Monday, December 07, 2015

What’s the Line in This Game?

Watched a decent amount of football over the weekend, including enjoying seeing the Carolina Panthers get to 12-0 in a nail-biter versus the New Orleans Saints.

More than most games (I think), football includes many unpredictable elements that make it relatively improbable even for a dominating team to make it through a full season without a loss. And while the Panthers have a lot of weapons and are relatively strong all around, they aren’t a truly dominating team. They’ve had some fortunate bounces, though, along with playing well, and thus the streak continues.

Speaking of the luck of the game, the conclusion to the ACC Championship in Charlotte the day before ended in somewhat dismaying fashion for UNC fans when a blown referee’s call -- a “phantom” offsides on a successful onside kick -- ended the Heels’ hopes of completing a comeback versus top-ranked (and also still undefeated) Clemson.

Unlike pass interference or unnecessary roughness calls which can often be debatable, this one seemed a lot more cut-and-dry. None of the Heels’ players had broken the plane of the line of scrimmage when the ball was kicked (see above), but for some reason the referee immediately threw a flag for offsides, nullifying the play.

I heard one sports talk show host today say it was the kind of call that makes you wonder immediately -- and conspiratorially -- “What’s the line in this game?” (If I recall correctly, Clemson was close to a touchdown favorite.) The question had a kind of literal significance, too, when looking at that replay and seeing the uncrossed yard line being highlighted in yellow.

I believe refs have to discretion to pick up a flag if they determine a penalty to have been incorrectly called, but here the ref was adamant that he was correct (apparently even telling the UNC coach he could have called offsides on multiple players). But despite the seemingly unambiguous evidence in the replay, offsides is apparently a judgment call, too, and thus not reviewable. And so it stood.

To be honest, I wasn’t especially bothered by the call, thinking both how there remained a lot of uncertainty about what might have happened next (UNC was down eight with just over a minute to go) and recalling that crazy Miami-Duke finish from a little over a month ago that ended with a series of blunders by ACC refs ultimately resulting in a Hurricanes win.

Writing about that one, I talked about being a biased observer (a UNC alum and Duke hater), about the silliness of some clamoring for the result to be overturned or for Miami to forfeit after the fact, and also about the way sports has come to exemplify our increasingly litigious culture wherein there always seems another chance to throw the challenge flag or file an appeal.

Like I say, the blown call was dismaying, but like a flukey bounce simply part of the game. The Heels set up and executed the play well -- like playing a poker hand as effectively as possible -- but got unlucky, with the dropping of the flag like a dealer accidentally exposing a card to ruin the chance at winning a pot.

Which we might not have won, anyway.

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