One week after the biggest non-call in years, the circumstances surrounding the latter stages of the fourth quarter of the Rams-Saints NFC title game continues to feed the never-ending NFL news cycle.
Four of the officials assigned to last Sunday night’s game live in Southern California. That concern has been percolating relatively innocuously for several days; ESPN’s decision to make it a Pro Bowl Sunday Splash! item has given it widespread attention, unfortunately.
As a league spokesman told ESPN, “Officiating assignments are based on performance and not geographic location.”
But that apparently isn’t stopping the suspicion that bias crept into the equation, raising the question of whether geography should be a factor in deciding who calls which game. Doing so legitimizes the notion that officials can’t set aside where they live, where they grew up, which teams they’ve rooted for, which team their family members root for, who they know, etc. when calling games. If the league were to venture into the rabbit hole of connective tissue between officials and teams, the league may eventually have to use something other than the best officials for the biggest games.
It’s only an issue that four of the officials live in Southern California because the crew failed to call pass interference and an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. But if geographic bias were an issue, wouldn’t they have flagged the Saints player who grabbed the facemask of Rams quarterback Jared Goff?
In virtually all cases like this, incompetence trumps intent. If the NFL hopes to minimize the situations during which fans and media suggest foul play, the league should come up with ways to improve officiating, embracing ideas like the late Dan Rooney’s suggestion of a video official who would be watching all camera angles and replays and communicating in real time with the referee to fix mistakes quickly and efficiently.
The best way to rule out foul play is to do everything possible to eliminate errors. Even if the fix wasn’t in, stories like this fuel the fantasies of the tin-foil hat crowd. The best way to prevent that it is to do whatever it takes to get the calls right.