What a game last night. Two of the top teams in the NFL - the Pats and the Cats - hooked up for one of the best Monday Night Football games in a long time (though given the crappy schedule the League keeps handing ESPN, that's not saying much). Heck, it was one of the best games of the season. And I say that even with the outcome and being a diehard Patriots fan.
Too bad a bunch of fans and "experts" had to do their best to ruin the end of the game because of a single no-call that did not - despite their best whining - determine the outcome of the game.
About 99% of the time, the defense's contact on Rob Gronkowski during that play would be called pass interference. Make that 99.7%. Last night's play at the buzzer was the 0.3% of the time when it wasn't. The process that unfolded - a picked-up flag - could have been cleaner, and the messy nature of picking up a flag is amplified because it was the last play of the game and it was in the end zone, but - The call's the call.
I couldn't care less whether it was the "right" call or not. Frankly, I see both sides. Yes, the intended receiver was contacted illegally; But yes, it was also a very difficult play for Gronk to make. If there was no contact, would he have really stopped his momentum and dove back to catch the ball? I doubt it. He doubts it too, as does Tom Brady. Could he have made the play? I suppose it's possible. Would he have? Nah.
The fans don't care about that. They just want the officials to bail their team out of a bad play. And that's what it was: a bad play. Short pass from Brady, badly adjusted route by Gronk. But the fans don't care. They want the referees to step in and save their team because a defender hit the receiver.
It was like a replay of the late non-pass-interference call in the Super Bowl. Niners fans are still screaming about Michael Crabtree being held on a fourth-down pass in the end zone. But, like Brady's last-second pass last night, that play featured a bad pass from Colin Kaepernick.
In both cases, I think the refs were ultimately correct to not call a penalty. It's the last play of the game. Both teams are giving it their all. Unless there is a call that LEAPS out at you, you let the players decide the game. That's what you're taught as an official -- no cheap touchdowns.
But the fans don't care. They want the refs to bail out their team. They don't want to believe their beloved players failed. They don't want to believe their favorite team failed. They want to find a scapegoat, an outsider to point fingers at.
We don't just see this in football - and we don't just see it in sports. We've structured our system to keep people from failing. Most of the time that's a compassionate, humane, just position. People get sick by no fault of their own. Workers get laid off suddenly. Shit happens that's of no fault of their own, and it's just to have a society where there's a safety net to catch them.
But there's another side to it. When we fail at something, when we face disappointment in life, we want someone to bail us out - we want the win despite our failures. Bank executives take dangerous multi-billion-dollar risks that blow up in their faces? No big deal, the taxpayer will pony up for your bonus! You get into a car wreck because you were texting on your phone? Don't worry, the insurance company will cover it.
I don't mean to sound like Sarah Palin railing against "The Nanny State." But this is where we are in our culture, where our failures are always somebody else's fault. Sometimes it's just. Sometimes it's taking advantage of a system meant to help people get by.
The reaction by so many to the final play of last night's game was just the latest example. "Our team blew it, and the guys in the striped shirts wouldn't bail them out. Waaaaaaaah."
You know why the Patriots lost? Because they didn't play well enough. When Tom Brady and Bill Belichick got in front of the media at their post-game press conference, they repeated the same boring stuff they always say after a game. What they said may not have made headlines, but it was the truth: The team didn't play well enough to win. There were missed passes. There were dropped balls. There was blown coverage.
In the 20+ years I've been watching the NFL, there's only been one game that I thought maybe - just maybe - the officials played a role in the outcome. Sure, I rant about their favoritism for Peyton Manning, but that's really just my frustration with him being such a damn good player. Super Bowl XL - Steelers and Seahawks - was the only NFL game I've ever truly felt it was possible the guys in stripes played a significant role. Four years after the game, the white hat acknowledged mistakes the officials made in the game.
Last night's outcome wasn't on the zebras. Those officials didn't miss that tackle on Ted Ginn with 59 seconds left in the game. They didn't throw an interception or lose a fumble. And they didn't throw a weak pass - or give up on the pass - on the final play of the game.
They threw a flag that at least one other official felt was a mistake. They picked it up. Those were two very good teams out there. Somebody had to win, and somebody had to lose.
It's not the officials' job to bail your team out of a bad situation no matter how much you want them to.