NFL officiating has long been a sore subject. After all, refs are just people, and as such, are just as prone to mistakes and biases as the rest of us. There were bad calls in the 60’s. There were bad calls in the 80’s and 90’s. Terrible calls in the aughts. Recently though, things seem to have gotten worse. More and more, officials are significantly impacting, or as was the case in Monday night’s Lions Packers game, outright determining the outcome of games. Has something changed, or has it always been this way and we are only just now realizing it? Let’s take a hard look, try to answer that question, and potentially offer up some solutions.
The Tragedy of Unintended Consequences
This year, the NFL implemented a new penalty challenge/review rule to try and combat the epidemic of bad and missed calls. While the intention was noble, the results of this new system has been inconsistent at best, laughable at worst. They do get some right. However, far too often we see an ostensibly bad call or clearly missed call be upheld, or a good call be overturned. It’s confusing and downright frustrating to watch. While trying to figure out what is going wrong, we’re left with 3 possible explanations:
1. The refs are just making mistakes, or occasionally protecting their initial call.
That’s understandable. As I said up top, they are human and prone to mistakes and biases. That said, it does stretch the imagination to think mistakes and bias could explain all the outlandish things we are seeing every week.
2. The refs are on the take, and/or part of an effort to fix games.
Possible. Again, officials are human, and another fallibility of humans is greed and corruption. Though, I haven’t seen any evidence this is the case (Chiefs/Texans game aside), so I’ll assume it’s not until proven otherwise. I prefer to judge people based on the adage that you should never attribute to malice or corruption what could just as easily be explained by ineptitude. What can I say, I’m a softy at heart.
3. The rules are so vague that the refs are unsure what call to make play to play.
This, makes the most sense. If you’re unsure what the actual rules are, then of course you’re going to call things inconsistently. Especially across a group of officials. When you take the normal missed/misjudged calls that can be attributed to human error, and add it on top of the obvious missed/bad calls on replays, it can seem like there is a conspiracy afoot. But most likely, it’s just confusion and uncertainty.
There’s no real way to sugar coat this, so I’ll just say it. The NFL rule book is jacked. They’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to modify and amend rules to either make things safer (helmet to helmet rules etc), or to address an aberrant penalty from the year prior (revised standard for catch etc), and issuing points of emphasis (offensive holding etc). The result is a rule book that is often so vague and equivocal that you’d be forgiven if you mistook it for an undeclared freshman at a west coast liberal arts college. Remember the whole “What is a catch?” fiasco? How about this year’s “What is roughing the passer”? We’re seemingly at the point where the fans don’t know what the rules are, the players don’t know what the rules are, and apparently, neither do the officials.
There is no easy fix here. Honestly, the best solution may be to throw the rule book out and start completely fresh. When you’ve been editing and amending something for a full century, it shouldn’t come as a shock that it’s a convoluted and inconsistent mess. Sometimes, it’s best to toss it out, and start from scratch.
That doesn’t mean you change everything. Touchdowns shouldn’t be worth 6 ½ points now or something. What it does mean, is coming at it from a blank page. Take the basic tenets of football, and go from there. Building out the rules with today’s game and clear goals in mind, without 100 years of verbiage you have to fineness into something usable. Come at it with the idea of “If I were creating a new sport in 2019, how would I structure the rules?”.
In addition to avoiding having to Jerry-rig antiquated rule sets into something serviceable, it also allows you to step back and take an objective look at the game without the baggage. There’s something to be said for having fresh eyes. It can often allow you to create something more simple, efficient and effective than you otherwise would.
Good Help is Hard to Find… Especially if it’s Part Time
The NFL notoriously is the only major professional sports league in the United States that doesn’t employ full time officials. Things looked to be trending away from that fact back in 2017, when under immense fan pressure, the NFL began it’s Full-Time Officiating Program, in which roughly 20% of NFL officials were full-time NFL employees. It was a start, at least, toward making sure that their officials were solely focused on officiating in their professional lives, rather than it being essentially a second job for many. However, that program has been suspended for the 2019 season, and given the NFL’s flippant attitude towards it’s officiating in the past (replacement refs, anyone?), may never return.
The NFL SORELY needs 100% full time officiating crews. That would make officiating a structured 9-5 job, and every single day could be spent studying tape, clarifying rules with the league, training, and generally getting better at their profession. While it certainly wont solve all the officiating problems, it’s a better situation than expecting officials to be a lawyer or electrician Monday-Friday and still effectively officiate a professional sport on the weekends.
To go along with that added official responsibility, is accountability. Fines for bad calls is the most obvious version of this, but I’m sure there are other punitive avenues available to the NFL. Perhaps a points system, similar to a driver’s license. Too many bad or missed calls, and you’re put on probation and have to get re-trained. Keep making bad calls, and you lose your position. Just something to give officials some added motivation to get things right.
Oh, and add an 8th official on the field already. With the way the modern NFL operates, there is just too much going on every play to effectively watch all 22 players on the field with only 7 sets of eyes. Perhaps a second Umpire in the backfield with the Referee to give better coverage of the QB and lines, or a second Back Judge to have more eyes on plays downfield. Honestly, I wouldn’t be opposed to adding both. More eyes means more chances to get the calls right.
We Have The Technology. We Can Make it Better, Faster, More Accurate.
It’s long been a joke that in the 21st century, with amazing technology and innovations all around us, that the NFL insists on still spotting ball placement by where an official thinks the ball was when the player’s knee went down, and measuring distance using a chain and a stick. I mean, sure. If it ain’t broke and all that. Still though. It wouldn’t be difficult to embed small radio trackers inside the ball. One at each end would suffice, the location of the rest of the ball could easily be derived from just the location of the tips. That alone would solve most questions about whether a ball crossed the goal line or first down marker. However, if you also incorporated location/height trackers and accelerometers into player pads, you could tell on most plays at what point that player contacted the ground, and where the ball was located when they did. Combine it with video and official confirmation (as technology should almost always be used to assist, confirm and augment people’s decisions, rather than to make a final decision it’s self), and you would take much of the guess work out of spotting the ball.
This isn’t a far fetched idea either. Next Gen Stats has been embedding trackers and accelerometers on players for years, to great effect. The technology exists right now for this system to be implemented by the NFL. They just need to pull the trigger.
Sky Judge and the NFL of Tomorrow
The NFL has implemented a replay technician in the booth, as well as “New York” reviews conducted by NFL headquarters. However, these are only used in special situations. A better idea may be to add a full time booth official, or as other leagues call it, a Sky Judge. Basically, it would be another official, with equal powers to the on-field officials. The difference being, that the Sky Judge resides in the booth, with a birds eye view of the game, and with access to both live video and instant replays. This would allow them to both confirm calls on the field, and make calls of their own that were missed on the field.
Of course, you don’t want an official pouring over every single play looking for a ticky tacky holding call or maybe some hand fighting that went on a little past 5 yards. No. The Sky Judge would need a mandate to simply be there to confirm/adjust calls on the field, and watch out for IMPACTFUL missed calls. If there is a hold that didn’t impact the play, you let it go. Pass interference that DOES impact the play and goes uncalled? Flag it. Or in the case of the KC/Houston game this weekend, holding/pass interference that clearly happened before the ball was thrown, but was ruled to have happened after? Overrule it.
Ideally a Sky Judge is there to make sure the big calls are correct. To make sure officials aren’t unduly affecting the outcome of games. To restore the credibility of the NFL, and the multi-billion dollar industries that go along with it.
Will there be unintended consequences should these or other ideas be implemented? Almost certainly. Is that a reason to continue with the broken system that we currently have? Absolutely not. Fix it NFL, or someone else will come out with a better product (no, not you XFL).
WhiskeyRanger is a freelance graphic artist/content creator, an avid Bears fan, and apparently speaks in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @WhiskeyRanger29, and check him out on Youtube at WhiskeyRanger.
How do you feel about the current state of NFL officiating?
This poll is closed
Supremely Confident. No changes necessary. *waits patiently for NFL check*
It’s fine. Some calls are bad, some are good. It’s just part of the game. People need to stop complaining.
Not good. Every week it seems to get worse and worse. Something needs to be done.
I call Shannigans! Everybody get your brooms! Rabble, Rabble, Rabble!