Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Problem With the NFL

As fantasy football came to an end on Monday night for many players, I was thinking today about taking stock of the institution of fantasy football and the NFL in general. In one of the two leagues I played in this year, I emerged the victor thanks to a solid Week 16 despite the fact that I ended the 14-game regular season with just the 4th-most points scored, literally only about 75% of the points scored by the regular season champion, whom I thumped this week to win it all. And yet you know what? I don't even give a crap.

I wrote right here before the 2008-2009 NFL season even began that Fantasy Football was dead. And this year has proven to make that statement even more true than I knew. I personally am still involved in two leagues that I've played in for several years in a row, and those two leagues have in the past few months officially become shadows of their former selves. Three or four years ago, the shit was so different. It was 5 or 10 trash-talking posts on the message board every single day of the season. It was an average of 40 or 50 moves per manager. It was maybe 30 or 40 trades offered per every team in the league. We were living and breathing fantasy football, we didn't stop thinking about it or talking about it, and basically every waking moment not spent doing anything else was spent in some way related to fantasy football. But not anymore. Nowadays, these leagues have become devoid of any interest whatsoever. Now there's usually one or two players who don't even update their teams for bye weeks on a week-to-week basis. I don't think we had 3 or 4 trade offers throughout the entire league over the whole season in either of my leagues in 2008. The message boards have been utterly blank for the entirety of the seasons.

Many (not all, but many) of my friends report similar stories in their own fantasy football leagues. The shit is just past its prime; it has jumped the shark. It's not all that different from poker, really, when you think about it. The heyday of poker was what, a good three, four years ago now? Fantasy football is basically the same thing. It turns out fantasy football peaked right along with Marshall Faulk, LaDanian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson and maybe Shaun Alexander's sickass 20- and 30-touchdown seasons. It is clear that the move away from one-stud-runningback systems and more in favor of multiple-back offenses has a lot to do with the dropoff in interest from the peak of fantasy football. But it is obvious to me that there is another glaring problem that is clearly leading to the dropoff in interest in fantasy football these days: the referees.

Yep. The refereeing. These quality of the way these games are being called has steadily declined over the past few years, resulting in more and more blown calls, and, even more disturbing, an increasing number of calls being blown even after using instant replay to try to figure the shit out right. And just like people are losing serious money on these laughable calls in Vegas, us poor saps playing fantasy football realize more and more every year how redonkulous it is that these oldass refs can't even fucking see the field right in front of their nose. These guys don't know the rulebook, they don't know how to interpret the rules when they do make the correct call live, and lately they can't even fucking get the call right after having as much time as they dam well need to review the play in slow fucking motion. Backwards, forwards, freeze it right at the crucial point of the play, study it as much as they want. And they don't just get it wrong -- over these past couple of seasons it's gotten to the point where they are overturning correct calls on the field, which clearly do not have the required "clear and convincing evidence" to support overturning. The NFL really believes that their blindass referees can overturn a call that the entire country can see was correct beyond a shadow of a doubt, again and again and again in slow motion via replay, and not have any longer-term fallout among the fans of the sport. As with any professional sport, the fans are everything, and the NFL has utterly forsaken its fans over the past several years by allowing -- in fact, promoting -- the worst officiating crisis in the history of the league. And this has contributed greatly to the downfall of fantasy football, which a few years ago was universally accepted as being one of the biggest drivers of growth in the sport's popularity, both in this country and around the world.

Just to review a few of the lowest moments for the NFL officials in 2008:

1. A couple of weekends ago, Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes catches a pass from a scrambling Ben Roethlisberger in the final quarter of a huge game against the AFC rival Baltimore Ravens. Holmes's feet are both clearly in the end zone. But he is facing out of the end zone as the ball comes his way, and leaning forwards, falling forward as he catches the ball just ever so shy of the goal line. The call on the field was -- amazingly -- correct, that it was not a touchdown, but down on the 2-inch line where the ball was when the catch was made, since as everyone knows after years of hearing it over and over from the refs that it is the ball that must cross the plane in order for a touchdown to be awarded. Rightly, the call is reviewed upstairs under instant replay. On television, millions of viewers around the world watch again and again as Holmes catches the ball with the ball just short of the goal line, and continues to fall forward, eventually being tackled around the 1 yard line. While I'm sure there are donks betting on the Steelers who think they "see" a touchdown, the rest of the free world is able to conclude that the call on the field was right. Even though it is admittedly very close, it is crystal clear that this call cannot be reversed based on the video evidence that is so inconclusive, and if anything tends to support the on-the-field decision of no touchdown. Two minutes later, the head ref comes to the field, turns on his mic, announces the following: "Upon review of the play, the receiver had two feet in the end zone when the ball was caught. The ruling is a touchdown." The arms go up, and that's it. So not only was the ball not in the end zone, and not only did the referees have to reverse a correct call that the video showed to be correct no matter how many times it was played in slow motion, but the jackass official comes on national tv and misstates the rule to suggest that two feet in the end zone but the ball out of the end zone would be a touchdown. But there's no more review, no objections to be had, nothing.

And I lost one of my fantasy football games that week by 4 points, to a fonkey who had Santonio Holmes on his team, the guy who had what, two catches for 9 yards the entire day. No recourse for me, just another tick in the loss column. In the other fantasy league I was in, the guy playing the team with Santonio Holmes on it also lost the game by a margin that would not have existed if not for the clearly blown call. Both he and I know we actually won our games, but there's nothing we can do.

2. A couple of weeks before that, on a call that rivals the Holmes call for the worst calls of this dismal season for the NFL refs, the Steelers were awarded an 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers despite advancing a fumble by their opposition on the final hook-and-ladder play of the game for a no-time-left score to make the game actually 17-10. The play was called a touchdown, and replays showed it obviously to be a touchdown, a fact with which nobody in America has argued since the moment the call was made. But wait, all of a sudden the referees are conferring, and they decide the play has to be reviewed. With no time left in a game that the Steelers have already won, regardless of the outcome of the play!! Lo and behold, it takes a good 15 or 20 minutes but eventually, with the teams already off the field and in the locker room, the refs decide that the lateral which was picked off by Steeler defense Troy Polamalu was actually a forward lateral, which by rule cannot be advanced by the defense. Never mind the fact that the replay showed this lateral to go at least three full yards backwards. Nope, it's still a forward lateral, can't be advanced, the Steelers don't cover and Las Vegas sports books win $30 million as a result.

3. I wrote about this one at the time so I won't get into it in great detail again, but I simply have to mention the Sunday Night Football game a few weeks ago between the Giants and the Eagles, when Eli Manning was called for throwing a pass after running beyond the line of scrimmage. Which he clearly was, as the replay showed. But then we come back from break, the call has been reversed despite video evidence that validated the call on the field, and certainly could not possibly support a reversal of the call. And what does NBC do to cover their asses? They re-show the replay, this time with the red line indicating the line of scrimmage moved -- a full yard and a half, mind you -- such that now, Manning is clearly touching the line with his entire body when the ball leaves his hand. This was a crucial 3rd down play which led to a Giants touchdown instead of a field goal, and the Eagles lost a close game as a result. And one of the guys in my fantasy league lost his game because of that touchdown which was eventually scored I believe by Brandon Jacobs, the touchdown that clearly should never have been. Yet another call where the referees not only blew a call, but they fucking got it right the first time and then somehow managed to yet again pervert the system by overturning a call when the video evidence clearly showed the call to be correct. So sad.

As an aside on this play, the New York fans once again showed themselves to be the biggest posers alive when discussing it later. Mention the play and NBC moving the red line by about four fucking feet to make it look like Eli was not past the line when he threw the ball, and the NY fans are like "Yeah, obviously. They moved the line to get it right, so what? What's your problem?" For those of you Seinfeld fans out there, this is like when George cheats on his IQ test by sneaking out the window of the testing room and bringing the test to Elaine. When he gets caught later because of a coffee stain that Elaine spilled on the test, George explains that he went to the coffee shop to take it. The tester informs him that she was right outside his room and he never left it while taking the test, to which he answers, nonchalantly and as if it's the most natural and normal answer in the world, "I went out the window!" Obviously, right? That's what you New York donkeys sounded like after the video was literally changed right before our eyes, by a sick amount at that, to make a penalty appear to be not a penalty by the refs. Because we all know, all you Giants fans would have been just as accepting of things if the video had been changed after the fact to award the Eagles a game-affecting touchdown, after you had just looked right at the play in slow-mo and seen clearly that McNabb had committed a penalty. "So they moved the red line, so what, no big whoop." Riiiiiiight. Classic.

4. Although there are many, many other blown calls in huge spots this year, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Chargers - Denver game near the beginning of the season when first the referees were apparently unable to get the replay system to work within the allotted time -- a time limit that is overrun with almost every other replay review in the history of the NFL, mind you -- so they could not overturn a clearly blown fumble call against the Chargers early in the game. Then in the final two minutes of the game, Denver quarterback Jay Cutler clearly fumbled the ball, right in fucking front of top NFL referee Ed Hochuli too -- and he for some strange reason that even he could not explain after the game blew his whistle and called the play dead due to an incomplete pass. Fast forward one minute, and Cutler throws a touchdown into the end zone instead of his team losing the ball, and they win by one point, 39-38. That week in my other fantasy football league, one of the teams lost his game to the guy who had Jay Cutler on his team, losing by 7 points, which would have gone the other way without the 6 points for the bullshit touchdown and plus the two-point deduction for the clear fumble. And now that guy missed the playoffs by one game, just like the Chargers have had to fight their way back to finally be able to get vindication against the Broncos next week in San Diego.

So many blown calls, it's not even funny. Just this weekend alone, on the national games, on Sunday night I watched the Panthers' Steve Smith catch a ball on the 3, get tackled on the 2-foot line (not two inches, but two feet) and step his left foot about a full 12 inches out of bounds right before being tackled on the 1/2-yard line. But there go the referee's hands up in the air, touchdown Panthers. Thank god for once they got the fucking call right in the end with the replay, but you know what? The referee was standing right there. I mean, this guy was right on the sideline, right next to the 2-yard line. He could not have been more than 36 inches away from where the out of bounds happened, and he was looking right at the play. Touchdown. WTF?!

In the Monday night game this week, a game that went into overtime and ended up keeping the Bears' playoff hopes alive when they kicked a field goal early in the OT period, the Packers were driving for the score that would have put the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter, and on a key third-down play, with the referee standing not four feet behind where this play happened, the Bears defender literally held the arms back of Packers receiver Greg Jennings on a slant pattern that would have put the Pack in first-and-goal territory. I mean, this wasn't just incidental contact. The defender held back the arms of the Packers receiver, grabbing them with both of his hands as he also fell on top of the wideout before the ball reached him. The ball sailed to the ground, uncatchable by a player whose arms were both being held by the defender, and although he got up immediately clamoring for a flag, none was thrown. There is simply no excuse for a referee missing a crucial call like that in such a key spot in the game. And yet there it went. That play would probably have led to a good shot of Ryan Grant running in his second touchdown of the game, or to the Packers' quarterback and wide receiver corps, all common starters in fantasy football leagues all around the country, scoring another touchdown. How many fantasy football championship games around the world were affected by that one blown call on Monday night? 100? 1000? 10,000? Who knows the actual number, but suffice it to say that it has been significant.

The NFL has a real problem on its hands. I have no doubt that betting on the NFL will be down this year from last year, and down next year from this year, and a large part of the reason for that will be the referees. Just as surely, the league has ground fantasy football, again one of the key growth drivers for the league over the past ten years, into the ground by its insistence on using referees who clearly do not know the rules of their own game, and who mis-apply instant replay in the most frustrating ways imaginable for viewers of the sport. Fantasy football will never come back to what it was three of four years ago -- that much is a virtual certitude -- but the NFL could always set out to fix its vast officiating problem by implementing an effective system to rate, and deal with, its best and worst referees. But when you have old men who are standing two fucking feet away from crucial plays in crucial spots in crucial playoff-consequential battles late in the season and who still can't get the calls right, something absolutely has to be done and fast. The NBA is still feeling the effects of its big officials scandal a couple of years ago -- I certainly haven't sat and watched a single NBA game since learning of the Tim Donaghy points-shaving scandal, and lord knows I'm not alone in that response -- and the NFL is on the brink of a serious problem if they don't fix their own weakness among those who call their games and help ensure that the play is within the rules. Commissioner Roger Goodell has done a lot with respect to the morality of the players in the NFL, but it is time for him to focus on the refs before this blows up into an even wider problem for the biggest and best sports league in the world today.

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Blogger Snuffy said...

Put on your tinfoil hats!

11:55 PM  
Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Except that I'm not alleging any conspiracy at all, or any "riggedness" to the system. No, just bad, bad referees, which everybody knows is true.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Chad C said...

Fantasy Football is pure luck anyway though really. Rosters are tiny, the 1st couple rounds of the draft are pretty much insta-picks. Just have to pray guys don't get hurt or all of a sudden start sucking. Fantasy Football lost its luster with me probably three years ago.

1:38 AM  
Blogger Mondogarage said...

"It is clear that the move away from one-stud-runningback systems and more in favor of multiple-back offenses has a lot to do with the dropoff in interest from the peak of fantasy football."

What does one have to do with the other? And are you talking about such a move away being made by real NFL coaches and teams, or strictly by fantasy players in their roster construction?

1:57 AM  
Blogger Mondogarage said...

"I certainly haven't sat and watched a single NBA game since learning of the Tim Donaghy points-shaving scandal, and lord knows I'm not alone in that response --"

What? You won't watch the NBA because there's been cheating by those who run the game?

(head asplode)

Merry Christmas to you and yours, be safe and well.

4:17 AM  
Blogger 1Queens Up1 said...

I don't believe fantasy football is dead (unlike poker). Last year was the year of the Pass, RBs suffered mightily and QB's/WRs reigned supreme. However, in the last 8 years of Fantasy Football only 2 years (2004 and 2007) were truly Non-RB savy years. This year we had an asplosion of rookie RBs who were good, and started, AND performed very well: C.J., Forte, Slaton. Only one of those RBs are currently in a RB by committee.

But I think that is also a part of strategy, if you draft A.P. you HAVE to know Taylor is getting touches (and TDs) as well. RB by committee helps stud RBs in reducing injuries and keep them on the field later in the season.

Like poker, FFBL relies on advanced strategy and planning that Joe Fantasy player doesnt grasp. Bye weeks, schedules, and offensive line strength are just some areas every player should consider before picking a stud RB.
I agree the officiating has been horrendous this year, more so then most I'd say, but I dont see how that equates to less interest in fantasy football? Like Chad said, yes there is luck involved in not having players injured, or refs flagging an 80 yard TD on some inconsequential holding away from the play, but thems are the breaks!

In closing, I'll just say that the draft sets up your team, but its the waiver wire and pre-draft preparation that wins championships. You get out of it what you put into it. Just like poker.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Mike G said...

I think those referee blunders are all pretty good points. Other reasons I didn't enjoy the NFL this year are that supposedly solid teams were unpredictable, and there were many odd upsets. It just was not fun to watch really and certainly not easy to bet on. And I'm a Vegas resident and had access to the free weekly Coast Casinos pick the pros shot at $30k, but after week 8 I just couldn't even be bothered, there was too much funkiness going on and I moved on to other things.

I can only imagine fantasy football being even more confusing and frustrating this year.

10:46 AM  

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