Way back in Week Two, one of the more egregious blown calls in NFL history cost the Chargers a game against the Broncos. Referee Ed Hochuli said a fumble wasn't a fumble, allowing the Broncos to score a touchdown and almost make the playoffs months later. It set the tone for the entire season.
It seemed we couldn't go a week without a call inciting righteous anger from the losing side of a close game. The playoffs, when only the very best officiating crews are supposed to be working, weren't immune either. The Ravens got a free pass on a delay of game against the Titans and went on to score their game-winning points later on the drive. It was telling that in this season of wrong-headed calls that that game's referee, Terry McAuley, still wound up regarded as the most qualified man to lead the crew in the Super Bowl.
Said crew did nothing to rehab their reputations. There weren't a ton of bad calls among the flags that led to 18 accepted penalties for 162 yards, but there were enough that some Cardinals fans will be crying foul all offseason. The worst was a ticky-tack roughing the passer call on Arizona's Karlos Dansby, which helped keep a Steeler drive alive for three points. Those fans may also be wondering why Steelers linebacker James Harrison wasn't escorted from the field for pummelling a Cardinal blocker on a punt, or screaming that Cards coach Ken Whisenhunt had to use both of his challenges to overturn botched calls by the men in the striped shirts.
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Overall it was very similar to the Chargers victory against the Colts in the Wild Card round. In that game, the Colts defense was flagged three times on one overtime drive, which directly contributed to the Chargers winning touchdown. In each game, the quality of the calls wasn't nearly as bad as the fact that the officials were extremely prominent in the way the game played out. They didn't cost the Colts or Cardinals the game, ultimately, but it was easy to see how someone could feel that way.
The most damning moment, however, was right at the end of the game. When Kurt Warner fumbled away Arizona's last chance, it appeared that his arm was moving forward when he lost the ball. It was close and replays weren't particularly conclusive, which meant the ruling of fumble would almost certainly remain if it was reviewed. In the final two minutes, all reviews come from the officials in the replay booth, but McAuley, the head on-field official, never made it clear that the play was indeed looked at before ending the proceedings.
You need that transparency, that moment to tell the fans that you took a look and ruled everything was okay, or else it's easy to argue that something sinister is afoot. The league will have to work hard at improving the quality of the officiating in the offseason, but also the communication aspect. Fans need to be told the whys and hows of calls, because that understanding benefits everyone.