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The unsportsmanlike conduct call on an injured Keanu Neal was a disgrace

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The officiating is not biased, but it’s almost never good, either.

Atlanta Falcons v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Generally, I try not to get mad at the referees, or at least too mad. They’re professionals doing a difficult job to the best of their ability, and if they do not do that job particular well, it’s largely due to the degree of difficulty and the impossible NFL rulebook. I reminded myself of that frequently in today’s game, when the Falcons were called for 16 penalties against just a small handful for the Colts. Yes, the refs almost certainly missed a call or two on Indy and yes, a couple were very borderline for the Falcons, but given Atlanta’s legendary sloppiness none of that was a shock.

The one that really got to me in real time was the penalty on Keanu Neal. Neal’s emotions were written all over his face after he got hurt, as he likely realized immediately that he had just suffered his second season-ending injury in two years. After a long offseason working his way back, suffering that kind of injury in just his third game of 2019 had to have been heartbreaking to a degree that I cannot even fathom. He was still down on the field, distraught and being tended to by trainers, when the referees called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on him because he had thrown his helmet in frustration.

By the letter of the law, I suppose, a thrown helmet is a thrown helmet. But the NFL’s officiating has been dismal for many years (ask our enemies in the NFC South about that one) and it has only gotten more frustrating this year with the NFL’s new mandate on calling holding and new pass interference rules. Increasingly, referees seem to be doing exactly what the book calls for, and the result has been a marked increase in “oh brother here we go again” calls, both during Falcons games riddled with penalties and across the league.

The Neal call was a different sort of beast entirely. It didn’t just take the Colts, who had just missed a pass on first down, to another set of downs and five yards closer to the end zone. It featured an emotionless official calling the penalty on a suffering player still down on the field, a call that was correct by the book but obviously egregious and stupid considering the circumstances, which sums up nearly everything the NFL does these days. It felt cold and unnecessary because it was cold and unnecessary, and I’ll remember the callousness long after this game has faded into memory.