Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the NFL is having officiating problems. This year’s crop of rules controversies has a little bit of everything, from inscrutable procedures and points of emphasis that seem to change on a whim to inexperience within the ranks to the role of technology and the glare it inevitably shines on pretty much any mistake. And, hey, the regular season still has 11 weeks to go!
Monday night’s Lions-Packers debacle brought the depth of the issue into sharp focus. The fourth quarter alone featured four obvious mistakes that all went against the Lions. There were two phantom illegal use of hands calls against Lions defensive end Trey Flowers, and both happened on unsuccessful third downs. There was a catch in which Packers receiver Allen Lazard was awarded a touchdown even though he was clearly down at the 1-yard line, with the replay official—and all NFL scoring plays are reviewed, because of course they are—upholding the call on the field. And even though a clear pass interference penalty for a potentially long gain against Packers safety Will Redmond was not called, Lions head coach Matt Patricia chose not to issue a challenge because the league appears to have changed the standard for PI replay review after having spent the entire offseason rolling out its new rule on the matter under completely different pretenses. Oh, and the Lions went on to lose the game by one point. I think that about covers it.
Lions-Packers was merely the symptom of a much larger problem, which is that the thrill of NFL games increasingly tends to be dulled by the people enforcing the rules. This is not a new problem, as anyone who’s consistently watched the NFL for the last couple of decades can attest.
“There’s always been controversy surrounding officiating, in my time in the NFL, and I was there for 20 years,” Fox Sports rules analyst and former NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino told me. “There were seasons where it felt like there was a lot of talk about officiating, and ‘This is the worst officiating ever,’ and so I don’t think this is unprecedented.”
Ex-Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner disagrees:
Outrage at officiating is no doubt a time-honored NFL tradition. And there will always be blown calls. But the situation is more pronounced thanks to the NFL’s never-ending attempts to perfect the imperfectible, to legislate its way out of a patch of embarrassment, only to stumble into a thicket of unforeseen consequences.
“It’s getting harder and harder to trust that the officials can and will make the right call at the right time for the right reasons,” Mike Sielski wrote recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There is a perception—and it has been fed by a whole lot of reality—that any game, even the most consequential of games, will be decided by a dubious officiating call.”
The league spent nearly two decades defining a catch into incoherence. Each year, it draws up what it calls points of emphasis—directives for the officiating crew to zero in on—only to change course after the officials begin the season by doing exactly what is asked of them. Last year, the helmet rule and roughing the passer left everyone confused, so out came directives to not enforce them so closely, and all of a sudden the officials didn’t. This year, offensive holding was supposed to be a focus, at least until it comically got flagged 10 times during a Thursday night game, after which a conference call was held two nights later, during which the officials were told to chill out. Most famously, pass interference (including no-calls) was added to this year’s list of challengeable infractions—a harsh overreaction to a disastrous no-call at the end of last year’s NFC championship game—but at some point after Week 2 or so, the NFL decided to raise the bar for what warranted a PI reversal. Coaches are now reluctant to attempt a challenge, as Patricia was Monday night, though that still didn’t stop four coaches from trying during Week 6.
“I say this half-jokingly, but it seems like that Saints-Rams play from the NFC championship game doesn’t get overturned the way it’s being administered today,” Blandino said.
The numbers don’t lie: Penalties are way up. Per NFLPenalties.com, officials have thrown 18.2 total flags per game through this season’s first six weeks. Through Week 6 last year, the total flags per game was at 16.1. And in 2017, that figure was 16.9. The increase holds up when offsetting and declined penalties are thrown out: 13.8 per game in 2017, 13.9 last year, up to 15.0 this season.
(Hilariously, Sunday’s Cowboys-Jets game had a sequence in the closing minutes, as the Cowboys were driving toward what could have been a game-tying touchdown, in which flags were thrown on six consecutive plays. I was watching with my son, who will turn 5 in a few weeks, and I had trouble explaining to him why there were stoppages after every damn play during what I promised would be an exciting, game-deciding drive. Which it eventually was, though not before my son graduated from high school.)
There are additional factors at work in all this. Ben Austro, the editor-in-chief of the website Football Zebras, which covers NFL officiating on a granular level, shared with me his data that shows there’s been a great deal of turnover in the officiating ranks in recent years: eight departures in 2017, 10 in 2018, and four this year. And it’s been some big names with a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge: Jeff Triplette (22 years), Terry McAulay (20), Ed Hochuli (28), Gene Steratore (15), Walt Coleman (30). Blandino told me seven of the 17 crews are headed by referees in just their first or second season as crew chiefs.
“It’s such a big part of this,” Blandino said of all the new refs. “And they’re responsible for that crew and making sure that crew is going to be consistent and communicate properly. When you have seven [crew chiefs] that are in their first two years, [there’s] a learning curve. And so I think all of this is contributing to some of the things that we’re seeing right now.”
This sudden turnover also seems to be why attempts to add an eighth on-field official to each crew—an idea that’s been bandied about for years—hasn’t yet materialized.
Consider, too, that replay angles have improved and can now be observed frame-by-frame and monitored closely by the viewing public. Every jackwagon with an HD TV can be his or her own replay official and rules expert from the comfort of their couch. The officials making the calls on the field in real-time lack the advantages of such clear hindsight. Not to mention the way social media gives every jackwagon on their couch a platform to remind the world what an expert they are.
“There’s no question that technology has helped, but it’s also hurt in terms of perception,” Blandino said.
The two calls against the Lions’ Flowers on Monday night are perfect examples of this. No, Flowers did not strike Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari in the face on either play, but his hand got close both times, and Bakhtiari’s head jerked back as though he had been hit in the face. Bakhtiari has since told Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette that he informed the officials Flowers had been hitting him in the face during the game, and that the officials should look for it. And at this week’s league meetings, executive VP for football operations Troy Vincent identified only the second of Flowers’s infractions as incorrect.
Then there’s this: A source told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio that the responsibility for watching the left tackle was shifted from the referee to the umpire in recent years. The change was made because the ref’s job is to monitor the quarterback once the pocket collapses, which left no one watching the left tackle, which presumably allowed any number of infractions to be missed. Now, the ref is supposed to focus on the right side of the line until the pocket breaks down. More Florio:
It means little for what transpired [Monday] night; if, however, the mechanics hadn’t changed in 2017, the referee may not have been looking at Lions defensive end Trey Flowers when he was [or wasn’t] putting his hands in tackle David Bakhtiari’s face. But the players blocking and rushing from the right side are now more likely to get away with some over-the-line techniques after the pocket collapses.
More confusion! Anyway, all the chatter this week about blown calls has revived the idea of instituting a so-called sky judge, which would involve an extra official watching a monitor from the booth with the power to correct calls and no-calls. Ex-ref John Parry, who’s now ESPN’s rules analyst, has even changed his mind to endorse the concept. The sky judge idea is great in theory, but there are a ton of caveats. “I think you’ve got to be careful about going down that path,” Blandino told me.
E.g., would every play be subject to a sky judge’s review? If so, where does the line get drawn, or would all the holds and grabs that happen all over the field on every snap be closely scrutinized? If not, which decisions would be excluded, and why? And what happens when a decision that’s been excluded from the sky judge’s purview kick-starts a controversy? Will that jurisdiction then have to be expanded? Will that expansion be specific? The possibilities for the NFL to overcorrect itself are endless, which is why it’s easy to imagine the league eventually doing it.