Replacements again a story in Week 3; remembering Steve Sabol
In another bad week for replacement refs, hopefully we reached a tipping point
Steve Sabol is honored by some of the people whose lives he the impacted most
Giants' smart drafting; Awards of the Week; Ten Things I Think I Think and more
On a day to pay tribute to the late Steve Sabol, which I'll do for a good chunk of this column, it's maddening and saddening to have to discuss the officiating disaster so prominently. Again.
I said it last week, and I'll say it again: The legitimacy of NFL games is at stake with officials who simply aren't suited to work games of the intensity and importance of Atlanta-Denver last Monday or New England-Baltimore Sunday night.
The replacement officials, collectively, are the headache that won't go away. Last night on "Football Night in America," I reported that the league and the NFL Referees Association (the union for the 120 real officials) negotiated much of Sunday, until close to 9 p.m., in New York with a federal mediator present. But talks broke off with substantial differences remaining on several key issues, and the two sides didn't schedule any further negotiations.
Even though the second half of Baltimore's 31-30 victory over New England was another screaming example of why the game needs the regular officials, and even though it should be the spur to get the NFL to open the wallet to end this thing, the fact that talks ended abruptly and with little hope for resolution in the next couple of days makes it appear we'll have another week with the replacements. If the lockout isn't solved by Wednesday or early Thursday, 25 percent of the season will have been officiated by the fifth-stringers from the NAIA and other such football hinterlands.
But the crazy thing Sunday was the infection spread into the replay booth. Little-known officiating fact: The NFL has officiating supervisors from the league office at every NFL game to review crew mechanics and scout the crews. Usually those supervisors -- retired officials or those who couldn't make the grade on the field -- sit in the press box. Now they're in the replay booth to act as another set of veteran eyes in case they're needed by the rookies on the field. A lot of help the supervisors and replay officials were in Nashville and Minneapolis Sunday. Two glaring examples showed it's not just the replacements who are messing up the games:
In Minnesota, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh got two free replay challenges he didn't deserve near the end of the second half (video below). When he called his third timeout late in the fourth quarter, he asked referee Ken Roan if he was allowed to challenge a play during the timeout because he'd noticed what he thought was a Minnesota fumble during the timeout. Roan allowed him the challenge, even though you've got to have a timeout remaining if you throw the challenge flag, because the penalty for losing a challenge is a loss of a timeout. Upstairs, the replay official, Tom Sifferman, and the unknown supervisor from the league, could have corrected Roan on this call, or on another challenge one minute later by Harbaugh. The veteran league reps didn't correct the disaster. Lucky for the league the Niners weren't able to score off the two extra challenges, and the game ended with Minnesota winning 24-13.
In Tennessee, the stunner of all stunners gave the Titans a crucial 12 free yards on what turned out to be the decisive field-goal drive in overtime, the drive that provided the winning points in Tennessee's 44-41 victory. Tennessee had 2nd-and-18 from its 44, and Jake Locker threw what was ruled a 24-yard completion to tight end Craig Stevens. At the end of the play, Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch was called for a 15-yard personal foul on Stevens. But the completion was reversed and ruled an incompletion.
Now the officials had to mark off the 15-yard penalty. Presumably, replay official Earnie Frantz or the officiating supervisor told the referee, Gerald Wright, to mark the 15-yard penalty from the Tennessee 44. But Wright marked it from the Detroit 44, giving the Titans a first down at the Detroit 29. If the crew had marked it from the Titans 44, the first down would have been from the Detroit 41. As it was, Tennessee, from the 29, was already in field-goal range. It's beyond inexcusable -- and to think the league office put an extra set of eyes in the replay booth to ensure debacles like a 27-yard personal foul wouldn't happen. It did anyway.
Many of you wonder why the league can't solve this puzzle after getting the jillion-dollar CBA and TV deals done last year. A couple of reasons. Many of you think for 120 part-time officials to get an average of $38,250 per year in pension contributions is excessive. But the regular officials are simply trying to keep a benefit they've had for the last several years. The league contributed $5.3 million to officials' pensions last year and propose to contribute $2 million this year; the cut, the league says, is in keeping with pension plans around the country going to a 401k pension plan, subject to the whims of the stock market, rather than guaranteeing retirees a fixed return on their investments. What's $3 million to the NFL? That's only partially the point. The league has made many full-time employees take the lesser pension, so how can they give part-timers a better deal?
And the league wants a plug-and-play farm system of three officiating crews to be developed, so that if, say, a back judge is struggling or has to retire, the league will have an immediate replacement. The officials are balking at the reduction in job security.
It's only a matter of time before some gaffe like a 27-yard penalty or two extra challenges costs some team a game it should have won. I think the league is going to have to compromise more than it wants to. The alternative is just too ugly. We've seen the alternative play out too often over the last eight days.
Now for some football:
So the Ravens wanted some prime time home games, eh? Monday night at home to open the season on ESPN. Sunday night at home in Week 3 on NBC. Thursday night at home in Week 4, on NFL Network. Four games, 18 days. "I don't think it's ever been done before, following a Sunday night game with a Thursday night game,'' John Harbaugh said after the Ravens won the frenetic 31-30 game over the Patriots last night -- the game I hope we'll always remember as the tipping point in getting a deal done to bring the real officials back to the field.
The anger, the frustration, the bad calls. Bill Belichick was so incensed he grabbed one of the officials coming off the field after the game, in a failed attempt to get the official's attention; he'll certainly get fined heavily for that. Harbaugh could get fined for his bump of an official near the Ravens' sideline in the fourth quarter, when he says he was just trying to get the official's attention to call time out. Harbaugh even told his players to make sure they watch him in dealing with the replacements during the game, because he can get pretty exercised. "These guys [the officials] deserve our respect,'' Harbaugh said after midnight. "This is a tough job, and they're doing the best they can. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not commenting on any of the calls. For us, it's got to be a non-story. You don't want to set yourself up to be thinking about the officials all the time.''
Harbaugh was thinking about Torrey Smith when we spoke. He'd just listened to Smith address the team after losing his brother in a motorcycle accident Sunday morning, and going out and catching six passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the evening. "Unbelievable,'' Harbaugh said. "The last words he spoke to his teammates were, 'Thank you.' He's an amazingly mature young man. I'm so glad he's on our team.''
And then there were three ... Undefeated teams. Arizona, Atlanta and Houston are 3-0. The only 0-3 teams are Cleveland and New Orleans. Which means there are 27 teams among the great unwashed, with either one or two wins. I say it every year, but it's amazing how even the league is. "If you have a defense that's fairly consistent, and a quarterback who can move the ball, you're going to be in a lot of games,'' Marvin Lewis said the other day. "And right now, there's a lot of good quarterbacks in this league.''
Matt Van Gogh is one tough quarterback. "I feel fine,'' Houston quarterback Matt Schaub said after the 31-25 win in Denver. "I just lost a piece of my ear.'' He said matter-of-factly. The brutal helmet-to-helmet hit by Denver linebacker Joe Mays knocked Schaub's helmet, and Schaub, into next week for a couple of minutes. And it will surely result in a big fine for Mays. The hit was as violent a hit on a quarterback seen in the NFL since James Harrison de-cleated Colt McCoy last year. The early leader for Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end J.J. Watt, sacked Peyton Manning 2.5 times. Watt's ascension has been amazing in his 13 professional months. At 23, he might be the best 3-4 end in football.
The Falcons are at home on the road. Now 6-0 in the Mike Smith Era on the West Coast, the Falcons blew out to a 20-0 lead at Qualcomm and were never threatened. Matt Ryan improved to 46-19 as an NFL starter, and there's something about the way he's playing -- confident, fearless, accurate in the face of pressure. His previous season-best for accuracy was 62.5 percent in 2010; now it's 72.0. His previous best rating was 92.2 last season; this year he's at 113.9. He led three drives of longer than 72 yards Sunday. "I'm now realizing I can do it,'' he said Sunday. We see.
Trends? I don't want no stinkin' trends. Home teams were 14-2 last week, which fit rather neatly in the replacement-officials-get-intimidated-by-home-stadia story angle. One problem: In Weeks 1 and 3, home teams are 16-15 entering tonight's Green Bay-Seattle game.
The news could be ominous for Darrelle Revis. We should know by this afternoon, after he exits an MRI tube in New Jersey, if Revis will become the biggest loss any team has had this year. His left knee caved on the grass in Miami without being hit, the kind of awkward sight and subsequent crumbling of a player that makes you think it could be a serious knee injury. Why would the loss of Revis be a disaster for the Jets? Because they're not ready to put their recent first-round Boise State corner on Kyle Wilson Island.
Now starting for the Bengals at quarterback, No. 12, Mohamed Sanu. The rookie from Rutgers should frame Sunday's NFL gamebook, the one with "QB 12 M.Sanu'' where Andy Dalton's name should be in the lineup of starting players. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden drew a play up this week with Sanu as the shotgun quarterback and Dalton spread wide left, practicing it for the first time Wednesday. "I noticed when teams played the Wildcat against the Redskins, they lined up in cover zero [safeties crowding the line of scrimmage, corners with no safety net over the top], and I thought we might able to do something with Mohamed because of his arm.''
Sanu played quarterback at South Brunswick (N.J.) High, then went to Rutgers, where he was eventually moved to receiver. He did throw 18 college passes out of the Wildcat formation, so he had some experience. So when Gruden called the play on the first snap, A.J. Green was supposed to take a corner with him, with no safety help, and that's exactly how it played out. "I was supposed to throw the ball as far as I could throw,'' Sanu told me after the game. "I knew I could put it right on him.'' Sanu wound up and threw the ball 49 yards in the air. As he said, he put it right on Green, who caught it in stride. It looked so easy. "I can tell you,'' said Gruden, "he didn't throw it that good in practice this week." But it only counts when it counts.
Speaking of play-of-the-day candidates ... Twelve years ago, Tennessee special teams coach Alan Lowry called for one of the most famous postseason plays in history -- the Music City Miracle. On a kickoff return, the ball was caught by a Titan, passed backward across the field, and run in for a touchdown. One in a million. Or two. On Sunday, fourth-string Tennessee running back Darius Reynaud, out of football all last year, went back to return a punt, and he shaded toward the left hashmark. That's where Detroit punted it. "Every day in practice, just playing catch, I saw Darius throw it,'' said Lowry, still Tennessee's kicking teams coach. "He was left-handed. And I started thinking of putting him on the left hash during a punt return and throwing it across the field if we could get the right look.''
Here came the Detroit punt team, and Reynaud whirled and fired the ball about 28 yards to his right, and back about four yards. Tommie Campbell ran it back for a 65-yard touchdown. The oddity: Reynaud told me after the game that never -- in 11 years of high school, college and pro football -- had he ever thrown the ball. And now, in a tight NFL game, he threw a 28-yard strike that led to a touchdown. "Oh, definitely, definitely I was nervous. But I had a lot of confidence I could do it.'' That wasn't the end of the greatest day of Reynaud's career: He ran a kickoff back 105 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. And Lowry was left to compare one miracle to another. "I always said the thing about the Music City Miracle was I hoped we'd never need it again. But we did, and we were able to pull it off. What a crazy game. Thirty-one years in the NFL, and I've never seen one quite like this game."
In Tuesday's column: The growth of Christian Ponder ... The Chiefs shocking the Dome.
Why the Giants win ... at least one big reason.
Patience wins in the NFL. Impetuousness rarely does, and when it does, it doesn't last. The 2009 NFL draft illustrates that well. That spring, the Giants picked Connecticut tackle Will Beatty 60th overall, Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden 85th overall and North Carolina State running back Andre Brown 129th. Until Thursday night, Beatty had been an oft-injured disappointment, Barden got passed -- and lapped several times -- in wideout impact by Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks and Brown had been cut by half the free world. On Thursday, they were three of the 10 most important Giants in a 36-7 rout of Carolina on the road.
That's the strength of Jerry Reese as a general manager. He's not a knee-jerk guy. Last April, I wrote a story on Reese (and, in particular, how well he works with Tom Coughlin), and I sat in his office for a while talking about roster-building. The subject of the abuse he took from the talk-show set and fans came up for letting Steve Smith and Kevin Boss go in the 2011 offseason. He got a smile on his face and played me a couple of, shall we say, interesting, voice mails from critical fans after those players went to Philadelphia and Kansas City by way of Oakland, respectively. He asked me not to report what was said in the voicemails, but let's just say you need to have some blisters on your hide to be a general manager for a New York sports team.
"We don't have a template for how we build here,'' says Reese, and the Giants don't. But the one thing they have no problem doing is saying goodbye. They loved Boss -- loved him. But he wasn't worth a $6 million signing bonus to them. Gone. "Around here, when the money gets above X, we say goodbye,'' John Mara told me in the spring. They figured Barden could slide into Manningham's role and so they let Manningham walk to San Francisco. Brandon Jacobs had worn out his welcome; Brown and rookie David Wilson will have a shot to replace him -- and that looks good so far.
Charting players who have been good Reese picks in his first six drafts with the Giants:
2012: CB Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech (Round 3, 94 overall)
Precocious and instinctive from day one of camp, Hosley's one of the best rookie DBs in the league. He intercepted a Cam Newton pass Thursday.
2011: LB Jacquian Williams, South Florida (R6, 202)
A top special-teamer from day one, Williams stripped Kyle Williams in overtime of last season's NFC title game, setting up the Giants win.
2010: DE Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida (R1, 15)
Think the Eagles (Brandon Graham at 13) or Raiders (Rolando McClain at 8) would like to have a draft-day do-over?
2009: RB Andre Brown, North Carolina State (R4, 129)
Tore his Achilles as a rookie, and has been cut eight times since, but Reese brought him back, and Brown finally paid off with his big night against Carolina.
2008: WR Mario Manningham, Michigan (R3, 95)
Made the second-greatest catch in modern Giants history, but the Giants let him walk in free agency. "I don't agonize over anyone,'' Reese says.
2007: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, Marshall (R7, 250)
Troubled in college, he was worth a seventh-round risk, to put it mildly. What I love about the Giants 2007 draft: All eight rookies on this Super Bowl roster not only made the team, but also were active for at least one of the Giants' four playoff wins that year.