In the wake of a string of very visible officiating blunders—and a perceived increase in the number of zebra screw-ups—the NFL this week announced a potentially big change to its postseason procedures, one that will expand the types of disputed calls on which officials will be allowed to consult the New York office. The league portrays it as insurance that they’ll avoid any serious blown calls. The conspiracy-minded will, perhaps, take it as more proof that the league office is telling referees how to influence games.
That’s almost assuredly bullshit: the NFL may be an evil corporate behemoth, but it knows its popularity stems largely from gambling, and even the perception that officiating decisions aren’t on the up-and-up would be damning. Still, former officials tell ESPN.com that having VP of officiating Dean Blandino in constant contact with officials on the field opens the NFL up to all kinds of questions, valid or not.
“Everything up to the point of putting the earpiece into the referee’s ear,” [former head of officiating Mike] Pereira said, “has been accountable. It was what you saw on the field. A conversation with someone in New York, that’s the unknown. I would understand a coach being concerned about that. How do you know what’s being said? How do you know they’re only covering the plays that are reviewable? And what are you left to think if they have that in place and still miss something?”
Said former NFL official and supervisor Jim Daopoulos: “If they’re going to be in the ears of the officials, how do you determine who is accountable? Say an official makes a call on the field and the flag is picked up, as happens from time to time. Is it picked up because the crew got together and decided it needed to be, or was it because someone in New York doesn’t like the call?”
The thing is, there are always going to be blown and questionable calls, because officials are human and fallible and football is a fast game where weird and intricate things happen, and the rulebook is the size of a walrus’s skull. Fans have always bitched about calls that go against their teams, and while incompetence or genuine errors aren’t ideal, they’re understandable. The difference is that now some fans will have ammunition for ascribing malice.
(I don’t believe the NFL wants some teams to win more than others. The league is in a pretty good balance, where no matter how things turn out, there’ll be an entertaining and engrossing storyline to go with it. There’s little to gain and so much to lose by playing favorites. That said, imagine if [say] the Patriots get screwed in the playoffs on a bad call, and everyone knows Dean Blandino was in the referee’s ear. We will never, ever hear the end of it.)
Is officiating actually any worse this year than in years past? I honestly have no idea, and since the NFL’s referee grades are kept secret, we’ll never know. It does feel like there have been more screw-ups, but it’s entirely possible that’s just a function of those screw-ups coming in big moments, or of the ubiquity of social media to spread and publicize mistakes, or even just an unconscious piling-on in media coverage. I’ve absolutely blogged officiating blunders that I might not have in previous seasons, just because this year they fit a narrative.
The MMQB has an interesting piece on the perception of bad officiating in 2015. They talk to players, executives, and former officials, and the general consensus is that it’s a down year, but not dramatically so, and not because of anything wrong with the officials themselves—it might just be statistical noise. Where it does get interesting is in the debate on how to make things better. One commonly cited idea is to make some or all officials full-time employees, but that’s something that neither the league nor the referees union supports, for varying reasons. Mike Pereira appears to have been the last person to bother trying that tack.
Shortly before retiring as vice president of officiating in April 2010, Pereira arrived at league headquarters in Manhattan with a Powerpoint presentation outlining his proposal to make 17 referees full-time employees of the league and create a training center where zebras could convene to discuss rules changes and interpretations, undergo evaluations, train and work with teams. He called his imaginary ref hub the Officiating Institute.
“They basically laughed me out of the room,” Pereira says. “It was disappointing. I was proud of my little Powerpoint. I did make sure that Goodell got a copy, but it’s probably still sitting under a stack of papers somewhere.”
Is there an answer? Just about everyone the MMQB talks to, as well as this considered essay by Richard Sherman, points to simplifying the NFL rulebook as an obvious step.
Several ex-referees who spoke to The MMQB said the rule book is too couched in exceptions and nuanced language about what might possibly happen that could affect a decision, and not clear enough in its basic definitions.
Being an official is hard! I would die. I would miss an eye-gouge on my very first play, or call a dropped ball complete, or get in the linebacker’s way, and then I would shame-cry my way out of the stadium. I have nothing but sympathy for NFL officials, who, by dint of making it even this far in their careers, the best in the world at what they do. The league should want to make their jobs easier, because that will lead to more consistent and accurate rulings across the board.
A complete overhaul of the rulebook is probably needed. (Changing the catch rule is a good start.) But it would be fraught with growing pains, and likely require years for officials to adapt—and bring years of fans screaming about the screw-ups along the way. You can see why the NFL would be loath to make a major change when the problem isn’t yet to the point where it affects the game’s legitimacy or profitability.
Hence the short-term answer of letting officials call the New York office when they have doubts. It’s a band-aid solution, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad one: more calls will be made correctly. But it will come at the cost of longer games, and the increased potential for fans to believe that what happens on the field is being decided on Park Avenue. It doesn’t even matter if the conspiracy theories are totally unfounded—just like it doesn’t matter if there isn’t actually an officiating crisis—because sometimes the perception is the problem.