- There have been proposals for more replays and more challengeable plays, but those solutions carry downsides. A solution that doesn’t? Put an eighth official on the field.
What happened to Todd Gurley? Why did Jared Goff’s would-be touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks take so long to get there? Why couldn’t Tom Brady score more points? Why did Adam Levine take his shirt off?
There are plenty of storylines and lingering questions from Super Bowl LIII and the Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams. But, much to the delight of the NFL, one thing no one has talked about since the game: the officiating.
Two weeks after one of the biggest officiating gaffes in NFL history, the league came out relatively unscathed in the biggest game of the year. Sure, there were your run-of-the-mill ticky-tack calls and borderline penalties that did not get flagged, but the game saw no massive call (or no-call) that either slowed the game to a crawl or completely changed the outcome.
The future of NFL officiating was a hot topic in Atlanta all Super Bowl week, and after talking with and hearing from those in the know, I think I’ve separated the bad ideas from the one good one as it concerns “fixing” officiating.
THE LIFE OF AN OFFICIATING CREW: In 2013, Peter King spend a week behind-the-scenes with then-official Gene Steratore and his crew
First, understand that there are two guiderails, or bumpers, when it comes to any change in officiating. “Flow of the game” is crucial to the league, and the NFL is proud to have streamlined its review process to trim down crucial seconds year by year. Any change that would disrupt the precious flow or add time to the game is going to be met with a fight. The other guiderail is “unintended consequences.” It’s a phrase the league, known for being retroactive rather than proactive, is fond of. It has some merit, but it’s also used as a boogeyman in resistance to any change to a league proudly celebrating its 100th year.
Idea 1: Adding a real-time video replay official who has the power to throw a flag on a missed called.
Verdict: Ultimately bad.
This official could be too trigger happy, either hoping to justify his or her position by throwing flags or by calling borderline fouls like (omnipresent) holding. The indication I get is that current coaches are against this idea. Another issue brought up by former referee and current CBS rules analyst Gene Steratore is the basic feasibility of the position. If this is a real-time job, where is this replay official looking? He or she can’t possibly watch the entire field for a missed call. In the time it takes to get from one play to the next, can that official buzz in and throw the flag in time? That question would remain even after you work through when he or she is called in, or who makes that decision.
“The outlying play that this is, that we all agree on, everyone, it could be corrected in a lot of ways,” Steratore said, referencing the no-call in the NFC title game. “But opening up an entirely new system based on an outlier has to be thought through.”
Idea 2: Open up the review system to challenge everything—even no-calls—while either keeping the number of challenges at two or increasing it to three.
Verdict: Ultimately bad.
Talk about a Pandora’s Box that skids along the “unintended consequences” guiderail for miles. The mind races with possibilities on how this wouldn’t work, but I’ll stick with two examples. Imagine during a video replay—possibly one initiated by a coach challenging one of those “everything” calls—the opposing coach then throwing a flag when he and his staff find a no-call. Let’s say Sean Payton was able to challenge the defensive pass interference, but Sean McVay then challenges a hands-to-the-face penalty away from the ball that also wasn’t called. The two plays negate one another and we’re back to where we started.
The other issue would be coaches and teams weaponizing this new deal. A quarterback could see one-on-one coverage, give a hand signal to his receiver and then intentionally underthrow a deep pass that forces the receiver to work back through the defensive back. Officials may not throw the pass interference flag at first knowing good and well the game that was just played, but when the coach forces them to take a look at it and see that the defender interfered, they get the automatic first down on a 30- or 40-yard play. As I wrote about two seasons ago, smart coaches find loopholes in the rulebook all the time. This would open a massive loophole to be exploited.
“As far as where we can go, we will look again at instant replay,” Roger Goodell said. “There have been a variety of proposals over, frankly the past 15-20 years, should replay be expanded. It does not cover judgment calls. This was a judgment call.”
Idea 3: Add an eighth official to the field of play.
Goodell’s reasoning against adding an eighth official sounded more like one a boss makes up when he doesn’t want to pay another staffer than one rooted in sound logic. “Adding an eighth official is adding one more human,” Goodell said. “One more human who will make mistakes like all the rest of us.” So long as footballs don’t have microchips in them and lasers aren’t at each goal line and seven IBM Watsons aren’t dressed in stripes, human error will forever be a part of this game and that’s that.
Steratore brings up an excellent point as it relates to changes in today’s game. With 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) dominating the league, teams consistently send all five eligible receivers out into routes. A pass-happy league puts more on the plate of the seven game officials, and it may be time for the number of officials to increase, a way to evolve and keep up with the game.
“The game’s wider now. There are five receivers,” Steratore said. “When I started in this league 16-17 years ago, five-receiver sets weren’t the norm. They happened [but] not that often. We do have five officials who cover those five receivers, but a lot of those officials also have another responsibility.
“So adding an eighth official could take away some of those other responsibilities from them and give them the potential to work those receivers from beginning to end of the play.”
No one wants to hear this, but an NFL official’s job has gotten tougher in recent years. Not only is the game wider but its speed increases every year, making your snap decisions even quicker. Last year the NFL dumped its leading-with-the-helmet calls into the laps of officials and it was a disaster in the preseason. Then there was the notorious body-weight rule on quarterback roughing calls that marred the start of the regular season. Hell, officials were tasked a few years ago with policing use of the n-word on the field.
Adding an eighth official shouldn’t hurt the pace of play, and any unintended consequences from another set of eyes on the field would be related to human error, which is an established part of the game. Should the league make any changes to officiating in the 2019 offseason, this would be the one.
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