What's Wrong With NFL Officiating?

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It’s getting exhausting emerging from each weekend with our choice of questionable and downright bad refereeing decisions to analyze, but it feels unavoidable these days. I don’t know if it’s confirmation bias or if it’s real, but NFL officiating feels as bad this season as it’s ever been. Last night’s 20-13 Patriots win over Buffalo provided a pair of doozies.

The first was an inadvertent whistle on a third-quarter pass to Danny Amendola. Line judge Gary Arthur apparently lost track of the football, and blew his whistle while Tom Brady’s pass was still in the air. (Fuck-up No. 1.)


The rule book is very clear on this. If the whistle occurred with the ball “loose”—i.e. still in the air—it’s a dead ball and the down is replayed. If a player has possession—if it was in Amendola’s hands—the ball is still dead, but the team can elect to either replay the down or take the ball at the spot of the whistle. After huddling, the officials apparently decided the whistle came after Amendola had received the ball (it did not) and gave the Patriots the completed pass. That was Fuck-up No. 2.


The officials then tacked on a 15-yard penalty for sideline interference on the Bills, possibly because Rex Ryan walked in front of Arthur. That’s a thing that happens all the time and isn’t called, and it felt for all the world like a makeup call to give the Patriots some more yardage, because Amendola had been deprived of plenty of room to run after the catch. Fuck-up No. 3, perhaps.

Referee Gene Steratore, speaking with a pool reporter after the game, attempted to describe what happened.

Talking about the inadvertent whistle play, who blew the whistle and why was the whistle blown?

I think as the quarterback started to get near the sideline and press the line judge [Gary Arthur], who was the official right near the quarterback ... Tom [Brady] released the football, the line judge lost track of maybe where the ball was at that point and almost by its own definition, inadvertently blew the whistle.

What we do from that point onward is find out where the football was at the time the whistle was blown. We deemed it to be, in our judgment, received by the receiver, as we stated, at the 45-yard line, I believe. And then by rule, what you do with that, or once you determine in your judgment where the ball was at the time of the whistle, if it’s in a possession of a player, which we deemed it to be, you take all fouls then that would have been on that play and you enforce them from that spot of where the ball would be declared dead by the inadvertent whistle.

We had a bench-area obstruction foul then, that we actually tacked on to the spot of, I believe we went from the 45 to the 40-yard line, because we tacked on the 15-yard foul from that spot. So that’s what you do with the play, as it goes by rule.

To compound our lack of confidence in officials, Steratore further explained the decision to give the Patriots the completion.

On the inadvertent whistle, when you are huddling to determine when the whistle blew, whether it was in the receiver’s hands or if it was still in the air, how did you determine that and what would have changed if you determined if it was before [the catch was made]?

GS: If the ball would have been in the air, we would have gone back to the previous spot.


But the ball was in the air; there’s no question about that. It’s not reviewable, but it was obvious in real time.


It’s a rare thing to successfully piss off both teams on a single play, but Steratore’s crew managed it here. The whistle was a bad mistake, but an honest one. The decision to bend the rulebook to make it up to New England was almost worse in its way, because it either required every single official to not know where the ball was when the whistle came, or a concerted decision to bend the rulebook to rectify the earlier error. The Patriots were screwed by the whistle, the Bills by everything that came thereafter.


The officials weren’t done. On what turned out to be the last play of the game, Tyrod Taylor completed a pass to Sammy Watkins, who appeared to roll out of bounds at the 47. That should have stopped the clock with two seconds left, giving the Bills a shot at a hail Mary.


Instead, head linesman Ed Walker signaled to keep the clock running. Game over, Patriots win.

Gene Steratore, what happened?

What we had as far as the last play with Buffalo’s reception was that the receiver gave himself up voluntarily in the field of play. When that occurs and we deem that the runner, which he would have been after he maintained possession after his reception, he was now a runner, had given himself up in the field of play. Then [the] fact that he scoots out of bounds is not as important. We wound the clock. It was a judgment call by that head linesman that he felt like he gave himself up in the field of play. It’s not a reviewable play. So winding the clock or stopping the clock is not something we review. So, in his judgment, he deemed that the runner gave himself up in the field of play voluntarily, which does put him down by contact in the field, so he wound [the clock].


Watkins was untouched, and was deliberately trying to get to the sideline. Saying that he gave himself up is flat-out wrong, as former VP of officiating Mike Pereira explained.


Another terrible game for the officials, once again on national TV. The officiating this year feels like a very real problem, but the causes are up or debate. There’s the fact that NFL official isn’t a full-time job (thanks to resistance by both the league and the referees’ union). There’s the overly complex rulebook; if no one knows what constitutes a catch, how is any human supposed to keep the whole damn thing straight.


Speaking Sunday, commissioner Roger Goodell noted a lack of consistency across the league, pointing out that some crews call far more penalties than others. (ESPN’s stats department has the numbers; Jerome Boger’s crew leads the league with 20.8 penalties per game, including those declined and offsetting; Bill Vinovich’s crew brings up the rear, throwing just 13.6 flags per game.)

Goodell suggested one way to flatten out the penalty numbers is to mix and match officials, rather than keep the same crews together each week. In an interview on the NFL Network, current head of officiating Dean Blandino reiterated his desire to simplify the rulebook.


I don’t know the answer or answers, because I’m not completely sure what the problem is. My instinct is that the NFL is just poorly designed: too complicated, too light on common-sense interpretations, too stringent on measures that would allow crews to get calls correct at the expense of keeping game times down. The solution would be a radical overhaul of the rulebook, which would at least initially bring all kinds of problems of its own. We may be stuck with this monster.