Strief: Saints fans need patience with Bridgewater, impatience with incompetent NFL refs

Zach Strief
September 17, 2019 - 10:17 am

Well, that wasn’t what we were hoping for...was it? The rematch of the NFC Championship game was disappointing for a lot of reasons, the score just being one of them.  There are several stories that came out of this game, and unfortunately more of them are disappointing than they are promising. 
In rather non-dramatic fashion Saints quarterback Drew Brees exited the game early in the first half with an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand.  It was about as routine a play as you will see, under pressure, but not even getting hit, contacting the hand of Aaron Donald on the follow through of the throw, and just like that, Brees spent the rest of the game on the sideline.  It’s a scenario that every Saints fan has feared for 13 years now. 

With Brees on the sideline the Saints called on Teddy Bridgewater to operate the offense for the duration of the afternoon.  Teddy finished the game 17/30 for 165 yards, efficient but leading the first game without a TD since 2015.  The discussion all week towards Teddy will be negative.  It will infuriate me all week. 

For 13 years we have been spoiled by the realities of having a hall of fame QB named Drew Brees.  This offense has been built around him, his comforts, and his skill set.  Then the expectation of Teddy coming in, with minimal if any reps of the offense during the week, in a game plan built around another player, is to perform at the same level.  It’s insanity.  The inevitable statement of “I trust my eyes” will permeate the sports talk realm.  I implore all of you, to have patience, and trust that the people running this world class organization have a vision that is yet to be realized. 

This offense will and must change and evolve into one suited best to Teddy’s skill set.  I have no doubt that those changes are being made as we speak.  That is not to say the entire offense is changing, it’s to say the game plan will be plays Teddy loves, not Drew.  That the formations will fit his strengths, that the personnel around him will be designed to make him comfortable.  I just suggest you all have patience and allow this team to conform around Teddy Bridgewater. 

Ultimately, there will be enough on Teddy’s plate to not have to deal with a city full of doubters showering him with negativity.  I believe strongly he will overcome all of this.  Unfortunately, the injury to Drew is not the only adversity that the Saints faced yesterday. 
The Saints lost two receivers yesterday in Tre’quan Smith and Keith Kirkwood.  Kirkwood never even stepped on the field.  That left the Saints with two receivers at the end of the game, forcing Taysom Hill into the role.  Again, not ideal for your quarterback.  Those injuries will cause the Saints to make some maneuvers around the roster, depending on the length of time each is expected to miss. 

The Saints also lost their starting left guard in Andrus Peat to an ankle injury.  Will Clapp filled in and settled in as the game wore on.  I think Clapp will be just fine moving forward, and I’ve been high on him since this offseason, but the bigger issue with the injury to Peat is that he was our backup left tackle.  That again, will cause a discussion in the building regarding how to handle that reality.  Patrick Omameh has worked mostly at right tackle, and behind him sits a talented, but inexperienced Ethan Greenidge.  It’s just another question left after the game.  The Saints, however, should not be the only entity with question marks, although they probably are.
The NFL is a multi-billion-dollar industry.  Teams spend a tremendous amount of time and resources putting a winning caliber product on the field.  Well, most teams. (Miami, what in the world are you doing?) To see the results on the field consistently affected by clear and obvious inconsistencies in the officiating negate real, world class effort by the players has become an epidemic in the National Football League.  Obviously as Saints fans, we know this all too well. 

The Saints had another catastrophic failure in the officiating in the rematch of a game with a catastrophic failure in it.  In the second quarter the Saints forced a clear fumble by Jared Goff, that was recovered by Cam Jordan who then raced 85 yards for a touchdown.  It was a massive change in fortunes for the teams taking the Rams from the Saints red zone in a tie game, to 7 points the other direction.  A ten-point swing. 

25-year NFL official Walt Anderson blew the play dead, emphatically signaling the pass was incomplete.  It was a clear mistake from an official the league claims is qualified based purely on experience.  It is an assumption the league has been incorrectly making for years now.  Once again, a complete lack of judgement on the part of an NFL official has affected a game played by players and coached by coaches, who spent the ENTIRE previous week preparing to give themselves an opportunity to make that play. 

Unfortunately for all involved, Walt Anderson spent the week at home, possibly spending a few minutes watching film of the week before, giving him nothing more but preconceived notions of what calls he may have to make.  No practice, no honing of skills, no effort to be better in week 2, than he was in week 1. 

The head of officiating, Al Riveron, has made statements in the past touting the requirements needed to become an NFL official.  Essentially, you have to have officiated at a major college level for a while.  Eight years to be exact.  Therein lies the flaw in the logic of the NFL.  One of my favorite “footballisms” is “attendance does not equate to achievement.” Showing up every day doesn’t make you better at your job.  Relentless pursuit of achievement does.  To the NFL, nothing matters more than showing up. 

After last season’s debacle, the NFL responded by allowing the video review of pass interference.  I was critical of that at the time and remain so.  I understand something must be done to avoid that level of officiating failure in the future and appreciate that Sean Payton seemed to be the leading charge on the change.  Yet, not surprising, NFL officials have proven to struggle to adapt to that rule change even with the benefit of countless high definition cameras and the ability to stop and rewind time.  It has been highly scrutinized already and will continue to be so. 

I don’t blame officials or the NFL really for changing the rule.  Something had to be done, and that was the answer of the day.  What bothers me is the complete disregard for addressing the actual issue.  The continued regression of NFL officiating.

The NFL has seen massive rule changes over the past few years.  A product of cries for increasing the safety of the game.  I agree with and appreciate the effort to make the game safer, in an effort to protect the long-term viability of the sport.  It is a needed, worthwhile and essential effort that, while frustrating at times, is the right thing for both the game, and the viability in the future.  Yet, in making these changes the league has looked to officials to actually officiate safety into the game.  It’s an incredibly difficult charge, and it has placed a massive amount of criticism on the feet of NFL officials. 

Every week there is a call made, or not made in the name of safety that effects the outcome of a game.  The roughing the passer call on Bradley Chubb in the Denver, Chicago game this week had a massive effect on the outcome of the game.  It has been easily shown to be the wrong call, and yet it is simply another post game quote from Al Riveron saying simply… whoops. 

Oftentimes they hide behind the vail of “judgment” as they did in this instance which is a nice way of saying, “yea that was wrong, but we don’t have to admit it in this instance.”  The rule that was cited was a player forcefully placing his weight on the QB, easily one the most difficult calls to make, and as a player, avoid.  That rule was put into professional football in 2018. 

So for a league that has long claimed it is simply “experience” that qualifies officials to make calls in an NFL game, the removal of that experience shows the flaw in their logic.  How can you say that experience is what matters most and then change multiple rules every season, expecting officials who have ZERO experience making THAT call to make it correctly?  It is an absurd level of hypocrisy that the league refuses to address it’s issues.  The reality is there is plenty of technology and opportunity for the NFL to do more to assist their crews in changing these realities. 
My alma mater, Northwestern, built a new athletic facility a couple of years ago and in it is a virtual reality studio.  They got the idea from the Green Bay Packers.  Teams all over the country have used the technology to prepare teams.  The NFL officials don’t have this resource.  Why?  Certainly not money. 

Networks have used technology to introduce ref cams to give fans a look down at field level.  Has the NFL implemented the technology to train and develop their officials on a weekly basis?  Riveron cites tests as part of the weekly training for officials.  Tests on paper? What is the purpose?  Shouldn’t every official be a master of the NFL rulebook already?  Clearly, they and Riveron are not, based on their failure to properly apply the rules in week 1 in spite of having ample time to understand the ruling during the instant replay.  Where is the NFL training center for NFL officials? Well it doesn’t exist.  There is currently no need because NFL officials are simply part-time employees.  There lies the inexcusable reality that faces players and coaches all over the NFL. 
After a season that concluded with a clear and obvious failure of officiating, the league responded by suspending their full-time referee program...citing labor disputes with the referee association.  To break that statement down, the NFL has chosen to save money instead of addressing the officiating crisis that they have created. 

It would be a massive investment to correct the issues the league has created. There would probably need to be training centers based in various locations all around the country.  Officials would probably need to uproot their families and move closer to those places to give them access to the training and resources required to improve on a daily basis.  I even believe the individual crews should be required to attend the exact same training centers, thus forcing them to work daily as a crew, building rapport with one another to better understand how each individually works.  Officials would also be forced in these instances to travel out to teams training camps for the duration of camp.  Forcing many crews away from their home for the entire month most training camps fill. 

These would all be sacrifices for officials throughout the NFL.  They would review film from each day, forced to use the same officiating parameters they are expected to call during real games.  No preseason games filled with 35 penalties to make a point.  These crews would also ideally come with 10-15 total officials, each of which is graded against the other’s, only the best making their way through the process and onto the field. 

These are all tremendous lengths to create the best group of officials in the world.  Sound familiar?  It’s the exact thing the NFL expects out of its coaches and its players. 100% complete dedication to the sport that we all love.  Would it cost money? Yup.  Is it worth it?  YES.

Chances are the fanbases from around the NFL will again look at the Saints and it’s fans and claim you have to move on.  They are 100% right.  The players, coaches, fans all must move on.  That does not mean, that anyone, player, coach, fan of any organization should accept the status quo simply because it is the status quo. 

The Saints have been hugely affected by some of the failures of this system in recent weeks and months.  That doesn’ t mean this is a Saints issue.  There is no conspiracy, not desire to affect the outcomes of games.  I will never hold that belief.  I think there is simply an ineptitude of the officials. 

I don’t hold the actual individuals fully accountable for their inability.  It is the result of a lack of willingness to do what is right for the fans, players and coaches who make this league what it is.  To claim there is nothing more that can be done to help officials is simply a lie.  It is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has made the game as successful as it is today. 

In the past 3 seasons we have seen massive changes to the way the game looks.  Players have been asked to make significant changes to the fundamentals they have been taught their entire lives.  Those changes have been reinforced with massive financial consequences to players unable to adapt fast enough.  Yet, nothing, incredibly, nothing has been done to address the very real issue that officiating has become in the NFL. 

EVERY fan should be concerned by this reality.  This is a problem that has been perpetuated at the very highest levels of operation in the NFL.  They created this mess, and it is up to them to fix it.  The outrage should not be directed at Walt Anderson, it should be directed at the system that has allowed problems like that to occur without overturning every stone to avoid them from occurring in the first place. 
This was supposed to be a review of the Rams game.  The Saints fell 27-9.  They were outplayed.  There was a huge officiating error that cost them not only a touchdown, but the massive momentum swing that would have resulted from it. 

I don’t know how the game would have finished, if that play had been called correctly.  I think the Rams did enough to win the game.  I think the Saints have work to do this week to build this game plan around a quarterback that they strongly believe in.  I believe they will do that. 

The Saints defense made the play of the game, it’s effects ultimately having a negative reaction to a team again disappointed in their fortunes.  They have no choice now but to come together, to use this adversity to bond their team.  The Saints must come together to win games in a new way, without the benefit of their record breaking QB.  That is exactly, however, what this roster was built to do.  Win without Drew Brees. 

The Saints have known that they must prepare for seasons without Drew.  They have amassed great talent around their signal caller for this moment.  They paid massive money for the first time to a receiver to give both Drew, and whoever comes after him a huge weapon on the outside.  They have a line filled with high draft picks and free agent acquisitions.  They have one of the top running backs in football.  They have a defense built to win games, not simply stay in them.  All of those areas need to rise to this occasion. 

Every season will have its moment of adversity.  The Saints are in that moment now.  How they react to it will determine their destiny and how this team will be defined.  They are going to need the fans more than they ever had in the Sean Payton era.  I know you will all rise to the occasion. 

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