It's not just football fans who are tired of bad officiating

Executives, coaches tell ESPN that NFL needs to improve selecting, training of referees

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Poor officiating during a Week 18 game between the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks has NFL referees under scrutiny.

When NFL fans clamored that Dez Bryant did, in fact, catch that ball on fourth down against the Green Bay Packers in the fourth quarter of the Divisional Round matchup in 2015, it took the NFL three years to finally announce, “Yeah, that was a catch. We dun goofed.” When NFL fans demanded officiating needed to be better following a missed pass interference call on Rams’ cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFC Championship Game in 2019, the NFL swiftly approved a rule change that would make pass interference a reviewable call, rather than the judgment call it had always been. A year later, the NFL removed the option to challenge pass interference because it was “too subjective.”

It seems like no matter how atrocious NFL officiating gets, the NFL will eventually shrug off concerns and give fans an enthusiastic “It is what it is,” implying that nothing can be done. For years, fans have known that the league could do something, and figured they just needed to be put under pressure by the right people. Well, that time may finally be upon us.

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Missed calls galore during Rams-Seahawks

There was a myriad of missed calls at pivotal moments of Week 18's matchup between the Rams and Seahawks. This game was of the utmost importance for Seattle, as a loss would have eliminated them from playoff contention. Ultimately, the Seahawks won in overtime, preventing the Detroit Lions from reaching the playoffs despite their victory over division rival Green Bay. The NFL’s competition committee even referred to the game as “the worst officiated game of the year.”

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Punters are people, too

The most egregious penalty in that game was a crucial “running into the punter” call against the Rams’ Jonah Williams that extended a fourth-quarter Seattle drive and enabled the Seahawks to tie the game on a field goal. When watching the play, it is evident that Williams was blocked into the punter by another Seattle special teamer. The NFL rulebook clearly states that running into the punter in that circumstance does not constitute a penalty.

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Jalen Ramsey flagged, but DK Metcalf

On the following drive, Rams’ cornerback Jalen Ramsey offered up a late hit on Seahawks’ quarterback Geno Smith after the latter scrambled for a 25-yard gain. That obviously constitutes a penalty, but so does DK Metcalf’s retaliation which saw the star receiver get his hands in Ramsey’s facemask. Had Metcalf’s retaliation been flagged, the penalties would’ve been offset. Instead, only Ramsey’s hit was called. Even though Seattle’s kicker Jason Myers missed the game-winning field goal try in regulation, Seattle never should’ve had that opportunity in the first place.

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Image for article titled It's not just football fans who are tired of bad officiating
Image: Getty Images

Judgment call

There was also a potential intentional grounding penalty that went uncalled in overtime, although that was the most questionable of all. Smith was clearly trying to throw the ball away and the closest Seahawks’ receiver, tight end Noah Fant, was supposedly 12 yards away from where the throw ended up. However, the NFL rulebook states that intentional grounding can only be called when there was no realistic chance of a catch. That’s a subjective decision. While I and many others believe a catch was impossible, referees often err on the side of caution with calls that pivotal. If it’s questionable, you just leave it be. After all, Seattle was already losing a down due to the incompletion. That said, I would’ve called intentional grounding.

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Needs improvement

According to ESPN, one NFL executive claimed there was “a real groundswell of unhappiness with officiating that is much deeper than I’ve seen and frankly, I haven’t seen in this league in years.” Finally! Finally! After years of fans clamoring for changes to be made in screening NFL officials, league executives and coaches are finally starting to catch up. One of ESPN’s sources even told them that the NFL needs to do a better job at hiring and training its officials. I would like to offer a different solution.

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What if a random barfly officiated?

Everyone knows that the most reliable and unbiased group of people in the NFL are fans with no stakes in a game whatsoever. You know that guy who always wears a Giants’ Jeremy Shockey jersey to your local bar every Sunday even though you both live in Arkansas and he’s never left the state? That man is as unbiased as fans come and anytime a questionable call happens in a game, he immediately has an opinion on whether or not that call had any merit. More often than not, he’s right too. While not everything he says may line up with the rulebook 100 percent, he’s got a pretty good understanding of the rules and the subjectivity that comes with certain situations. I call this “The Rule of Fan Common Sense.” For some reason, these folks always seem to know what’s going on. If something looks like a catch, it should be a catch. If something looks like a missed call, the officiating crew should go back and make the call.

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A solution

Here’s what I propose: The NFL hires like three of these people per game. Give them like $300 for each game. It wouldn’t be too expensive, and I’m sure they’d all take it. When something controversial happens, these three people can get together and determine what the appropriate call should be. They’d need to be quick, decisive, and certain, but that’s what these types of people specialize in. Of course, this would only be for subjective calls. Anything concerning first downs, touchdowns, or whether or not a receiver got two feet in bounds would not be eligible for consideration. With this elite group of chosen people, the NFL would never miss a controversial call ever again.

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OK, maybe not

The sad thing is, I’m only like 90 percent joking. I genuinely think that the best judge of subjective calls is fans with nothing to gain. They just want to see good, consistent football and more often than not, they can pick out whether or not certain calls were missed or inappropriate calls were made when they shouldn’t have been. Obviously, there are more cons than pros in my joke of a plan, like how easy it would be to convince these people to throw specific calls, but as I said, the unbiased nature of these fans tends to point out the appropriate call in most of those crucial moments.

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There’s still the human aspect of it

The NFL will most likely just institute a program urging referees to look out for certain signs of a penalty on specific plays, but that doesn’t reach the root of the problem. The root is that, as long as there are subjective penalties, referees will be mostly set in their current ways. There isn’t much that can change their view of the playbook and thus, it’s difficult to alter their brain chemistry without a very specific change in the rulebook. Instead of providing courses to help train their officials, the first step the NFL should take is making every penalty (except holding, because that would slow the pace of the game down tremendously) reviewable. While this might not change the outcome of many calls, just as how reviewing pass interference didn’t lead to many overturned calls in 2020, it would at least give fans, coaches, and executives the view that referees are granted and prompt further scrutiny to officiating crews whenever they make a bad call.

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That would just be the first step. I don’t know where the league would go from there, but more transparency is never a bad thing. The ball is in your court NFL. People have been asking for officiating changes for more than a decade now. The heat is rising, and it’s time to do something.