‘Refball’ is a baby excuse for losing and we all need to grow up

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 08: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs waits for referees Carl Paganelli and Jerome Boger to make a call during the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 08: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs waits for referees Carl Paganelli and Jerome Boger to make a call during the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

NFL referees are in a no-win situation as it is, and it doesn’t help anyone for fans to blame them for losing a game instead of the actual players and coaches.

Every single game that has ever been lost in the NFL has been because the refs were bad. If the refs were good, every game would end in a tie and the playoff algorithm would eat itself trying to place 32 franchises who all went 0-0-16. This is what I gather from fan responses on social media whenever their favorite team loses, because it seems every single game is lost not on the lack of execution of the players, but because the refs are just so impossibly bad that they singlehandedly ruined one team’s chances at victory.

Or, perhaps—and hear me out—the refs are humans who are just as fallible as the players, and 99.99% of the time their mistakes mean nothing in the grand scheme of the game. I know, defending the refs isn’t exactly the most fun position. In fact, it even leaves a gross taste in my mouth. The refs are exclusively there to bring some sort of authoritative control over inherent chaos, so they’re never going to be the most popular crew.

But they aren’t as bad as we want them to be. We like to use impossibly detailed instant replay to expose how terrible they are, but all it really does is reveal how difficult their job is. The expectation to get everything exactly right when it happens in a split second is completely unreasonable, and that doesn’t even take into account that they’re working with one of the most convoluted rulebooks in all of sports. The NFL refs are in a perpetual no-win situation.

The Kansas City Chiefs’ victory in New England is only the latest example of this. N’Keal Harry had what should have been a touchdown taken away when he was ruled to have stepped out of bounds before crossing the goal line. Before that on the same drive, Travis Kelce‘s fumble was ruled down so forward progress on the recovery was immediately stopped. Neither of them were great looks for the refs, but they weren’t the game-altering sins they’ve been spun as.

Momentum is mostly a myth in football, but each drive does impact the way the next drive is called. If the Patriots scored a touchdown on that drive, it’d likely change the way Andy Reid called the following offensive drive for the Chiefs. If that drive results in a touchdown, we’re back at the same deficit we started with.

The domino effect of righting a bad call is not only in the score it took off the board, but in all the what ifs that come after it. Not only for the team impacted by the poor call, but the opponent as well. The infinite permutations of events that come after make the idea that these two missed called robbed New England of a win completely moot.

Also, just for the record, for specifically this game, it just breaks my heart so much that New England got a couple bad calls at home. It’s so completely not fair. The Patriots just can’t ever catch a break, can they?

The righteous indignation of Patriots fans over the referees in this game is so delicious. It’s like some mobsters who’ve had the police on the take for 20 years expect sympathy when they get popped for a crime they didn’t commit. Sorry, y’all, I’m just not feelin’ it.

This game does bring up another point, though. Chiefs fans have officially lost their own right to scream “refball” at the end of every major loss. It was already infantile; now it’ll just be obnoxious and hypocritical.

The “refball” cycle is one that only perpetuates more blown call—or at least more focus on them. It only makes the refs’ jobs more difficult and the perception of them more negative. I can almost guarantee if we were able to go back in time and reframe every NFL game pre-instant replay by today’s standards, we’d find that the refs today aren’t any worse than the refs of yesterday. If anything, they’re probably better if based on what they’re asked to adjudicate.

Every year there’s increased demand for more instant replay review of more types of calls. Pass interference is the obvious latest example, but it’s also the best example of instant replay’s limits. PI is an inherently subjective call based on a split-second observation in the moment. This is what makes it so difficult to overturn a challenged no-call and throw a flag that wasn’t originally thrown. Once you do, where is the line?

The same goes for the catch rule, which became such a huge focus a few years ago. This goes back to Dez Bryant‘s non-catch in the playoffs and even further back to Calvin Johnson not completing the catch to the ground. While both of those plays look and feel like catches in our doofus sports fan hearts, they are casualties of the necessity to make a catch an objective ruling. Once a catch becomes subjective, then again, where do you draw the line? When the ball is in the air on a forward pass, it’s in a sort of limbo where either team can possess it with a catch, so there must be an objective framework of what makes a catch a catch.

But instead of making the rulebook more objective, the NFL has continually made it more subjective in attempt to please fans who can’t handle losing and can only furiously blame refereeing miscues. Now these crews are asked to parse adjudicate what “clear and obvious” means, which ironically itself is neither. Our own stupid anger at refs not making every single call has now put them in a position where they have to make confusing rulings and their only response is to shrug and say, “Sorry, those are the rules.”

Ideally, knowing they have the luxury of instant replay, should the refs be allowing more moments to play themselves out and then review them after the fact? Absolutely. There would undoubtedly be fewer blown calls in the end if objective rulings (out of bounds, fumble recovery, etc.) we’re allowed to happen in the moment and then were put under the slo-mo microscope after. But for now that’s not what they do, because that’s not necessarily what they’re trained to do. Football is fast, and football is chaos.

You cannot perfectly officiate chaos. They can certainly get closer, but they will never be perfect. Knowing that, the only response is to accept mistakes and win despite them.

Next. Chiefs vs. Broncos: Drew Lock has Denver energized. dark