Labriola On

Labriola on all-star crews, timeouts, a charade

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Sorry, Steelers and Jaguars. Too bad for you, Vikings and Bears. And you , too, Ravens and Bengals, and Broncos and Chargers. And for the rest of you people, even if some of your jobs are on the line, it’s not that big of a deal to us. Certainly not as important as trying to look good during what we believe will be the most-watched game until Super Bowl LIII.

• That’s essentially the message the NFL delivered by its decision to create and then assign an “all-star” crew of officials to Monday night’s game pitting the Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Los Angeles Rams.

• The all-star crew approach is similar to the procedure the NFL uses to assign officials to playoff games, a procedure based on performance and seniority rather than keeping a specific crew together. According to reports, the procedure rarely, if ever, has been employed during the regular season, with officials typically working on the same crews to maximize continuity and familiarity among members.

• Ah, but this game matched two teams with 9-1 records, and since it was on a Monday night it would attract the attention of fans nationwide, and the media was going to be all over it, and imagine the horror if one of the zebras blew a call or choked on enforcing a rule, or Al Riveron was a little too full of himself that night, and then, God forbid, if a gaffe like that decided the outcome of the game? Oh, the humanity.

• As far as the eyeballs watching the game, the expectations were fulfilled, because the Rams’ 54-51 win drew an 11.3 overnight rating, which made it the highest-rated Monday Night Football game on ESPN in more than four years. The last time ESPN got a higher overnight rating for a Monday night game was on October 27, 2014, when Colt McCoy led Washington to an overtime victory at Dallas.

• If only the idea for the all-star officiating crew had been as successful. Often, the problem with these kinds of ideas is that the guys selected as “all-stars” are overly interested in showing why they were picked and that they belong. In the case of NFL officials, that often can mean guys throwing flags to justify their presence on the crew, and that’s precisely what happened.

• The “all-stars” called 25 penalties, four of which were declined. In the first quarter, the Chiefs were flagged seven times, with one declined. The final tally had the Chiefs being penalized 13 times for 135 yards, and the Rams were penalized eight times for 60 yards.

• “Too many penalties, a lot of penalties in the first quarter,” Reid said. “I don’t know about those, but they called them, and so we were going backwards when we needed to go forward and you don’t want to put yourself in a hole like that. We had too many penalties. Thirteen penalties overall and I think eight of them were in the first quarter, so we’ve got to do a better job of that.”

• If the crew of officials legitimately was made up of all-stars, that group of eight would have found a way to be less intrusive on the most anticipated regular season game of 2018.

• CRITICIZING CLOCK MANAGEMENT: There is little associated with a Steelers game that is as predictable as the ritual of second-guessing Mike Tomlin’s clock management. Why that even would be an issue after a game in which the Steelers scored the game-winning touchdown with five seconds left is absurd, because the only better outcome would have been to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired. But in the interest of filling up some cyberspace, let’s dive in:

• The two primary criticisms stemming from that final drive in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars were that Tomlin didn’t use a timeout before the two-minute warning with the Steelers on defense, and he had Ben Roethlisberger spike the ball instead of using a timeout in a first-and-goal situation from the 2-yard line with 23 seconds left.

• After the Steelers scored their second touchdown to make it 16-13, the ensuing kickoff got Jacksonville the ball back at the 25-yard line with 2:22 left in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had all three of their timeouts, plus the two-minute warning to stop the clock.

• It was predictable that a team that rushed for 179 yards in the game and passed for only 104 would stick with the run, and that’s exactly what happened. And the way Tomlin handled the situation with respect to the timeouts got the Steelers the ball back at their 32-yard line with one timeout and 1:42 left on the clock. Remember, too, the Steelers only needed a field goal to tie, and such a situation is hardly ominous for a team that practices these very kinds of situations multiple times each week during training camp and the preseason.

• As the drive progressed into a goal-to-go situation, holding onto the final timeout allowed the Steelers the possibility of running the football, and because James Conner had 10 rushing touchdowns in the first nine games leading up to the one in Jacksonville, the Jaguars defense certainly had to respect the prospect of a running play.

• The other reason it was smart to be holding onto a timeout was the way the game ended. Once Roethlisberger’s touchdown run went to the replay booth – as is the case with all scoring plays – the two outcomes were that the call on the field would be upheld, or the call on the field would be overturned.

• In the event the call on the field was overturned, the procedure calls for the ball to be re-spotted – most likely inside the 1-yard line – and the clock would have re-started immediately. With only five seconds remaining, having that timeout would have allowed the Steelers to stop the clock and then either run one more play to go for the win, or get the field goal unit onto the field and situated to kick and play for the tie and overtime.

• Not having that timeout would have led to a more helter-skelter situation with the Steelers facing the very real prospect of not being able to get a play off in time.

• In this instance, criticizing Tomlin’s clock management is just an exercise in looking for something to criticize, because at the most critical point of the whole possession, the potential scenarios were covered, and the final outcome essentially was perfect.

• NEWS ITEM: “The Steelers were told that if they were willing to promise not to use their franchise or transition tag on Le’Veon Bell after this season, he would consider reporting to the team, according to sources. But the Steelers declined Bell’s request because they felt the tag was too important to forgo.”

• Am I actually expected to believe that Le’Veon Bell would have signed his franchise tender and reported to the Steelers before the Nov. 13 deadline, that he actually wanted to sign the tender and report to the Steelers before the Nov. 13 deadline, but it all was derailed by the team’s refusal to accede to this simple request?

• What a charade.

• For two straight years in direct reference to Bell, and for years and years before that, General Manager Kevin Colbert has said that the Steelers would never exclude utilizing an option that was collectively bargained. And that’s exactly what the franchise tag and the transition tag are. They are options available to teams interested in keeping their players, and those options have been collectively bargained.

• Anyone paying even one iota of attention would know that was a request certain to be denied by the Steelers. And who really knows if the request even was made, because Bell’s camp also is aware that the Steelers don’t comment publicly on those kinds of things.

• All of which means that Bell or his agent, Adisa Bakari, could have whispered this “proposal” to someone in the media knowing that it made them look good, it made the Steelers look petty and vindictive, and they had zero chance of being caught in a lie because the Steelers weren’t going to confirm or deny if/when asked about whether that demand/request even was made.

• At any point during this marathon saga, Bell could’ve manned up and revealed his end-game, but instead the choices made along the way were clumsy and self-serving attempts to create an impression that he somehow was an aggrieved party in all of this.

• And it was so incredibly mishandled, so obviously orchestrated by a person or persons with no understanding of how the Steelers traditionally handle these types of situations. But let’s just focus on this final, poorly thought out tactic.

• A solid argument can be made that it’s not in the Steelers best interests to tag Le’Veon Bell for a third time, whether it’s with the franchise tag or the transition tag. The tying up of salary cap space that could be utilized elsewhere, such as an extension for a quarterback who seems capable of playing beyond the years left on his current deal, and the potential forfeiture of a third-round compensatory pick in the 2020 draft are two factors lined up against any more tag usage on Bell.

• But what Bell’s camp never bothered to learn is that the Steelers don’t capitulate to demands or tactics that go against their core philosophies. An example of one of their core philosophies is that they do not negotiate with players who are under contract but holding out. Extensions can and will be negotiated, but those will get done under their guidelines and only with the player coming to work every day. No exceptions. Not for Franco Harris in 1984. Or Mike Merriweather in 1988. Or Hines Ward in 2005. Or Antonio Brown a few years ago.

• Harris never showed up and was cut. Merriweather never showed up and was traded, but only after being forced to sit out a whole season’s worth of paychecks. Ward and Brown did show up and both got new deals. Simple. Easy to understand. And fair because the same rules apply to everyone.

• If the Steelers were a country, it could be said that they don’t negotiate with terrorists. They’re only a football team, a business, but still they’re not going to cave. As a business, they’re not going to give away their rights to something that has been collectively bargained because it sets a precedent, a bad precedent in their view. If you never do something, you always can cling to the principle of “we don’t do that” in all future negotiations. That stance has credibility because they’ve never done it, but do it once, compromise a principle just once, and there’s no going back.

• Give in to Bell’s demand, and some years from now when another player and his agent want the Steelers to cave on a principle, they no longer could say, “we don’t do that” because they did it for Bell. Standing by their core principles is more important to the Steelers than compromising them to get a deal done, even if the deal has some benefits to the team, and while that stance can be criticized it cannot be denied.

• In a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill paraphrased philosopher George Santayana when he said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” It’s apparent nobody from Bell’s camp is a student of Steelers history.

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