Getting Real

An NFL referee (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

An NFL referee (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

By Bill Campbell

The Real Officials

Well, we finally got those replacement officials off the football field.
I guess stranger things have happened than sending out understudies to police the sophisticated brand of football played in this country – but I haven’t seen them lately. That the NFL managed to delay their exit as long as three weeks into the regular NFL season is remarkable. In fact, it’s almost inexplicable.

It’s also interesting, after such a lengthy stand-off, how quickly the opposing sides came together once some really bad calls were made on the field and eyes opened in the front office. The real NFL officials almost fell over themselves to approve a new agreement, so excited were they to go back to work. Of course, those guys only work on weekends, which probably accounts for their glee. But I suspect Roger Goodell and company were pleased too, or at least relieved since the press was all over them. Maybe we should put the whole nation on a weekend-only economy schedule and see how that flies. I wonder how the upcoming election would go if either of the presidential candidates came out advocating that we all just work on the weekends? Landslide, anyone?

Late last Wednesday, once a workable agreement was on the table, the qualified officials arrived en masse in Dallas to discuss and vote on the eight-year agreement reached with the NFL powers-that-be. They reached such a rapid consensus that an officiating crew was intact for the Baltimore-Cleveland game that very night. And the players were delighted to see them despite the fact that their return would probably mean that more penalty flags would soon be flying.

The replacement guys had been so hesitant. They had to be sure, not only that they were getting the calls right, but that they were covering the basics like placing the ball on the correct line of scrimmage, which down was being played, whether a catch was pass interference or a touchdown. Their deliberations were a prime reason for the increased length of game time. Yet the NFL seemed to assume that the return of the regular officials would be routine, hardly noticeable to the average fan. But their wisdom was faulty, buoyed by an arrogance borne of enormous prosperity. All they succeeded in doing by refusing to negotiate until three weeks into the season was to write a darkened page in the history of the nation’s most popular sport. Aren’t we glad that’s all over?

The Real Players
During the early weeks of the NFL season, I often wondered if we would ever stop talking about the officials — ‘cause I’d rather talk about the players. Let me tell you what they did on just one day, last Sunday.

The Eagles-Giants affair was low-scoring and somewhat lackluster, except for its ending with Andy Reid icing the kicker and, lucky for him, gaining an Eagles’ victory. But some good things happened during the game. The Birds were penalized only 5 times. Michael Vick finished the game and went 19 for 30 with no interceptions. The Birds gained 191 yards on the ground, 123 for LeSean McCoy, and DeSean Jackson caught 6 passes. And this wasn’t a pass happy game plan but one that included running the ball using various players, particularly Shady McCoy. Eagles’ fans were happy to see that.

But other players also electrified crowds around the country last weekend. In Atlanta, quarterback Matt Ryan threw a 59-yard pass out of his own end zone and completed it to Roddy White. Matt Bryan kicked a 40-yard field goal with 5 seconds remaining and the Falcons beat Carolina 30-28, giving them their fourth straight win. They are 4-0, their best start since 2005 when they reached the championship game. In Detroit, Percy Harvin returned the opening kick-off 105 yards for a TD, Marcus Sherels scored on a punt return – but the Lions still lost to Minnesota, 20-13. The Vikings are now 3-1. In Kansas City, Philip Rivers threw for 209 yards and 2 touchdowns as San Diego capitalized on 6 turnovers to down the Chiefs. Greg Zverlein kicked 4 field goals including a 60-yarder and a 58-yarder as the Rams beat Seattle in St. Louis. The New York Jets were butchered by the 49ers, 34-0, in North Jersey to go 3 and 1. And in Orchard Park, New York, the masterful Tom Brady led 6 consecutive drives for scores as the Patriots just plain overwhelmed Buffalo, 52-28. There also was another heart-pumper in Green Bay as Aaron Rodgers threw a go-ahead TD pass to Jordy Nelson in a 28-27 Packer victory over winless New Orleans. And the game in Glendale, Arizona, went 6 minutes, 31 seconds into overtime as Jay Feely kept the Cardinals unbeaten in a 24-21 win over the Dolphins. Incidentally, a guy named Kevin Kolb is 4 and 0 in Arizona. And despite the Saints’ poor showing to date, Drew Brees tied Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas’ record of 47 consecutive regular season games with at least one TD pass.

So it looks like an interesting season is unfolding in front of us and the short era of substitute refs has mercifully come to an end. As the Eagles and Giants’ co-captains approached for the pre-game coin toss, referee Ron Winter said, in a voice that could be heard throughout the stadium, “Gentlemen, it’s good to be back.” It was indeed.

The Far-Too-Real Baseball Season
There is much regret that, despite their valiant effort in the last days of the season, the Phillies fell short of post-season play. It will be a long October for Phils’ fans who have lived high on the hog for the last 5 seasons. Charlie Manuel’s men couldn’t even field a winning record at home this year, disappointing their rabid followers who number over 3 million. But this was not a surprise. When the whole right side of your infield fails to show up on Opening Day, it’s a pretty strong indication that some stormy weather lies ahead – and the Phillies had more than their share this season.

That stormy weather even led to some thought of taking Chase Utley, one of the best second basemen in the business, and moving him to third. But after a few tries that experiment was cancelled in late September. If you read between the lines, it seems that this effort probably was Utley’s idea in the first place. To his credit, he thought he could help the club, and he is going to be around at $15 million in 2013. So he gave it a shot but General Manager Ruben Amaro called a halt to it.

Both Utley and Ryan Howard, hobbled with different but equally serious injuries at the season’s start, worked hard to regain their status this season. Hopefully they will start out in great shape next spring. And let’s not forget about Cliff Lee, who had a 6-8 season despite retiring scores of hitters and achieving a low ERA. You had to see it to believe it. Unfortunately, most of us did. Although he pitched brilliantly in spots, Lee couldn’t get a win. Even when his arm was hot, his team mates couldn’t get a hit or enough of them to put him over. And let’s not forget the rising concern over the state of Roy Halladay’s arm or his future. The only goal the Phillies have now is to try to finish the overall season over 500.

In this strange season, as far as I’m concerned its most noteworthy event may have occurred in Minnesota. The Twins had on their roster a player named Tsuyoshi Nysaioka, an outfielder who had been a major bust. They released him at the close of the season and the player did an honorable and amazing thing. He had signed a 3-year deal for $9.25 million before the 2010 season, after winning the batting title plus a Gold Glove in Japan. But he broke his left leg 5 games into his rookie year, standing too close to second base when a player slid into him. He returned from the injury but never was the same player. He spent most of 2012 at Triple A Rochester where he his 258 with 2 home runs and 34 RBI’s. These figures probably could have gotten him at least a job in the good old USA but it never would have eased his personal disappointment. The Twins were on the hook for his $3 million salary for 2013 and a $300,000 buy-out. But Nysaioka, because he was so disappointed in himself, waived the right to the money, refused it and walked away. That old cliché about winning being the only thing never rang more true, did it? This one-time Japanese-born star will never be forgotten in Minnesota.

Penn State’s Really Sweet Day

It was left to Michael Mauti to put it into words.
Penn State played Illinois last Saturday. At the end, Penn State linebacker Michael Mauti surely spoke the words that his coach, Bill O’Brien, had to be thinking but had left unspoken. Mauti commented, “Having to play against these guys is sweet.” Playing and beating Illinois had to have been just that.

You’ll recall that after the Sandusky scandal broke, the NCAA imposed severe sanctions upon Penn State including scholarship reductions and post-season ineligibility. Players were given the chance to change schools without having to sit out a year as well. Many schools, including Illinois, swept in and signed several of Penn State’s best prospects. Thirteen players departed for other colleges or universities before the first game was played in September. Mauti, one of the most outspoken players who stayed on with O’Brien, didn’t hold back as the Nittany Lions faced and defeated Illinois. “We never forgot about what happened last summer. It kept us going – at least the players who stayed – so today was just sweet,” he said. “Today” for Mauti and his team meant Penn State’s crushing of Illinois, 35-7, with Mauti accounting for all 3 Illinois turnovers – 2 on interceptions, 1 that he returned 99 yards to the Illinois one yard line. Yes, it was understandably satisfying for Penn State, a day to remember for the blue and white. O’Brien’s only comment was, “I said my piece in the summertime. The sanctions are what they are. The people that recruited our kids, they played by the rules.” But that post-game coaches’ handshake must have been a quick one. I’d love to see a photograph.

Coach O’Brien has observed that the offensive line is one of the most improved units on his team. Add to it Penn State’s capable quarterback, Matt McGloin, who sneaked over twice for 2 TD’s and threw a scoring pass to Zach Zwinak, a 232 pound sophomore tailback who rushed for a career-high 200 yards and 2 touchdowns last weekend. Furthermore, the Lions defense didn’t allow Illinois a third down conversion until their tenth try. It wasn’t a perfect day for the Happy Valley-ites: kicker Sam Ficken missed two more field goals, one for just 18 yards. The way he’s playing, he’s going to set some kind of record – the kind he’d probably rather forget. But considering all that Penn State and its football players already have gone through this year, it was very satisfying. It looks like the fellows who stayed have some guts and some character – and they’re reaping some rewards.
You’ve got to admire the guys who stuck around.

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