In the wake of several botched or inexplicable calls around the NFL this weekend, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not just the heightened awareness we have now with replays and camera angles—NFL officiating has hit an all-time low.
The referees have cost a number of teams victories in the past three weeks. The NFL admitted to a crucial Week 10 officiating error, which gave the Jaguars the win over the Ravens. An erroneous whistle halted a play—and a potential Danny Amendola touchdown—during the Patriots-Bills matchup in Week 11. During Oakland's final drive of its Week 12 matchup against Tennessee, a “poorly officiated play”—according to Titans interim coach Mike Mularkey—gave the Raiders a first down, and a subsequent go-ahead touchdown. Both Arizona and San Francisco had several complaints about the referees in their Week 12 game. And on Sunday Night Football in Week 12, the Patriots should have had the Broncos at third-and-goal from the 18-yard line, with under a minute remaining on the clock (still running) and no timeouts.
I don’t ever remember a stretch of horrible calls like this. Nothing even close.
How did we get here? And what do we do now? After talking to several sources in the officiating community, we’ll tackle it all here.
How did we get here?
The NFL has added 23 new official in the past two seasons, which is about 18% of the workforce. It is believed to be the largest influx of inexperienced referees since the early 1990s, according to FootballZebras.com. From the data I have or have been able to find, I can tell you that in the periods covering 2005–07, and 2010–13 (a total of seven years), the NFL hired a total of 15 new officials.
It’s difficult to know the exact reasons so many officials have left the NFL over the past two seasons, but sources believed it's the combination of the NFL switching from a defined pension system to a 401(k) during the lockout (it starts in 2016, or when an official reaches 20 years of service), and also NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino’s desire to up the fitness level of officials after he took over at his current position in early 2013.
There’s just no replacement for experience when it comes to officiating NFL games. A drastic influx of new blood meant there were bound to be issues, including veteran officials having to compensate for their less-experienced brethren.
When Blandino was hired, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell trumpeted the hire. “He is highly respected by our game officials and coaches for his deep and thorough knowledge of the rules,” Goodell said in a statement at the time.
Goodell may have been overstating the confidence the on-field officials had in Blandino because of one simple fact: Blandino has never been an on-field official at the college nor the pro level. He entered the league office in 1994 as an officiating intern, was then hired as an officiating video assistant and then promoted to special projects coordinator. From 1999–2003, Blandino was an instant replay official, and then managed the NFL replay program from 2003–09. From 2007–09, Blandino was the No. 2 person in the officiating department under former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, who held that spot from 2001–09 after a 16-year career officiating in college and the NFL (though just two years at the pro level). Blandino left the NFL to form his own company that trained replay officials, and then returned in 2012 under then-VP of officials Carl Johnson. All of Blandino’s predecessors (Art McNally, Jerry Seeman, Pereira and Johnson) had at least some on-field experience, and for most, it was extensive.
Blandino is lauded for his work ethic, how much he cares about the on-field product and his proficiency with replay and associated technologies. But there seems to be a disconnect between Blandino and the game officials; they feel he knows the game via video, but he can’t relate to their job on the field because he’s never done it.
Is Blandino the right man for the job? Are league-wide errors up during his tenure? Should he be replaced? That decision is now up to executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who succeeded Ray Anderson when he left to become Arizona State’s athletic director (and after he was persona non grata after ruffling the feathers of the NFL Referees Association during the lockout negotiations). Maybe Blandino is indeed the kind of needed progressive thinker the NFL thought he was when he was promoted. But the numbers and his performance need to be reviewed, just like any other employee.
Starting with the 2014 season, the NFL created a centralized center that would keep track of games and accelerate replay reviews to help save game time. Peter King spent a game day there that season and documented what went on, and King hit the nail on the head when he asked Blandino if New York has stuck its nose too far into the officiating process.
“I don’t think so,” Blandino said. “The goal of this system is to apply a consistent standard in terms of making these decisions. Anytime we can centralize that and have a small group of people manage that process, I think we’re going to be more consistent.”
Does anyone who has watched NFL games this season think there has been standardizing of the rules and their interpretations? When no one can agree on what is or isn’t a catch, I think you have your answer. And if anyone watched the Cardinals-49ers game and saw referee Pete Morelli spend three minutes and 47 seconds between first-quarter plays talking to those back in New York trying to figure out what down it was, no one would say the command center is functioning at a high rate towards the end of its second season.
There is also a feeling in league circles that New York is so involved now in the games that the command center is in the officials’ heads, cluttering their minds and causing some of them to make calls knowing they have New York as a fail-safe. Otherwise, the officials would solely be focused on what was in front of them and dealing with issues as a crew.
In any event, there isn't much support outside of New York that the command center has been a positive for officiating.
Where to go from here?
With the influx of inexperienced officials, there’s not much the NFL can do in the middle of the season to get things where they should be. But as soon as the offseason starts, the NFL needs to hit the ground running in these areas:
Slow the turnover
The NFL just simply can’t sustain having 10 and 13 new officials, like it has the past two seasons. The league has to get to the point where it’s back at the normal two-to-four new additions each season. If that means sweetening the retirement pot for some experienced officials, then so be it. The NFL has been building a training program and they might get to the point where it’s turning out officials that are ready for the NFL, but it’s not there right now. Certainly it hasn’t helped that there isn’t an NFL Europe-type developmental league for players and officials (the league needs to make this happen), but there have to be better solutions.
Update the evaluation system
The feedback from the officiating community is that the evaluation system the NFL uses outdated, cumbersome, has officials worried about their grades instead of officiating the game (King had a great behind-the-scenes with Gene Steratore), and that the system needs to be looked at. They feel that too much time is lost during the week to arguing about grades instead of concentrating on the big picture: what are the key calls that need more uniform judgment, and allowing supervisors more time to help individuals get better at their jobs.
Hire more full-time officials
During his tenure, Pereira proposed to make all 17 head referees full-time employees, but it didn’t go anywhere. The NFL now has one full-time official (Johnson).
I say, bring back Pereira’s proposal. Not only would it allow the head referee more time to hone his (or her) craft, but it would also give them time to personally bring others on their crews along. I’m sure an official like Steratore assists other members of his crew, but considering he also co-owns a supply company and is a Division I college basketball official, it's unlikely that the most popular sport in this country is getting all of the attention it should. Same goes for Pete Morelli, whose crew was just pulled from the Week 13 Sunday night game after several errors in Week 11's Monday night game. When he's not officiating NFL games, Morelli serves as the president of a high school. Perhaps the NFL should go to all full-time officials (if the league would even fund it) but the feeling is they would lose too many with experience to their higher-paying jobs.
Everything needs to be looked at, from Blandino’s performance to the command center to performance reviews to how the NFL is identifying and training the next group of officials. If the NFL wants to get this right, it needs to get out of the group think in New York and convene the brightest ex-officials, people like Scott Green, Bill Carollo and Mike Pereira, and find out where improvement is needed and how best to do it.
After another weekend to forget in NFL officiating—and this is December, not September—it has become clear that some things need to be looked at and changed. The on-field product simply isn’t good enough.