After 11 seasons, the NFL returned to Mexico City last night as two first place teams, the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders, squared off in what would turn out to be a battle to the very last minute. This historical night also marked the first time Monday Night Football was ever played outside the United States. Even with all of its glory and success, the looming cloud of poor officiating casted itself over Azteca Stadium, stealing the headlines and reminding us once again that the NFL needs to do something about its referees.
Having dominated America’s sports landscape for years now, the National Football League has set its sights on globalizing the sport. From the now defunct NFL Europe, to hosting in-season games in London, the controversial sport is surely growing in popularity around the world. China has even launch its own arena football league, the CAFL, which is known for it’s super excessive, albeit very comical touchdown celebrations.
Players and fans alike have complained about the London games however, mostly traveling and time differences, to the point where the NFL just announced that it is going to consider changing those games’ start times to improve TV ratings. With the international market still a huge target for the sport, it can’t risk disgruntled players and TV ratings back home. So Monday night’s game in Mexico City served as a glimpse into our future, one where teams won’t have the heavy burden of flying across an ocean and fans won’t have to wake up at 8 a.m. for football and breakfast.
For the most part it was a huge success. The sellout crowd of more than 75,000 mostly Raider fans, was nothing short of stellar, aside from a few plays when a patron shined a laser right in the face of Texan’s quarterback Brock Osweiler. Although Brock refused to say it was “the difference-maker” in the game, he did add that “certainly, having a laser zoomed in on your eyeball definitely affects how you play.”
Many Americans were more concerned with how we as a nation would be received, considering the recent remarks made by our now president-elect, Donald Trump, regarding the people of Mexico. Last week, USA Today issued a warning with a headline that read “Expect Mexico fans to boo national anthem before ‘Monday Night Football.’” A young man told the newspaper, “When it is a soccer game it just means we want to beat your team. This time, I will be booing the bad parts of America. Trump, intolerance, racism, how some people feel towards Mexicans. But I still love American football, and yes, I still love America.” And to be honest, we may have been less concerned and more expecting the boos, but that was not the case. Azteca Stadium rocked with cheers as the players ran out on the field and the American National Anthem was sung. Fans were here to celebrate the game, however they did boo the referees like many Americans and spectators around the world.
Last night, the referees made two controversial calls that essentially decided the game in favor of the Raiders. The first was calling Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins out-of-bounds on a would-be touchdown during the opening minutes of the contest. The replays during the game showed him tiptoeing the sideline, but managing to elude the white line. The second call came in the fourth quarter when the officials may have misplaced the spot of the ball, which would’ve gave Houston a first down. They would go on to turn the ball over on downs on the next play, and subsequently losing the game.
Dean Blandino, NFL’s vice president of officiating, took to Twitter last night to explain why the Hopkins out-of-bounds call was the right one, at least from what we can see. He mentions that it looks like the Texans wide receiver stepped out at the 36-year-yard line, and because the referee blew the whistle, thus announcing a dead ball and killing the play, the call is not eligible for a challenge.
“This is not reviewable. We ruled the player out-of-bounds, killing it, we’re blowing whistles. You can’t give him advance in replay — the theory is players are stopping because of the dead-ball ruling and it would be impossible to tell where the receiver would have ended up had we not killed the play.”
In this instance, rules are rules, and everything was done by the book, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. The sideline official may have seen Hopkins’ heel hit the out-of-bounds line when in fact it didn’t, but because it was unchallengeable, the ruling stood. Would more sideline cameras help the league and the game, sure, but in this instance, it wouldn’t have mattered. It’s about what plays can and should be challengeable.
The fourth quarter play on the other hand, seems to be a botched call. With the score tied at 20, the Texans had a third-and-two at the Raiders’ 16-yard line. The officials gave the Texans one yard on a Lamar Miller rush to the left, though the replays appeared to show Miller gaining enough yards for the first down. Then on fourth down, it looks like Akeem Hunt gained the one yard needed for the first down, but officials ruled that not to be true. Texans coach O’Brien challenged the play, but the ruling on the field stood.
NFL officials have been under a lot of scrutiny for missed calls and inconsistencies this season. Considering the insane amount of money the league generates, it doesn’t seem to be taking full advantage of the technologies that are available, including more sideline cameras or the sideline sensors that are widely used in tennis. Coaches haven’t been shy in speaking out against the league’s poor officiating, including the Steelers and Saints head coaches, Mike Tomlin and Sean Payton, who have recently said the NFL needs more full-time refs.
“The system currently hasn’t improved. We say it has, but it hasn’t. We’re the only league with officials who have primary other jobs, which is really madness. We can pay these guys. They should be full-time NFL officials, and they should be working throughout the week, communicating,” Payton said to NBC earlier this month. “Every other sports league employs full-time officials. And ours, these guys all have other significant jobs. I just think it’s very difficult to do.”
There’s a lot to be discussed before hiring more full-time referees, and it’s not definitive that it’ll solve the ongoing issue players, coaches and fans have with the current crop of officials. It’s also just a much rulebook problems as it is ref problems, as in what plays should be challengeable and by whom. Nevertheless, the NFL solved one concern last night: they found an international home in Mexico City, as commissioner Roger Goodell stated “I’m optimistic we’ll be back.”