If you were a faithful fan and not yet ready to give up on the game, you may have tuned in last Sunday morning to watch the New Orleans Saints play the Miami Dolphins. You would have told yourself that while the NFL was having its troubles, you could ignore all that political stuff. Let the President tweet. Let the players kneel (or not) during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. Let the people who are paid to have opinions do what they do. You would watch the game. For the football.
Unfortunate, you told yourself, that kickoff would be at 9:30 Eastern on Sunday morning. Little early for beer. It would have to be coffee… at least until the second half.
The broadcast was starting at this rude hour because the game was being played a few time zones to the east. In London, to be precise. The NFL fancies itself a global enterprise, though its product is ineluctably American.
Still … a game is a game. It’s the NFL, and on any given Sunday, and all that.
So you settled in and what came up on that big flatscreen television you bought precisely for the pleasure of watching the NFL… well it was hardly even a football game. There were a few football-like plays, inevitably followed by a conference of lawyers. It was first, boring. Then, painful. And, finally, infuriating. So much so that even the normally reserved and polite Londoners who had filled the stadium began to boo.
They had come to watch an American football game and what they were seeing was the Ed Hochuli show.
On every other play, it began to seem, a yellow flag — sometimes two or three — would come flying and drop on the field and the officials in their striped shirts might, or might not, get together. If they did, they would talk things over and the spectators would, in the fullness of time, hear from a man whose striped shirt looked like he’d ignored the washing instructions and it had shrunk a size or two. This man would announce that someone was offsides or had committed pass interference or done something unsportsmanlike. He would then walk off the penalty.
The players would go back into action for one or two plays, then the flags would fly again and Mr. Hochuli, the man with the impressive chest and biceps, would take center stage once more to render judgment and then execute sentence. During one stretch of about four minutes, late in the second quarter, there were five penalties called. Over the span of the entire game, the total was 19. One penalty per three minutes of action.
All those calls may have been legitimate. It has been said that a penalty could be called on every play of an NFL game. Especially along the line where offensive holding is something of an art.
Penalties slow the action, of course. Especially when the officials get together to talk over the call. These conferences tend to suggest that the officials are not really sure of what they saw or how to rule on it. The meetings take on the aspect of legal proceedings where issues of admissibility and credibility and the like are tortured into some kind of final ruling during a gathering of opposing counsel in the judge’s chambers. There are also, of course, the famous replays which depend on cameras. So we get a blend of technology and human judgment the purpose of which is to arrive at … truth. Did the receiver have both feet in bounds?
It is not for nothing that Ed Hochuli is, in real life, a very successful attorney. He spends his life — when he isn’t working out — parsing complex rules that are beyond the understanding of mere mortals. Pass interference being the most conspicuous of these. Followed closely by the precise definition of a “catch.”
Fans may think that they understand what makes for a catch. That, at the very least, they know a catch when they see one. But they are not trained in the requisite arts as Mr. Hochuli has been.
And this training has made him semi-famous. A minor celebrity, of sorts, who is more recognizable to many fans than most of the NFL players whose moves he scrutinizes. Hochuli does not hide behind a face mask and he gets plenty of time on camera. Explaining the “infraction,” the penalty, the resulting spot, and the subsequent down and distance. A lot of fans could do a reasonable impersonation of him calling and signaling a first down.
Hochuli is recognized in airports. He has appeared in the wildly popular video game, Madden, and been profiled in Sports Illustrated. There is an Ed Hochuli workout.
All of which seems almost inevitable. So many games seem to be decided by an official’s call. But curiously, there are some games where the officials seem to have decided to “let ’em play.” You wait for the flag on what you think is obvious interference but it stays in the official’s pocket. This seems to happen mostly in the post-season. Perhaps because the fans really don’t want the zebras taking over the flow and killing the action when it is win and go to the Super Bowl or lose and go home. In the high energy atmosphere of those high stakes games, it would require a certain amount of courage to ruin the mood with a rinky-dink holding call on some left tackle who got a handful of jersey.
But those penalty-free games feel like the exception. The fan finds himself brooding resentfully that he didn’t buy that flat screen television and carve out this Sunday morning time so he could watch the latest episode of the Ed Hochuli Show.
By the time Drew Brees and the Saints had the game in hand, he was thinking, “Just let ’em play for pity’s sake.”
Between this and politics, he’s tempted to give the whole thing a pass.
Geoffrey Norman’s column, “Fourth and Long for the NFL,” will run early each week this season.
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