What Can Be Fixed vs. What Can’t Be Fixed Regarding NFL Officiating‏‏‏‏

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NFL Championship weekend is now complete and the Super Bowl matchup has been set. There’s been a lot of talk about some of the officiating problems and mistakes that we saw yesterday, and I thought I’d go ahead and set the record straight as far as what the competition committee can go about fixing before that 2014-2015 NFL season is kicked off.

There were some bad calls (as well as some bad no-calls) in the Denver/New England game, but that isn’t what this piece is about. The Broncos were clearly the better team on Sunday, and that’s why they won. The refs can’t rig a double digit victory, that just doesn’t happen. The Patriots were playing on borrowed time and a roster full of second stringers against what has been statistically the best offense in NFL history. Orange crushed, and rightfully so. To be brutally honest, I was shocked that it wasn’t more brutal than ten points.

This article is mainly about the mistakes that we saw in the Seattle/San Francisco game, a game that the Seahawks won 23-17 but came down to the last play. While everybody is overreacting about the Richard Shermann debacle (we’ll tackle that tomorrow) the story that is really getting pushed into the background is how the officiating was historically poor in this game. But the NFL has made it this way, and it’s something that can possibly be prevented in the future.

This experiment with the officiating squad in the championship game being composed of this group of “all-star” referees that haven’t worked on the same crew all year long has failed as a result of its very design. No matter what you do for a living, think of how ridiculous it would be if you had one time of the year where your performance meant more than any other. The pressure of that moment is enough to handle seeing as how your livelihood is at stake, but the people who are to judge your performance in that moment changed one key variable on you…

You don’t get to work with your colleagues that you had worked with the entire year leading up to that point.

Think of how silly that is for a second…You’re being barked at all year long about how everyone needs to operate like a well-oiled machine and how teamwork is key. You have those stupid motivational posters that your boss has installed all over your office, reminding you how to behave and what to think as if you’re not a fully functioning adult that can make your own decisions. You know the ones that I’m talking about – those posters with the hopelessly funny strands of irony that have a picture of the sun (which can scorch your retinas after a few short minutes of direct exposure) and then they say something like “VISION” in capital letters with some uber-pretentious saying underneath it.

They put those posters up because they are supposed to reinforce one thing: Teamwork. Professional football is the ultimate team sport, only the stakes are much higher than if you work at an office that sells shipping products. The NFL’s rosters have 53 men on each sidelines, about thirty coaches, and anywhere from twenty to forty trainers. These people have to work together to make sure that everything is moving in synchronous order. So why is it that during the last three games of the season which feature the three most important teams left in the playoffs, we’ve all of a sudden decided to let the individuals who call the games themselves work with a crew they are unfamiliar with? Why has the NFL decided that this is okay?

Dubs is third from the left

Dubs is third from the left

Now the first (and easiest) answer is that Commissioner Goddell is a blithering moron, an angle that has been beaten into the ground but a good one nonetheless. In this instance, it is not solely the commissioner’s fault. He has to approve things like this, but it’s the owners and the coaches who are on the competition committee who have to agree with each other in theory and approve this atrocity before it becomes yet another controversial issue leaving the fans wondering how it could ever get approved in the first place.

The most glaring example of how unfamiliar the officiating crew was with each other’s work had to have been a play in the third quarter of this game where Russell Wilson dropped back into the pocket, very obviously committed intentional grounding, the 49ers then complained heavily and it took quite some time for Harbaugh’s case to be heard and the officials finally through the flag. It was really obvious too, certainly something that should have drawn a flag the second they realized the ball never made it back to the line of scrimmage – especially from a team of “all-star” officials.

But the second play that really raised eyebrows was in the fourth quarter, where San Francisco linebacker Tim Bowman recovered the football and nearly had his leg snapped in half while doing so – but was not even awarded possession of the football when everyone knew that it should have been the 49ers’ ball. The Seahawks did not score on the fourth down play that followed, but I don’t really think that’s the point. They got a free down and they could have very easily put the game out of reach if they had converted that touchdown, and the reason that they couldn’t review the play is because it was a judgment call? What the hell is that about?

This is where a major flaw in ANY NFL officiating rears its ugly head. What exactly is the point of having a “non-reviewable” play to begin with? Isn’t the whole point off review to get the call right? And if we’re going to spend almost 45 seconds reviewing every scoring play, can’t we also do the same regarding a possible possession change with a few minutes remaining in the NFC Championship? And why am I even being so situation specific? Shouldn’t they be able to review this play at any time during the season?

fumble1

Like I said, the 49ers ended up getting a better spot after Lynch fumbled the ball on the next play but the league isn’t always going to get saved by circumstance such as it was here. And on the Russell Wilson grounding call, the Seahawks also scored on that drive so that ended up in their favor as well. But it’s the basic fundamentals of the way the officiating policies are set up that are the problem here. And I think I know why…

The whole argument of replay in baseball tends to hit snags because traditionalists are worried about how it will affect the pace of the game. And it’s a decent complaint, until you realize something: It’s only going to affect the pace of the game if it happens constantly throughout the game, which it probably won’t. Especially in baseball, I don’t really think that you should be able to review balls and strikes, but if you set it up so that you CAN they aren’t going to go up to the booth and review every pitch. There’s a certain amount of self-serving sportsmanship that prevents that from happening. After you dispute nine calls in less than four innings, unless everyone in that stadium is hungover those benches are going to clear and somebody’s fighting. We have this bizarre idea that if every play can be reviewed, it WILL be reviewed and that’s simply not true. The networks and the leagues would never let it get to that point, even if it meant sending the refs or umps to the sidelines and telling the managers or coaches that it’s getting out of hand and they need to back off.

Replay in football should be a lot more feasible – there are no balls and strikes and you know damn well that we’ll never get to the point where we’re reviewing holding calls after every whistle. There are important things in the modern day NFL which are “non-reviewable”, and it’s nothing short of insane. It’s a darker shade of stupid, and a deeper shade of dumb because there is now a black cloud that hangs over football causing people to question whether or not the game is rigged.

As far as what can’t be fixed when it comes to the officiating, we can start with holding. The old saying is that you can call holding on almost every play, and I think we can all agree that there are some NFL crews who get a little too flag happy and start making the game about themselves as if you’re going to go to your nearest Dick’s Sporting Goods store and drop a hundred and fifty bucks on an Ed Hochuli jersey. Holding truly is a judgment call, and one that would disrupt the flow of the game if reviewed constantly. And since nobody seems to be able to correctly define pass interference, that’s going to be a judgment call as well.

Not really, we just hate you less than the other guys...

Not really, we just hate you less than the other guys…

But to be brutally honest with you, that’s all that I can think of unless I’m missing something here. Unsportsmanlike conduct calls should be reviewable because there is always a possibility that the officials will miss a hit that was definitely flagrant and uncalled for. And let’s get real here – if everybody can look at the Jumbotron and see exactly what happened on any given play, shouldn’t the officials be able to do so as well? Why do we have to put on this front where the guy has to act like he’s viewing porn in an adult bookstore with a tarp over his head? He should get the same multimillion-dollar plasma screen viewing experience everyone else in the stadium has, instead of simply running off of the field and shoving his head into a video glory hole like he just can’t hear the crowd’s reaction five feet away under that tarp to begin with.

We have to be able to trust the officials to make the right calls, and because of what I’ve outlined here they probably aren’t being given the tools to do so correctly. But what the league can do is they can start with what they can fix, and then simply put the officials through more training on the stuff that they will have to make judgment calls on so they will be better prepared for those situations. And it does start with the league and the competition committee – They need to do a better job getting the officials the tools they need to be as accurate as possible. And then the officials need to be able to work with those who they are used to working with so that they can get a better feel of their working environment.

THEN we’ll worry about judgment calls. We’re not quite there just yet.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What Can Be Fixed vs. What Can’t Be Fixed Regarding NFL Officiating‏‏‏‏

  1. That can’t be me in the ref picture. I’m not holding a sandwich.

  2. What i don’t understand was why is was non-reviewable… what judgement call was made that was non-reviewable. I am a Seattle Seahawks fan and i was yelling at the screen “WTF!” Harbaugh can’t throw a challenge flag on the spot or completion of the pass? all i heard was something about a “nonscoring play”, to which i respond “Then what the hell was all that hubbub on the 34 yard line about 6 yard run on second down about last week?”

  3. Funny how much bickering there was with the “replacement refs” yet standard ref crews get passes (though you’ve pointed out why mistakes can be made come playoff time). But the NFL has to do something about the poor officiating. NFL refs are easily the worst of the four major sports – and the least consistent. More training is needed because of the limited amount of games reffed per year. NHL, NBA, and MLB refs/umps work so many games they get into a nice groove and it’s so repetitive it’s easier for them to be consistent game to game, and with different teams.

  4. I was watching an NBA game the other night. Yes, some of us still do that.

    There was a tipped ball that was put in at the buzzer. At first glance it looked like the basket was good. Upon further review (a statement which is so far the best thing to come out of revised NFL officiating), the basket was called off after refs took no more than sixty seconds to review the play.

    There were no allotted flags thrown onto the floor, no penalized time outs and no coaches bitching and whining about the call. Over and shut case.

    Say what you will about David Stern, he is more competent that a dozen Goodell’s with a side of Bud Selig.

    The NBA has implemented a nearly fool-proof replay system. I can’t imagine why the NFL, and Major League Baseball to boot, still can’t manage the simplest of tasks.

    Here’s hoping the NFL fixes things soon. Further ACLs depend on it.

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