Teams in the NFL lose games for lots of different reasons. A ball bounces the wrong way, a kicker doinks a makeable field goal or extra point, a player falls down in coverage while the opponent runs into the end zone, a coach mismanages the clock, or a team is just flat-out beaten due to a lack of talent and execution.
There are countless possibilities, all of which are within the control of the coaches and players, or are explainable by dumb luck.
Then there’s the cause that has come up all too often, not just for the Raiders, but for many teams around the league in the past year or two: officiating.
Now to be clear, whether it’s the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game a year ago, the New England Patriots against the Kansas City Chiefs a week ago, or the Raiders’ incident on Sunday, all of the victimized teams still could have won the game.
But especially for Jon Gruden and the Raiders yesterday, a blown call was felt to be the game’s climatic turning point.
“The last drive was one of the best four-minute drives I’ve been associated with. We took the ball on our 30-yard line and ran six straight runs. And Derek Carr ran the ball himself for a first down on a read option.”
Gruden said the league called and apologized for blowing the Carr run/inbounds call. “We accept their apology. It cost us dearly.”— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) December 16, 2019
If “It cost us dearly” was all Gruden said about the call, he’d come across as pretty mild-mannered. Some media types would be happy that he’s “taking responsibility rather than blaming the officials.” But that wasn’t all that was said in the Monday presser.
In regards to the NFL’s apology and the broader context of replay reviews, Gruden said:
“I don’t like it at all. They stopped the game in Indiana, took my middle linebacker away for 12 weeks, they ended his season. They stopped the game in Kansas City and took Mullens’ interception away. Why the hell don’t you stop the game and get the clock right? I don’t think it was even close. I’m not happy about it. Apologies are great. But this is 2020. I’ve been in enough meetings about it. I’m disgusted by it. I don’t want any instant replay in my life, personally. But if we’re going to have it, let’s use it properly. I don’t think it’s that hard.”
Interestingly, it is one of Gruden’s best friends in the coaching profession, Sean Payton, who is most responsible for making pass interference reviewable. That development is what ultimately has led to a greater spiraling in the confidence that players, fans, and coaches have in NFL officials.
Former Raiders front office executive Michael Lombardi has called into question the legitimacy of Al Riveron—the NFL’s head of officiating—on an almost weekly basis on his podcast, The GM Shuffle. Just about every outlet that covers the NFL has written or done some kind of story on it this year. A report came out last week that the NFL would be doing a thorough investigation into everything officiating-related once the season concludes.
But it hadn’t hit so close to home for the Raiders until Sunday, when it was a major reason that they dropped their home finale in Oakland.
“I’m obviously very upset here today talking about it. They apologized. Like I said, Curtis Riley was not offsides. That was a third-and-eight where we’re off the field. Everybody has sour grapes when it comes to officiating...What happened yesterday, the quarterback gave himself up in the field of play, we’ve got eight guys [officials] out there. I’m not going to say much more, but to answer your question, it’s not real fulfilling.”
It’s not the first time this season that Gruden has expressed displeasure about the officiating. But in those previous times, it was mostly about what he perceived to be a blown call—not about the mechanics of officiating and replay.
Gruden also griped about another play in the game when discussing Trayvon Mullen’s efforts on Sunday.
“That was a real bright spot for us. He played a heck of a game. I thought the PI (pass interference) was very questionable. I didn’t agree with that.” It was the second time in three weeks Mullens had a pass interference call go against him which Gruden strongly disagreed with.
Even in the sting of defeat, utterly annoyed at the officials, Gruden could still look at his team and take some blame personally and with the team as a whole, while remaining positive.
Gruden sounded proud of Mullen, suggesting that, “His day-to-day work ethic is improving. We’ve been hard on him. I know I’ve been hard on him. I’m really pleased with his progress. We expect to see more of Isaiah Johnson as well.”
While discussing the offense, which scored 16 points in the first half, and not a lick in the second, he said, “I like what we did. I’m being honest with you. We started one possession on our two-yard line. One of the goals you have when you’re backed up is to get a first down and change field position, and we got it to midfield. Unfortunately we didn’t get a first on third down, and I punted, but I don’t regret it. Now in hindsight, I wish I would have gone for it today.”
Perhaps if he had, the Jaguars would not have kicked a field goal in the third quarter. Maybe the Raiders would have continued the drive and added points themselves. And in that case, a blown call may not have been such a key factor in the end result.
But this is pro football. It’s always easier to question things in hindsight. In the moment, players, coaches, and officials have to make quick decisions. Not every decision made is properly.
And when they’re not, everyone with a voice will let their displeasure be known.