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How NFL’s Officiating Issues, on Display in Packers-Lions, Drove Discussion at the Fall League Meeting

After the several botched calls on Monday Night Football, officiating was top of mind at this week’s league meetings in Florida. What can we expect moving forward?
Trey Flowers, Aaron Jones

FORT LAUDERDALE — The officiating missteps that took place in Monday night’s Packers-Lions game couldn’t be fixed over the two days the owners spent at their Fall League Meeting. But work to prevent it from happening again is further along than you may think—and some key NFL executives expect to hear about that once again when the calendar turns to 2020.

Last February and March, the John Madden Subcommittee, made up exclusively of head coaches, went to the Competition Committee with two proposals: One included a detailed plan to add an eighth official, and another was built around the introduction of a sky judge to each officiating crew.

These were presented at the Annual League Meeting in March, with Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, Houston’s Bill O’Brien and Kansas City’s Andy Reid leading the group. And it had the full backing of the 29 other head coaches, including the two on the NFL’s competition committee: New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin.

One veteran head coach said to the others that he’d never seen that kind of unanimous support from the full group of NFL head coaches.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie also made his plea for a sky judge in the general session at the March meeting. And a number of veteran officials gave the plan their approval, too.

What came out of these meetings in March was a half-measure — the rule that allows for offensive and defensive pass interference calls and non-calls to be subject to review. But now, especially after Monday night’s game, it’s clear to all who were involved back then, that the league still hasn’t done enough.

“Something needs to happen,” one coach said this week. “It’s bad.”

The belief that I heard at the Fall League Meeting that just wrapped up here in Florida is that all the work that the coaches put in last winter will be reprised around the time of the Senior Bowl in a few months, and potentially presented when the competition committee meets again at the combine in February.

So if you were miffed at what happened in the Packers-Lions game, just know that lots of people within the league were right there along with you. And more change might be on the way.

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We’re going to get you ready for Week 7: We’ll give you five NFL players to watch, and interesting draft names to keep an eye on in the Oregon/Washington and Penn State/Michigan showdowns set for Saturday. And we’ll answer your questions on a bunch of different topics, including …

• The Saints’ plans going forward at quarterback.

• The Bengals’ potential for a fire sale.

• The possibility (or lack thereof) of a Trent Williams trade.

• Jason Garrett’s employment status.

• Baker Mayfield’s struggles.

But we’re starting with a rundown from the league meeting, which will kick off with what led into it—another bad call marring a nationally-televised game between contenders.

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Monday night could end up costing the Lions in the long run—and anyone in Detroit will know where to point the finger. One bogus hands-to-the-face call cost the Lions defense a stop, and led to a Packers touchdown to cut a nine-point Detroit lead to two. Another almost identical call cost them a chance to get the ball back with about 90 seconds left, essentially salting the game away for Green Bay by setting up Mason Crosby to kick the game-winning field goal at the gun.

“We discussed the officiating calls from Monday with a variety of people from the league,” Lions president Rod Wood told a small group of media on Tuesday. “Obviously I’m aware of what [NFL EVP of football operations] Troy [Vincent] said yesterday, and appreciate that they acknowledged that certain calls were not made correctly. We’re going to continue to work with them to make sure officiating isn’t a problem going forward and hopefully it’s going to be improved as the season goes on.

“And I’m going to get back to Detroit and get with the team and get focused on Minnesota next week. I’m not going to get into what the conversations were about, but we had them, and they were productive, and I appreciate the league’s response.”

Wood declined to discuss specifically how the league would work to make sure officiating wouldn’t be a problem going forward, but one person involved conceded that the Madden subcommittee’s plans needed to be revisited. The sense I’ve gotten from coaches who helped craft these proposals is that they would be eager to re-introduce their ideas with the competition committee.

“I think it’s something we’ll probably look at,” says Packers president Mark Murphy, a long-time member of the competition committee. “I think you have to worry about the length of the games and how much time you’re gonna spend, and how it would work.”

Murphy raises one of the main concerns back in March—and that was why the NFL’s officiating czar Alberto Riveron stood staunchly in opposition to the sky judge when it was presented. Consistency from stadium to stadium was a potential problem that needed to be worked, along with the mechanics of such a process.

“The idea of 16 or 17 different standards being applied is always one [concern], it’s one of the reasons we’ve ultimately moved replay back to New York, it was the idea you’d have a common set of eyes,” one high-ranking NFL executive said at the fall meeting this week. “That would always need to be worked through. And then what is the authority of that individual, that needs to be worked through.”

The NFL already has a replay official up in the booth at every game. And I’m told that at the Ravens/Steelers game in Week 5, that official called down to the field and instructed the head referee Walt Anderson to drop the flag following the hit Earl Thomas deliver to the head of Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph. Of course, throwing that flag did take time—viewers didn’t see the flag on the field until after CBS came back from commercial.

The league would need to install an efficient way to govern and institute a sky judge. But there is a person in place already up in the booth—the changes that the coaches want include empowering this official.

And really, this would empower all officials. All of us sitting at home have the benefit of crystal clear high-definition footage from a dozen different angles on every single play. That the officials don’t is getting crazier by the year.

The last few weeks, and Monday night in particular, have again made it crystal clear that it’s time to give them, and the coaches and players and public, that. And because of the work this group of coaches has already done over this calendar year, the league doesn’t even have that far to go to get that done.

Some more from the league meeting…

Jerry’s show. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones commandeered a good part of the Wednesday session, with about 90 minutes devoted to his feelings on the league’s marijuana policy and the proposal for the league to make another investment in the Hall of Fame. Jones advocated more leniency on marijuana—which lead to a discussion that included Jones’ feelings that the NFL should be less heavy-handed on discipline—and for the league helping the people in Canton.

CBA update. Those here were relatively mum on the topic—and for good reason. Sources say that owners were issued a memo this fall warning about talking publicly about the labor negotiations, with fines threatened for those violating the gag order. As such, the larger group only got a bland briefing on where things stand.

But there has been more movement in the talks—one source said that the NFL is now offering the union financial inducements for going to 17 games. There had been a stalemate in which the NFL wanted more games and the same revenue split, and the union wanted a greater percentage of revenue and the same amount of games. The hope is this will move the sides closer to a deal before the end of the year. I left here think the NFL is very serious about 17 games, and not just using it as a negotiating ploy, which is largely tied to the owners’ desire to cut down the number of preseason games. It’s expected that an expanded playoff field will be part of that, as well.

The Los Angeles problem: This was another area that’s critical to the league, but wasn’t discussed much at these meetings, even with the mess of Steelers fans taking over the Chargers’ temporary home on Sunday night, fresh in everyone’s minds. How will they deal with it? The feeling of those with other teams keeping tabs on it is that the NFL is either going to have to come to a comfort level with the normalization of scenes like Sunday night for Charger games (the Rams will be fine), or they’ll have to do something with the team.

“The question is, is [Chargers owner] Dean [Spanos] O.K., with ‘Hey I’m the Clippers, they’re the Lakers,’” said one rival team exec. “It’s gotta be,’ I’m O.K., ‘I get this spectacular building and the revenue share. This is it, I’m good.’”

It’s hard to envision Spanos feeling great about what he saw the other night. But maybe the money makes it worth his while.