In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a serpent-like creature that would sprout two new heads for each one that was cut off. Unless you killed off the body, the beast wouldn’t die. Thursday Night Football this week revealed to us the NFL edition of a three-headed Hydra: the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers, the perpetual misery of the Detroit Lions and the pathetic nature of NFL referees. Even in this heavily simplified version of the Greek myth, we find that you cannot stop the beast unless you kill said beast.
The first head we encounter is the Green Bay Packers in their current state. More specifically, it’s the Green Bay Packers with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It’s been several years now since there was even a discussion about whether or not Rodgers was one of the best quarterbacks in the league (hint: he is), and you can make a similar argument that he is the best quarterback in the league and has been for several seasons (spoiler alert: this die-hard Packers fan believes he is). Thursday night we saw more of what makes Rodgers so great: accurate throws (when it mattered late in the game, at least in this instance) and the ability to always keep his eyes down field in order to make a play happen. Instance number one of the latter in Thursday’s game versus the Lions: Rodgers escapes interior pressure, bounces outside and runs for the second-longest touchdown of his career (17 yards). The second instance? Oh, yeah, the Hail Mary pass which gave Green Bay the victory, when Rodgers once against avoided pressure, scrambled around and launched a rainbow which was eventually hauled in by Richard Rodgers. There is nobody in the league that extends plays like Aaron Rodgers.
His stat line for the game wasn’t other-worldly by any means, but the best players make the biggest plays when they matter most. It doesn’t matter if it’s football or baseball or basketball, professional or amateur, the best players come through when it counts the most and that is exactly what Aaron Rodgers did on Thursday night at Ford Field in Detroit. With a quarterback who can throw the ball that far (and perfectly accurate for the situation) and extend plays like that, why would you ever count him and this team, even when they are injury-depleted and struggling, out? It’s hard to justify it without being an intense anti-Packers fan (or just an extreme pessimist).
So how do you kill off this part of the beast? The Packers, that is, when they have #12 under center. The answer is you can’t. You can’t simply ignore the struggles this team has faced recently (as much as I would like to be able to), but even in this down time Rodgers has been able to keep the team in games late. He always gives the team a chance at the very least. When Rodgers did not play for numerous weeks in 2013 due to his broken clavicle (still angry at you about that, Shea McClellin), the team struggled mightily, more so than they have at any point since his first season, when the team finished 6-10. One day Rodgers will retire (assuming he’s a mere mortal) and maybe then this behemoth can be slayed. Until that point though, it’s simply foolish to ever count the Packers out of a game in which Aaron Rodgers is playing.
Unlike the Packers, one of the league’s most storied and successful franchises, especially over the last 20+ years, Detroit fans have become accustomed to misery with their football team. In the 1957 NFL Championship Game, the Lions stomped the Cleveland Browns 59-14. Since that game, the Lions have won one playoff game (interestingly, that lone playoff win came during the 1991 season, the year before Brett Favre came to Green Bay). The Lions have suffered their fare share of misery at the hands of the Packers over the last few decades. Until a few weeks ago, they had not won a game in the state of Wisconsin since 1991. Who could forget when Favre and Sterling Sharpe eliminated Detroit from the playoffs in 1994 (how was he so wide open?)? Then there was the final game of the 2011 season, when Matt Flynn had, statistically speaking, the best game for any Packers quarterback ever (Rodgers, Favre and Bart Starr included) en route to a Packers victory over the Lions at Lambeau Field.
December 3, 2015 was just the latest edition in the Detroit Lions’ chronicles of misery. The Lions led for just under 54 minutes of game time, yet still ended up losing after being the victims of a questionable (read: bad) facemask penalty and a ridiculous, improbable and all around unbelievable Hail Mary (to a tight end who has been ripped mercilessly by his own fanbase in recent weeks no less). In college football, this sort of thing would be called “Clemsoning.” In the professional ranks, the Cleveland Browns can commiserate, considering their own pathetic existence (hell, they even had their own heartbreaking loss within the last week). A devastating loss at home to your biggest rival after winning for pretty much the entire game thanks in large part to a bad penalty call (although we can’t ignore the horrific defensive setup on the Hail Mary itself), a rock-bottom scenario no team wants to face (then again, things have been much worse in the past; can you say 0-16?).
Several years ago, the solution to ending the franchise’s perpetual misery was to cut ties with Matt Millen, who was arguably the worst general manager in NFL history. Earlier this season, when the Lions had started 1-4, the popular solution was to fire offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi (which, to a point, actually worked) and continue to call for the head of Jim Caldwell, the team’s stoic and generally considered boring head coach. But now, after the team has started playing better yet still can’t get out of the way of what has become inevitable suffering, it’s hard to find anything that could be a true, long term solution. Maybe this is the head of the Hydra that Heracles can’t slaughter; every time it seems the franchise begins moving in a better direction, a new set of problems pops up.
Finally, we must look at the state of officiating in the NFL today. Fans will complain about referees in every sport, without fail, nearly every game of any given season. College football refs deserve it, NBA refs too, certainly college basketball officials, baseball umpires, the list goes on. But the NFL, in Roger Goodell’s oh-so-noble quest to “protect the shield,” has on their hands a situation which causes rage from fans, both of affected teams and otherwise, as well deters from the actual product on the field. I’m an unabashed, emotional Packers homer so I’m thrilled with how this most recent Packers/Lions game ended, but the fact of the matter is that the referees missed the call at the end of the game which made the Hail Mary happen. At most, Aaron Rodgers’ facemask was grazed by Devin Taylor, certainly not warranting a 15-yard penalty. Rodgers did as much as he could to sell his distress, and apparently it worked.
I don’t believe the NFL is rigging games, I just believe that the current crop of referees suffers from a moderate-to-severe case of incompetence. Earlier this season, the Lions lost to Seattle following a ridiculous fumble call in the end zone which cost Detroit a likely win. How many pass interference penalties are either missed (there could have easily been a flag thrown on the Packers’ second-to-last timed play of this most recent game) or have their calls botched by a referee who missed the play? Or what about Quinton Dial’s recent hit on Carson Palmer, which he was flagged and, eventually, fined for. And, of course, we’d be remiss to not mention the weekly catastrophe that is officiating crews trying to determine what is or is not a legal catch. I try as hard as I can to not blame the officials as much as possible, but if you honestly think their isn’t something severely wrong with professional football officiating today, then you and I aren’t watching the same games.
So what can be done about this? We all know that the NFL will need to have their collective arm twisted to the most powerful degree in order to change something, because they know we’re all just sheep and will watch football on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays regardless of how terrible the zebras are performing week in and week out. However, we’ve also seen that the league will cave to public pressure if it’s intense enough (granted, there’s a moral difference between violent crime and anger directed at referees). Is it going to take some sort of written fan outrage to quell the continued officiating disasters? Is there going to have to be some new form of training for officials? Will the league finally have to cave and make them full-time employees in order to implement new policies?
Or, potentially the best option, at least in the short term, could we expand replay review? The amount of things that coaches can challenge is fairly absurd, in the sense that calls can be botched and hurt a team but the team has no form of recourse. I understand not being able to review which player recovered a fumble under a pile, because you’d be hard-pressed to find video evidence in some cases determining the outcome one way or another. However, what is the rationale behind not allowing teams to challenge pass interference, defensive holding, etc.? It seems logical to be able to use team challenges, a mechanism that can change the course of a game, to review plays that could change the course of the game. It won’t fix everything and coaches should still be limited to how many things they can have reviewed per game (because let’s face it, games don’t need to be any longer than they already are), but it would take complicated, roundabout logic to convince someone, including myself, that the ability to review penalties is a bad idea.
Whatever the case may be, this problem has to be stopped before the game becomes unbearable (some would argue that it already is). It doesn’t work to just suspend crews or give them a bad grade for a game. Something needs to be done. The occasional missed call isn’t a big deal in the long run, it’s human nature to make mistakes, it’s fine. But when poor performance becomes a trend, as it has in recent years (the embarrassment of the replacement refs aside), it indicates a deeper problem in the league which needs to be fixed. It’s probably fruitless to clamor for Goodell to get anything done quickly, but the fact of the matter is that the whole officiating system as it exists today needs to face some sort of fierce overhaul.
If you just cut the beast off at the head, it will not die. You can’t avoid a chance of the Green Bay Packers winning a game, even against the toughest odds, as long as Aaron Rodgers exists in his present, dominant state. You can’t fix the prolonged misery of the Detroit Lions by just making superficial or constant, abrupt changes. You can’t fix the officiating situation just by giving a crew a bad grade or an overall meaningless suspension. These conflicts and issues can only be eliminated by killing the body of the creature (And I’m aware, fellow Packers fans, Aaron Rodgers inhuman-like performances are not necessarily a problem). Unfortunately, for fans of the game in general and specifically those of the Detroit Lions, all three heads of the beast attacked viciously on Thursday night.
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Featured photo courtesy of For The Win/USA Today.