Roughing the Ref
The other day, Joe Posnanski mentioned something in passing—an “outtake,” in his words—during an extensive post on why Aaron Nola's 2018 stats are so incredibly good by certain statistical measures, and whether those measure are wrong or Nola's really that good (spoiler: the measures are wrong).
What he mentioned in passing was about reffing in the NFL:
The referees immediately called it an incomplete pass [in the Philly-Chicago playoff game two weeks ago] because it's not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. I don't mean this facetiously. It is not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. The game moves too fast, there's too much happening at once, the rules are too vague and teams work harder at breaking the rules than referees could ever work at upholding them.
Calling an NFL game is like trying to police a 42.4 mph speed limit (or maybe it's 37.3 mph speed limit) on the Autobahn if the cars were (only in specific ways) allowed to crash into each other.
Watching a different game that weekend (Seahawks vs. Cowboys), I had the exact some thought.
It was the 4th quarter, Seahawks were still down by 3, and they had the ball on their own 20 with 9:33 to go. So here we go! First pass from scrimmage, gain of six. No, wait. Penalty on us: holding. Now it's first and 20 at the 10.
So here we go! Another short pass, five yards. No, wait. Penalty on us: unncessary roughness. Now it's second and 22 at the 8.
All of that kind of killed that drive. We wound up punting, they wound up scoring (to go ahead by 10), we wound up scoring (to bring it within 2), but then flubbed the onside kick and that was the game and the season.
I‘ve spent a lifetime listening to my father yelling at the refs on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota, and I kind of did the same during that drive at a Seattle bar, but it also made me think. How many refs are there on the field? Seven? How many umps during a MLB game? Four? Six during the postseason? But think of the difference in responsibilities. In baseball, the job is basically to follow the ball. That’s really it. If a player leads off an inning with a single to right, umps won't have to look at the center-fielder or left-fielder or third baseman or shortstop; they won't factor. Just follow the ball and follow the runner.
In football, refs have to watch every single player on every single play. Even a guy across the field from where the action is. He could do something—flag!—that brings the play back. Imagine if that happened in baseball. “Sorry, Felix, that's not a strikeout; the third baseman did X while you were throwing the ball.”
I don't know how refs do it. I suppose we should stop yelling at them and take in the enormity of the task.