Yes, the NFL has many gambling-related issues that it should be concerned about. And the NFL continues to be not clearly concerned enough.
One of the potential concerns played out on Sunday, in L.A. With the Rams trailing by 10, only four seconds left in the game, and the ball on the San Francisco 20, coach Sean McVay called for a 38-yard field goal.
Final score? 49ers 30, Rams 23. Point spread before the game started? 7.5.
There was no way the Rams were going to change the outcome. They had time for one more play. They selected the play that allowed them to cover the spread.
It looked fishy, especially with the NFL so heavily involved in sponsorship arrangements with sports books. It was a meaningless play. Given the ever-present risk of injury on any contested play, the most responsible move would have been to take a knee and call it a day.
McVay wasn’t asked about the decision after the game. On Monday, reporters raised the question.
Here’s the full, word-salad response.
“What we were trying to do is we were trying to be able to get a completion to where we kicked the field goal beforehand with the opportunity to be able to . . . if we had hit that deep in-breaking route, it really would’ve worked out the way that we wanted to,” McVay said. “We were going to try to kick a field goal once we got into field goal position to then be able to kick an onside and try to give ourselves the real opportunity to win the game. By the time it got down to it, [I] didn’t anticipate that in-cut that we hit Puka [Nacua] running that long and just said, ‘Alright, go ahead and kick the field goal.’ [I] felt like it was an opportunity to be able to not leave Matthew [Stafford] susceptible to an unnecessary heave to the end zone and get an opportunity for our field goal operation. The initial goal was to try to get a two-for-one to where you end up getting into field goal range a little bit earlier with some of the play selections that we had and then ultimately be able to try to have an onside kick to then be able to go try to compete to tie or win the game. Apparently, [V.P. of communications] Artis [Twyman] told me there’s a lot of people in Vegas pissed off about that decision. I clearly was not aware of that stuff.”
It’s surprising McVay even mentioned the last part. Yes, people are pissed about it. The Rams ran an unnecessary play to cover the spread. Regardless of whether he knew the point spread, he ran an unnecessary play. In lieu of putting his quarterback at unnecessary physical risk, he put his field-goal unit at unnecessary physical risk, so that the final score would be 30-20 instead of 30-23.
Why not just explain that net points are one of the playoff tiebreakers? Sure, net points aren’t an issue until after seven other tiebreakers are applied. But it’s still a tiebreaker. That’s far better justification than whatever McVay was trying to say.
As a result, there’s fair suspicion that he was aware of the point spread and that he perceived some sort of moral victory in covering the spread. And while that’s also a legitimate explanation, it’s too close to the line regarding the betting line to ever be admitted.
As Commissioner Roger Goodell said more than a decade ago, before the NFL realized how much money it could make from gambling: “If gambling is permitted freely on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing.”
If normal incidents of the game “inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing,” what will abnormal incidents of the game — like kicking a meaningless field goal to — do?
Here’s the answer: It does exactly what happened on Sunday. People think McVay kicked the field goal in order to cover the spread, for the benefit of those who had bet on the Rams and the points. And his explanation really didn’t do much to put out that fire.