More bad officiating isn’t the NFL’s only headache this week.
It’s about to lose its cover.
Barring a recount or something else wacky, Americans will wake up Wednesday morning needing to find something else to occupy their minds and their free time. After months of being transfixed by an election that often resembled a bad reality TV show, the country is free to return to its previous distractions of choice.
And no one should be more nervous about that referendum than the NFL.
The league has been able to brush off its plunging TV ratings and viewership on the presidential election, one that has been unlike any we’ve ever seen. The bad officiating, the heavy-handed penalties, the sloth-like pace of games, the matchups that were bland, bad or both, we’ve seen for several years now.
All of it could be ignored so long as prime-time games were going up against the debates and the non-stop drama of the election made it almost impossible to focus on anything else.
But that excuse is now gone. If the NFL’s TV numbers continue their season-long slide, the league will have to acknowledge it has a serious problem: After years of overlooking controversies off the field and sloppiness on it, fans are no longer willing to blindly accept a substandard product.
Take Monday night’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks.
With the star power of Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman and Rex Ryan, and the increasingly dire straits in which the Bills find themselves, this should have been a compelling, must-watch game for NFL fans. And it was – right up until the end of the first half.
Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter was lined up for a 53-yard field goal when Sherman jumped offside and blew him up, slamming into the kicker’s knee. Sherman was rightly penalized for being offside, but he also should have been called for roughing the kicker.
Except he wasn’t. Officials said there was no need because they had already blown the play dead because of the offside penalty – never mind that call is made all the time when a quarterback is involved.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s head of officiating, wasted little time criticizing the crew, saying on Twitter that unnecessary roughness should have been called.
Making matters worse, the referees stood over the ball until there were only three or four seconds left on the play clock and didn’t bother to reset the clock. Sure enough, Carpenter shanked the attempt.
“We are absolutely going to address it,” Blandino said after the game on NFL Network. “Anytime you have a sequence like that at any point during the game we want to see what happened and just walk through the steps of where the breakdown was.”
That’s of little consolation to the Bills – or their fans. Buffalo wound up losing 31-25 after failing to score a touchdown from the Seattle 7 on its final possession. But had the Bills made that field goal before the half – a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty would have made it a 38-yard chip shot – they could have kicked a field goal and forced overtime.
It’s not as if NFL officials had been having a great season before this, either. Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons are still seething over the no call on Sherman for pass interference that sealed Seattle’s win last month. Fans in Cleveland are still trying to figure out how a team can recover a fumble and still not get the ball.
The Lions were hit with what supposedly was the longest penalty (66 yards for pass interference) in 15 years, only to be told it shouldn’t have been called. Fed up with getting beaten up, Cam Newton finally took his complaints to the commissioner.
Add in all the games that have been unwatchable — talking to you, Jets, Cardinals and Packers — and fans have had it.
“The problem is the @NFL loves this. More Internet clicks = more $. They don’t give a (expletive) about the product they sell. Just $,” one Bills fan said on Twitter after Monday night’s game. “Until all fans go on strike nothing will change. @NFL are sitting in their mansions laughing at us right now.”
Not for much longer. With the election over, the NFL is about to find out how fans really feel.
And it might not like the result.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.