere to the rules, which creates a level playing field. I can imagine how difficult it must be to make accurate calls considering the athleticism of today’s players and the resulting speed of the game. Nobody expects perfection, but we do expect penalties to be called consistently, and fairly, for both teams. This should also be true from game-to-game and week-to-week.
If you’ve been watching any games during the past couple of months, you know this hasn’t been happening, especially if you have been watching Steelers’ games. Players should decide football games, and officials should only be noticed when there’s been a glaring violation of the rules. We all know the old saying that you could call holding on just about every play. That may be true, but who wants that. That’s not why anyone watches a football game.
Which leads me to the newest problem facing the league. Officials are directly affecting the outcome of the games with questionable calls, or non-calls, which seem to be neither fair nor consistent. If anything, they seem to be biased toward certain teams and one team in particular—the New England Patriots.
New England has played multiple games this year in which they’ve had three or fewer penalties called against them. Now, the Patriots are a well-coached team for sure, but it isn’t just the penalties called, or not called, but also the timing of said penalties. Flags have been thrown, or not thrown, at critical times in recent games that have killed momentum for a team at the least appropriate time which are not evident via replay or highly questionable at best—and they almost always seem to go in the Patriots’ favor.
While I’ll admit my judgment may be biased due to my disdain for the Patriots, there are other instances that can’t be denied. During Jacksonville’s playoff victory over the Steelers, the Jaguars played very physical on defense and got away with many defensive holding and pass-interference non-calls throughout the game. Two that come to mind were the jersey pull against JuJu Smith-Schsuter on a critical 4th-and-1, and also on Antonio Brown’s long fourth-quarter touchdown catch where the Jacksonville corner held him by the back of his jersey for the last 20-yards trying to get a penalty instead of giving up a touchdown.
We had no choice but to put on our big-boy pants and move on, but then I watched the AFC Championship Game and witnessed one team getting called for every infraction they got away with the week before, and the other getting called for only one penalty the entire game.
I don’t need to tell you which team had the single penalty called against them, as I’m sure you already know. Many fans outside of Boston or Philadelphia have vowed to not even watch the Super Bowl. Maybe some of them are overreacting and will indeed watch the game, but some may actually feel they have had enough. The last thing the NFL hierarchy wants is to lose more viewers when it comes to the league’s biggest stage, because the future is anything but certain.