Full-Time Officials Won’t Solve NFL’s Ref Problems

3:20 | The MMQB
Is Mike Tomlin headed for the hot seat?
Wednesday November 9th, 2016

In the wake of the officiating mistakes in the Seattle-Buffalo game Monday night, teams and coaches and fans and the media are looking for answers. How can officials be better? What can be done to ensure that two egregious calls—the Richard Sherman slam into the kicker that wasn’t flagged for unnecessary roughness; and the ensuing umpire-standing-over-the-ball till there were just four seconds left on the game clock, leading to a crucial delay-of-game that contributed to a missed field goal—never happen again?

The NFL seriously has considered making the 17 referees, the chiefs of its officiating crews, full-time officials. Deliberations about it are ongoing, but approval by the officials’ union is needed, and that was a fight that went unsolved in the last negotiations in 2012. The NFL also has discussed adding an eighth official to its seven-member crews, with the placement of the official still up for debate; some want the official in the secondary, as another set of eyes watching the hand fighting between receivers and defenders.

What about making the league’s roster of 135 officials full-time league employees? Arizona coach Bruce Arians passionately advances the idea, and it has other advocates too. I’m not one of them. It isn’t that I hate the idea of full-time officials; if they were full time, I don’t think it would hurt the game. But I don’t think it’s a certainty that officiating would improve. I do think looking to full-time officials as something that would vastly improve officiating is a faulty assumption. My reasons:

The NFL has discussed adding an eighth official to its existing seven-member crews.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

• You’d lose some quality officials if you asked them to choose between the officiating job and their other jobs. A veteran official with 20 years experience can make as much as $215,000 a year. A young official in year one or two would make approximately $78,000. Would Walt Coleman remain an NFL ref if asked to turn away from running his dairy farm in Arkansas? What about successful lawyer Ed Hochuli? Or Gene Steratore, who has a lucrative side job reffing NCAA basketball games? Further, if you told a young official on the verge of getting tenure in his main job as a teacher or school administrator he had to choose between that and his $78,000 NFL job, how many of the young officials would you lose? Former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira estimated to me Tuesday that maybe 25 of the 135 officials would leave the NFL. That’s a lot of turnover. Add in the normal turnover of four to six officials in a season, and adding 17 more officials if the league went to an eighth official on every crew … that’s potentially up to 45 to 50 new officials, about three rookies per crew. Imagine the adjustment if the 17 crews have to work in three new members. For at least a season, it could be a nightmare.

• What would these full-timers do? It makes some sense for the 17 crew chiefs to be full time. After being embedded with the Steratore crew for a story for The MMQB in 2013, the extra work—breaking down tape of the game just done and the game his crew was about to do, discussing tweaks and mistakes in the game just done with other crew members, preparing a game plan for the upcoming game—he was expected to do each week probably added up to a 40-hour work week. Beyond that, there are no other NFL or NFL developmental league games to work. It’s a stretch to think working in-season NFL practices would simulate real games because teams are largely pad-less and often at half-speed. Would watching more tape help officials make better calls on bang-bang plays? Possibly, but I doubt it. “I can’t fathom what a side judge would do all week to get better and make better calls on Sunday,” Pereira said. “Read the rule book? Watch a lot more tape?”

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• The union has some legitimate concerns, which I’d have if I were an official. During the last negotiations between the league and officials, the Pro Football Referees Association rightfully wanted some assurances about job security if it was going to sign off on full-time officials. If an official was going to leave his employment career behind to join the NFL, surely he should have some guarantees that he’d have secure employment in the NFL for X number of years; otherwise, why leave a job with security? Essentially, the NFL won’t guarantee VP of Officiating Dean Blandino’s employment for the long-term future, so the league wouldn’t give guaranteed contracts to some of its officials. Thus the stalemate. Not sure how it gets fixed, or if it can.

Bottom line: I don’t think there’s a very good chance for full-time officials soon; the contract between officials and the league runs through 2019.

“If the league decided to make officials full time,” Pereira says, “it’d be nothing more than a PR move to me.”

Last week, I asked Blandino on “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King” about full-time officials. He said: “I don’t know if full-time officials make us—I can’t quantify it—3 percent better, 5 percent better …”

“Or at all better,” I interjected.

“Or at all better,” he said. “I do think there’s merit to the idea. It’s something we should continue to explore. I think our referees would be a good starting point … to look at.”

Says Pereira, “If the league decided to do it, it’d be nothing more than a PR move to me.”

• THE MMQB PODCAST WITH PETER KING: Subscribe on iTunes

Strong stance from Pereira. I wondered why. “If they went full-time,” he said, “what effect would it have? Basketball officials work basketball all the time; they get criticized all the time. Baseball umpires, same thing. We have maybe 19 games a year for our officials. Look at the accuracy rate. It’s pretty damn incredible. There’s maybe 155 plays a game, with 10 significant decisions to be made on every one. And what’s the accuracy—maybe 96 percent? There’s going to be mistakes. I think the officiating right now, overall, is excellent. I don’t want all these new officials that would come in all at once. What it comes down to for me is whether full-time officials would really improve officiating, and I don’t think it would.”

I can’t say it wouldn’t. But I’m more on the side of: Be careful what you wish for. Imagine 40 or 50 new officials flooding the league in one year, or two years. That would have a bigger net negative on the quality of officiating than the positive of officials working longer every week, and in the off-season, at their craft.

Agree? Disagree? Hit me with your thoughts at talkback@themmqb.com, and I’ll run the most interesting points next week in my Monday column.

Now for your email:

* * *

The Cowboys have reeled off seven straight wins with two rookies—Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott—at key offensive positions.
Jason Miller/Getty Images

PRESCOTT AND ELLIOTT ARE NOT ELITE … YET

Yours is a fairly well-versed and wise take on football, so I would appreciate if at least you could stop spreading the myth of the current “greatness” of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Greatness might be coming very soon for them, but they aren't there. The Dallas MVP is the offensive line, and it isn't even close. It somehow turned a broken down Darren McFadden, whose style doesn't even fit Dallas's system, into an easy 1,000-yard rusher in well-less than a full season as the primary starter despite a supporting cast with as poor QB play and limited a set of targets as you could ask. And we saw what this offensive line can do with a near-elite quarterback (Tony Romo) and very good back when the supporting cast is up and running back in 2014.

— A. Peter Dacey

I don’t know what you’d call the 135th pick in the draft piloting a team on a seven-game winning streak, with a higher passer rating than Rivers, Manning, Roethlisberger and Wilson, completing 67 percent of his throws, throwing two picks in eight games at midseason. I don’t know what you’d call a running back with an 84-yard lead in the NFL rushing race at midseason. Whatever the word is—elite, outstanding, groovy—I don’t really care. Prescott and Elliott are the two best rookies in football. The Cowboys are 7-1 with them. In 2014 and ‘15, with much the same cast, the Cowboys were 15-4 with Romo. I don’t say this Dallas team is better than the Romo-led group. But I do find it amazing, in a very positive way, that rookies are playing two vital positions for the Dallas offense and they’re 1.5 games clear of the NFC field at the season’s halfway point.

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HARVARD WOMEN’S SOCCER

I am always amazed at the writers at SI like yourself who don't see the hypocrisy of complaining about women being treated as sex objects (like the Harvard women’s soccer team), but work for an entity that produces the annual swimsuit edition and the Lovely Lady of The Day. I guess no one at SI is objectifying women? But I guess you can't bite the hand that feeds you?

—Paul P. (father of three daughters and three granddaughters)

I am a father of two daughters. When Terry McDonell was managing editor of Sports Illustrated, I suggested to him that we stop running photos in the swimsuit issue of women without tops, and suggested we allow people who didn’t want to get the issue to request that it not be sent to their homes, and their subscription be extended by one issue in return. (Others had similar suggestions too.) He did the second. Also, the women who are in the Swimsuit Issue are in by their own free will, vie for the chance to be in there, and are paid for it—a far different case than the Harvard women’s soccer players, who were exploited behind their backs. But back to your point: I have a choice. I can work at a place that’s been great to me but does some things I don’t agree with. Or I could leave. I assume you work, and it’s possible you work for a company you don’t always see eye to eye, and you stay working there. That’s the way life is.

COWBOYS-RAIDERS SUPER BOWL = 2016 ELECTION

Mentioning a possible Cowboys-Raiders Super Bowl is perfect for the day before this 2016 election. Each team probably has an unfavorability rating of over 50 percent. Many fans hate both teams and would have trouble finding somebody to root for in the game. Is there a write-in candidate?

— Andy C., Morristown, N.J.

What a great email. Wish I’d thought of it.

• WHERE DID THE HOODIE GO? Dominic Bonvissuto looks at Bill Belichick’s sideline style and sees a surprising trend in 2016

PRO-POLITICAL PODCAST

I really enjoyed the interview last week. I think it's a great idea to keeping mixing up the guests. Personally, I found it very interesting and informative, though I may be a non-standard listener / reader. I am English, I've only been watching the NFL (regularly) for the last four and a half seasons but have become quite a big fan.  The most interesting part of the talk you had with Chuck was how similar this campaign has felt to our referendum to leave the EU. I was in favour of staying in the EU, being young, educated, stably employed I would say 80% of my demographic was in the same camp. From an outsider’s point of view it feels like the American election is going the same way. It almost seems a shame there wasn't a third option in both votes.

—Nick

ANTI-POLITICAL PODCAST

Yes Peter, you have done an admirable job of holding your tongue about Donald Trump. No, don't have non-sports figures on your podcasts. Stay in your lane, be the best at one thing.

—Guy, Silver Spring, Md.

Thanks for checking in everyone. There was a great disparity of opinion. I won’t use non-sports people much, if at all, in the future. But I do think if some issue is huge, I’ll consider it, based on the circumstances.

STOP COMPARING PRESCOTT TO KESSLER

Sure, post Gil Brandt's tweet in MMQB about the Browns passing on Dak Prescott and his 99.6 rating eight times in the draft, but then don't mention Cody Kessler's 96.1 QB rating. Gil's a legend, but come on, how about some objective journalism if you're going to post his tweet. Kessler's QB rating is mere points behind Prescott's despite playing behind an offensive line masquerading as matadors.

—Jake

A Tweet’s not journalism. It’s a thought, or an opinion. It’s a niblet of information. I’ll continue to run them when they’re smart.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.  

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