During Super Bowl XXXII, the story goes, Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Gabe Wilkins refused to go back into the game after sustaining what appeared to be a minor injury. LeRoy Butler, a Packers team captain that season, implored Wilkins to suck it up and put the team first, telling him: “Gabe, this is only the Super Bowl, let’s play.”
The Super Bowl is the objective every season for more than 1,600 players and hundreds of coaches; they put in long hours, and endure considerable physical pain, to get there.
Determining which two teams get to the big game shouldn’t come down to a mind-boggling no-call by the game officials. Or the flip of a coin. But that’s what happened Sunday in the NFL’s conference championship games.
Every football fan who spent weekends in recent years saying “Well, I think he caught the pass, but I just don’t know anymore” has a clear idea of what pass interference is, and sending the would-be receiver sprawling just before the ball arrives — as Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman did to New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis late in Sunday’s NFC game — is definitely pass interference. It’s the worst officiating decision we’ve seen in an NFL game, and we saw the ending of the “Fail Mary” game between the Packers and Seattle Seahawks in 2012.
Stunningly, the seven men in striped shirts inside the Superdome on Sunday did not see what we saw. No penalty was assessed on the play, and the Saints kicked a go-ahead field goal early rather than running time off the clock and kicking one late.
The non-call had nothing to do with the Saints’ defense’s inability to stop the Rams getting into field-goal range to force overtime. Nor did it have anything to do with Saints quarterback Drew Brees throwing an interception in overtime to set up the Rams’ winning field goal. But the non-call definitely made a difference in the game.
We’ve also got a bone to pick with the NFL’s overtime rules, which a few years ago changed from “first team to score wins” to “first team to score a touchdown wins, but if the team with the ball first kicks a field goal, the other team then gets a shot at scoring.”
In Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, after a series of fourth-quarter comeback drives directed by New England Patriots veteran Tom Brady and Kansas City Chiefs rising star Patrick Mahomes, a coin toss determined which team would receive the ball first in overtime. Mahomes and the Chiefs offense never got back on the field, as the Patriots won the toss and Brady drove the Patriots to the winning touchdown.
That strikes us as unfair, especially having watched so many college games in recent years go to overtime.
In the college game, each team gets the ball 25 yards from the end zone; if one scores more points than the other in its turn, the game is over. But the key, to us, is that each team gets a turn, making it more like extra innings in baseball.
Considering the fact that, in the NFL, penalty yardage is determined by where the pass interference occurred and the result could be a 40-yard penalty, we propose that coaches be allowed the right to challenge a call or non-call when pass interference is suspected. We have to believe that if the officials had taken another look at Robey-Coleman smashing into Lewis, they would have realized that pass interference should have been flagged and then reversed their egregious no-call.
We’d also like to see the NFL further modify its overtime rules to something more closely resembling the college rules. We think each team should have possession of the ball in overtime, especially in the conference championship games.
Because to paraphrase LeRoy Butler, it’s only the Super Bowl. Let them play.