The National Football League has a long list of things it does not like, including declining television ratings, controversies that alienate league sponsors, and modern research into the effect of having one's head battered for a living. One thing the NFL really doesn't like, however, is being publicly embarrassed.
All the other stuff is bad for business, but a perception that the league is populated by clowns who don't know what they are doing is the biggest rankler of them all. It is a prideful organization if nothing else.
At every game, the visible representatives of the league's authority and competence are seven men (and, very occasionally, a lone woman) running about the field in striped shirts and black pants trying very hard to keep order within a disorderly game. It isn't always easy, and it isn't always successful.
You can imagine the NFL's reaction when, during the very first game of the postseason, the crew of referee Jeff Triplette made such a procedural hash of the Titans' 22-21 win over the Chiefs that former officiating boss Mike Pereira termed it "horrible."
In a Twitter message after the game, Pereira, now an analyst for Fox, wrote: "I hate to say it but this was not a good performance by the crew. Teams and fans deserve better."
Yeah, I'm sure the boys in New York liked to hear that one. Triplette, who has been an official for 22 years and a referee for the last 18, is retiring, and that game was his farewell. He developed a reputation over the years for lengthy on-field discussions with his crew and for some head-scratching applications of the rules.
In Saturday's wild-card opener, when Tennessee's Marcus Mariota gathered in his own batted pass and scored a touchdown, Triplette hilariously announced that the score was legal because the quarterback was "in the shotgun formation," which had no bearing at all on the matter. There was a lot of other stuff as well, and if the league wanted to give Triplette the quiet going-away present of one more postseason assignment, that didn't work out so well, particularly with Pereira throwing the final bird into the punch bowl.
Like it or not, the vagaries that come with human judgment are something that can't be avoided in this world and can, in one of the less important applications of them, decide a football game. Coaches and players can prepare as much as they like, but an afternoon's toil can be decided on the split-second difference between good defense and pass interference as determined by a 55-year-old side judge who just ran 20 yards to keep up with two elite sprinters.
The NFL will do what it can to sand the surface of its mistakes, though, and part of that is not letting the perceived biases of one game seep into the next. In that regard, it was very good news for the Eagles on Saturday evening when the officiating crew of Ed Hochuli allowed the Atlanta secondary, particularly the cornerbacks, to play very aggressively and physically against Los Angeles Rams receivers.
The Falcons played that way to such an extent, with just one first-half pass-interference call, that commentator Cris Collinsworth mentioned several times the officials were letting the boys go at it pretty good.
Near the end of the game, with the Rams at the Atlanta 5-yard line on fourth down, a Jared Goff pass to Sammy Watkins fell incomplete in the end zone, and replays showed part of the reason was that linebacker Debo Jones had wrapped his arm around the waist of Watkins as he went past in the way a parent might prevent a child from stepping off a curb into traffic. Collinsworth correctly observed that defensive holding would normally have been called, but the officials swallowed their whistles in a big playoff moment.
This brings us to Saturday's game in Lincoln Financial Field in which the Eagles desperately pray Nick Foles can lead the offense past the plugged middle of Atlanta's cover-3 defense and, hope against hope, downfield beyond its defenders out there on the margins of the field. Al Michaels and Collinsworth will be on hand to tell the country how that goes, and you can be sure the league doesn't want another week of suggestion that the Falcons secondary gets away with murder. When the officiating crew is prepped for the game, the league's history tells us it will be a point of emphasis. That doesn't come with a guarantee for the Eagles, but it won't hurt, and Foles will need all the help he can get.
In some ways, the officials are just functionaries now, moving the game pieces around the board and saying whose turn it is. The great eye in New York makes the catch/drop and fumble/no fumble calls that are often most critical to the outcome. If a guy steps out of bounds, hey, whatever, the replay will see it. But on judgment calls – interference, roughing, forward motion and the like – there is no removing the human element.
The human element will be on the lookout Saturday for several things in particular, including the enthusiastic tendencies of the Atlanta pass-coverage unit. If the officials, led in this game by referee Bill Vinovich, had to be scolded again for giving the Falcons too much rein, that could be embarrassing. The NFL takes pains to avoid such things and no one is more aware of that than the seven striped representatives who strive to keep the boss happy each game.