Rocky's Football Corner #20

by Rick Rockwell

If the cliché is true that the playoffs are very different in the National Football League (NFL) than the regular season, there’s a reason: the referees.

Whether you call them the refs, the zebras, or the bifocal patrol, the officials who call the games make the playoffs different. Sure, the NFL says its all-star teams of refs don’t call anything differently than the regular season. And they say this with a straight face. As if viewers can’t tell. In this day of Tivo, VCRs, and instant replay, who is the league trying to fool?

The games last weekend, especially the games in the American Football Conference (AFC) sure looked different to this armchair observer. And as usual, what isn’t penalized is harder to prove than what is penalized. But how much obvious holding on both defense and offense does there have to be before a flag is thrown? Yes, I know, holding penalties get in the way of the flow of the game, and these were scintillating games.

Actually, the really dirty play is what is more troubling: the unmasked punches of running backs in the piles; and the obvious elbows to kidneys of those prostrate on the ground. The legal hits seem more vicious in the playoffs, but the illegal hits are obvious, even without slow-motion replay. Please check that game between the Patriots and the Chargers last week for an example. Both teams were guilty of dirty hits on many plays.

And the officials looked on, without calling most of them. (Although arguably one attempt at a head-butt proved to be a game-changing penalty.) That’s the playoffs. Even the announcers yuck about it all: let the gloves come off and let the best team win. As a fan, I agree. Bare knuckles and smash-mouth football: that’s the style I like the best. But there is a line between good legal mayhem and the kind where it is not fair. And hitting someone when they can’t respond or when they are vulnerable to injury is just wrong.

So the league should be honest. Just say it: the rules are there, but when they’ll be called is subject to question, and as a fan expect that playoff football will be rawer and rougher than what you get in the season. That’s why defenses have been dominant in the playoffs and running games are often more important than passing (although don’t tell that to the Patriots).

This is why when predicting the games, teams that have a smash-mouth style are often favored. Vegas seems split on that score though, just like your often errant armchair observer this week. As usual, Sunday will tell the tale. But guaranteed, there will be plenty of illegal hitting and holding this weekend, and the officiating crew will be ignoring most of it. On purpose.

Super Bowl Watch: As noted earlier this week, one of my teams, the Saints are still in the derby to go to the big dance with Prince in February. Perhaps, the safest bet in sports isn't so safe this week.

Coaching Roulette Update: The Cardinals have hired one of the architects of the Champion Steelers, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to replace Dennis Green. Whisenhunt may be the solution, but the Cardinals are still two years away from any major improvement. Until they can get a solid line on both sides of the ball, they are doomed to underachieve. Also note, the pundits were wrong about the Chargers firing their head coach after they lost in the playoffs this past weekend. Like the firing of Green, that would have been a mistake.

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Scotus said...

Honestly, if I were a ref, I wouldn't call anything in a playoff game unless it was so obvious or flagrant that I didn't have any other choice. No one wants to be the guy who made that Polamalu call last year.

As for Schottenheimer...I dunno. I agree you can't really fire a coach who makes it to the second round of the playoffs, yet there seems to be a fair amount of behind-the-scenes discord. If he doesn't at least make the Super Bowl next year, he's done.

Rick Rockwell said...


I totally agree with you on Schottenheimer. That team is ready.

I also don't want refs getting in the way of the game.

Finally, nice new picture for 2007. Good to see you in your party duds and not with your reserved medieval look.

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