Against the Grain: Why NFL officiating is not nearly as awful as it seems
In the early 2000s, I helped produce an instructional video for the NFL's officiating group on seven-man crew mechanics. The emergence of four-receiver sets, especially the Rams’ "Greatest Show on Turf" attack, added pressure to crews to have eyes on every downfield target to watch out for interference. Art McNally, the godfather of modern officiating who served as the top supervisor from 1968 to 1991, was a consultant on the project. McNally loved the challenge of adjusting to an evolving game. “The game is always changing,” McNally told me. “Officials have to keep up. ... That’s why this job is so much fun.”
But now officials face a challenge that will be impossible to overcome. And it's not the thicker rulebook, increased speed and size of players, up-tempo offenses or convoluted catch rules. While these issues are problematic and need to addressed every season, a bigger problem is out of officials’ control: Twitter, Facebook, Sunday Ticket and Red Zone Channel, hours and hours of shoulder programming, sports talk radio and every other avenue we have for dissecting America’s most popular sport.
For the first 85 years of the NFL, fans didn’t have an outlet to complain about bad officiating. They could yell to the guy or girl next to them at the stadium or bar, and the outrage just dissipated into the ether. Now if there’s a bad call, a video clip is up on Twitter instantly and forwarded across the nation in a matter of minutes. Then we’re hit over the head with the bad calls in slow motion and high def for days.
Criticizing calls has actually become a full-time media job. The second the red flag comes out, networks go to Mike Pereira, Mike Carey or Gerry Austin to give America confirmation that the zebras got it wrong. All are former officials who are sympathetic to the league, but they exist to question their former brethren’s work.
Even generic judgment calls are elevated into news stories. The official threw a flag on New England safety Patrick Chung for putting his hand on Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas’ shoulder in the end zone in the final minute and Patriots Nation is complaining about the league coming after them again. Pass interference—and holding for that matter—have been called inconsistently since Walter Camp transformed rugby into football.
NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino pointed out to multiple media outlets Wednesday that the error rate of officials isn’t worse this season. Blandino told USA Today that over the past several seasons the average error rate is between 4 and 5 missed calls per game. This season there have been “an average of 4.5 mistakes through the first 11 weeks."
Blandino, however, notes the amount of attention is way up this season. “There seems to be more focus on officiating than ever before,” said Blandino on the Dan Patrick Show. “I’ve been a part of it for 21 years. I haven’t seen this much scrutiny. There’s more outlets for people to have an opinion and communicate that opinion.”
The narrative that officiating is at an all-time low implies that the sport was called more accurately before replay. Thus defies logic because we see multiple calls every week corrected by the current system. Since replay was reinstated permanently in ’99, 1,312 of 3,396 challenges have been reversed (38.6 percent of challenges). On average, 83 calls a year are changed. This season, 58 calls have been reversed (on pace for 82). Unless you are arguing the adaptation of replay made officials significantly less accurate, which doesn’t seem to be a common narrative this season, it’s safe to assume that at least 80 wrong calls were left out there on the field that could have been reversed before the current system took effect.
But as McNally, who first experimented with replay way back in ’76, says—the game does evolve. Recent changes in officiating are related to player safety. Officials have to make more calls—and no one likes more proactive refs. According to STATs Inc, this season the NFL has had more penalties than any other since the merger, other than 2005. Pass interference is up 13 percent from last season, defensive holding is up 15 percent, unnecessary roughness on the defense is up 18 percent and roughing the passer is up 18 percent.
“Let the players decide the game” is a constant refrain. And as we saw during the Cardinals-49ers game last week, replay and official conferences can disrupt the flow of the game. But with increased safety concerns, that’s a small price to pay for the league as they expand the rulebook to try to protect players.
The NFL is more open to discussing the process publicly and issuing apologies, which provides some benefit, but it's actually reinforcing the idea that officials are worse by addressing mistakes. Roger Goodell said several nice things about his officials at the owners meetings this week, but he opened the door for more scrutiny.
"I think our officials do an extraordinary job," Goodell said via NFL.com. "I think what we see now through technology is we see things we could never see before. .... We all recognize that officials are going to make mistakes. What we need to do is try to avoid those mistakes as much as possible, train them differently and improve the quality of the officiating and use technology to help them when a mistake does occur."
No one cares about Goodell’s positive remarks—the takeaway is that officials have to improve. They have to be trained differently and just get better. But officials’ actual performance isn’t going to change substantively. Perhaps simplifying the rulebook and cleaning up the catch rules could help a little. But the game is fast and officials are always going to make mistakes. No matter how many committee meetings they have and whatever technology they come up with, you’re basically coming down to a bunch of guys and now girls running around in silly pants and striped shirts. But as the NFL nation’s hunger to analyze every detail of the game is miraculously still growing, bad calls are only going to get more attention.