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?
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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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

WEEKEND WATCH LIST

Cowboys WR Amari Cooper: His thigh bruise has put his status for Sunday in question—and his presence (or lack thereof) will be a factor in a big, big NFC East game against the Eagles. Last week, Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen provided a roadmap for how to exploit Philadelphia’s biggest weakness: at corner. And Cooper’s availability should help determine whether Dallas can follow that beaten path.

Broncos CB Chris Harris: A core piece of Denver’s best teams of the last decade, the 30-year-old Harris has 10 games left on his contract, which makes him a target for teams looking for corner help ahead of the Oct. 29 trade deadline. On Thursday, we’ll see him against Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and (maybe) Sammy Watkins—and the result of the game could play into whether John Elway makes him available. Lots of moving parts here.

Saints DT Sheldon Rankins: Kyle Long is out for the season with a hip injury, and Rankins is still making his way back from his Achilles injury (he played 28 snaps against the Jaguars). This seems like a good spot for the big man to assert himself, especially with Chicago’s quarterback situation still in flux.

Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner: Wagner spied Kyler Murray when Seattle played Arizona in Week 4, and he effectively controlled the rookie’s impact. Murray rushed for just 27 yards on four carries, and the Cardinals didn’t get into the end zone until the fourth quarter, when the Seahawks were easily controlling the game. It stands to reason that Seattle will use a similar strategy to keep Lamar Jackson contained, which puts Wagner back in the spotlight.

Titans QB Ryan Tannehill: Sunday’s matchup between the Titans and the Chargers isn’t going to mathematically eliminate anyone from the AFC race, but the loser, who will fall to 2-5, will likely have to go at least 7-2 for the remainder of the season to get in the playoffs. With that at stake, Tennessee named Tannehill the starting quarterback. The move is fair, because Marcus Mariota had looked lost. Can Tannehill do better?

KJ Hamler

TWO FOR SATURDAY

Penn State WR KJ Hamler (vs. Michigan, ABC, 7:30 p.m.): A human stick of dynamite, Hamler is, more often than not, the fastest player on the field. Against his home state Wolverines, there’s a good chance the Nittany Lions feature him prominently to make Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown pay for his aggressive approach. 

NFL teams are excited to check that out. “He’s that real sh--,” said one AFC scout. “Fast and explosive, instinctive and dynamic with the ball in his hands as a receiver, runner and returner. More than just a gadget guy too. Good route runner with good hands and good ball skills. Obvious comp to Tyreek Hill, and he’s got a little DeSean [Jackson] to him too.”

The redshirt sophomore is a true burner who’s crafty enough to play out of the slot and create enormous matchup issues for a defense—just the kind of prospect over which NFL offenses, in this spread era, are salivating. You can bet Brown is spending long hours this week trying to figure out how to deal with him. Even though he’s on the smaller side (5' 9", 176 pounds), some team will be excited to add him to their equation in April—possibly with a first-round pick.

Oregon QB Justin Herbert (at Washington, ABC, 3:30 p.m.): At the start of the season, it was Tua Tagovailoa vs. Herbert to go first overall in the 2020 NFL draft, and maybe it still is (Although Ohio State DE Chase Young might be the best prospect). But it does feel like there’s ground for Herbert to make up, and playing against a good Washington team gives him the chance to do that. That said, Herbert’s ability isn’t hard to spot. 

“Big and talented—I mean don’t you think everyone sees that?” one AFC exec said. “He’s 6' 6", 240 pounds, he can throw it a mile, he can run. I’d doubt anyone doesn’t see how talented he is. ... If he checks out mentally, has some swagger and confidence, then he’ll have a chance. And everyone will spend time with him postseason and make that determination. But regarding talent – arm strength, all that stuff, he has it all.” 

His numbers thus far have been great in 2019. His completion percentage is up to 69.1. His TD-INT ratio is a sparkling 17-1. His team is 5-1, and he had the one team the Ducks lost to, Auburn, beat Oregon when he left the field for the final time. But so far, most would say he’s been good, not great, and there is criticism that remains (he’s raw, footwork needs work, etc.). This is a chance for him to pop.

MAIL TIME!

From John Miller (@John_Miller477): What’s the long-term QB plan for the Saints? Bridgewater? Or are they looking to draft someone in the next year or two?

John, all options are open for the Saints. Let’s start with Drew Brees, who’s obviously central to all of this. He’s not under contract for 2020, nor has he made up his mind on what he’ll be doing then.

“I’m just gonna take it one year at a time,” he said when we spoke this summer about his future. “I feel like I can play a lot longer. But we’ll see. I just don’t want to take it for granted, I know it’s not gonna last forever so I just wanna enjoy the moment while it’s here.”

If Brees is out, maybe Teddy Bridgewater gets a shot at it in 2020. Maybe they let Taysom Hill gets a swing. I would not rule out a rookie, either. It was notable to me that the Saints were among the teams to staff Oregon QB Justin Herbert’s game last weekend against Colorado. And it’s my sense that New Orleans is putting resources into studying last year’s quarterback class. It’s not the first time, either—the team loved Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and Baker Mayfield in ’18. They just weren’t quite in position to take either of them. We’ll see what happens in 2020.

From JL (@OH_jtl_IO): Are Mike Brown and the Bengals going to make any trades to acquire more picks to rebuild?

JL, Brown’s history is not to conduct firesales in face of losing. Cincinnati has had down years like this in the past, and he resisted the urge to deal off parts. That’s not to say they don’t have valuable pieces. Plenty of contenders would bid on an A.J. Green or Geno Atkins or Carlos Dunlap.

Which brings us to the second part of this—there’s a desire to help Zac Taylor lay a foundation for the future over the back half of the team’s schedule. The Bengals brass believes in its 36-year-old leader, and they want to make sure he has the pieces to move his program forward over the next two months, and give the players some tangible results to work off of going forward carries some value.

So I don’t see any seismic trades here, unless Brown and scouting chief Duke Tobin are blown away (like they were by the Raiders offer for Carson Palmer in 2011). But maybe they surprise me.

From Biggest Browns Fan in Pennsylvania (@BrownsFan1125): Trent Williams to Browns rumors—true?

In a word, no. The Browns have asked, and they’re not the only ones. The Redskins’ steadfast resistance against moving Williams seems, at this point, to be more of a matter of principle than anything else, because there’s plenty of good logic supporting the idea of selling a premier left tackle on the outs in an offensive line-hungry league.

But inquiring teams haven’t been met with a hard no. The asking price isn’t high for Williams right now—there’s simply no asking price.

Could that change between now and the trade deadline, a week from Tuesday? Sure. But Washington has Williams under contract for 2020, so if they want to prove a point, they can keep him on ice for the rest of the year, make him decide whether or not he wants to get credit for the year (or have his contract toll, which would mean he wouldn’t be up until after 2021), and then potentially trade him this offseason.

From Ry (@Ryguy0501): Will the Cowboys fire Jason Garrett during the bye if the team loses at home vs. the Eagles?

Ry, I don’t think so, even though you could very easily make Rod Marinelli or Kris Richard (either is capable) the interim coach if you needed to. The Jones family is deeply invested in Garrett—remember, this is the backup quarterback they let into game-planning meetings in the late 1990s to prepare him for a coaching career—and I think they give him every chance to make it work before pulling the plug on him.

And because his contract is up after this year, the writing will likely be on the wall on his future either way, so it’s not like they’d need to send a preemptive signal to anyone who’d be among their top targets (hello, Lincoln Riley) before the end of the season.

From Sam (@papacohen2000): What is the problem with Baker this year?

Sam, I expected more improvement from Baker Mayfield, so he’s certainly accountable for some of the problem. But there are environmental things that are part of it too. There was a coaching change, and structural staff changes. There’s a new No. 1 receiver. And the most impactful problem—there’s a serious offensive line issue.

Based on how he finished in 2018, it was fair to wonder if he’d have the kind of Year 2 breakthrough that Carson Wentz or Patrick Mahomes had. And what too many of us didn’t put enough stock in was right there for us with the line. Wentz had Jason Peters, Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce and Brandon Brooks in front of him, Mahomes had Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, Mitch Morse and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.

As it turns out, that really counted for Mahomes and Wentz. And not having that kind of infrastructure in big men has cost Mayfield.

From Chad (@chadrstoe): Coach of the year leader right now?

Chad, give me Sean Payton. He lost his quarterback but has made it work with Teddy Bridgewater, and he’s found different ways to win games. The Saints are 4-0 since Brees went down, and will be stronger when he comes back for having gone through this.

I’d also consider Carolina’s Ron Rivera for a similar reason—winning with a backup quarterback. I love what Frank Reich has done in his second year, and how he’s handled the sudden advent of the Post-Andrew Luck Era in Indianapolis. O’Brien deserves credit for the strides Deshaun Watson’s making, and how the offensive line has reinvented itself. The job Kyle Shanahan has done in San Francisco is obvious.

Then there’s Bill Belichick. Giving him this award is like giving Michael Jordan the NBA MVP award in the 1990s—you could give it to him any year, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but he doesn’t often get it, because that’d be boring (I guess). He’s still the best coach in football.

From James Hein (@jhein23): Do you see any WR being traded before the deadline?

James, two names of interest I have for you—Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders and Atlanta’s Mohamed Sanu. Both teams are on the ropes and maybe a loss or two from considering what it might be able to get in return for older vets. Both players are in their 30s, and still very serviceable. Sanders’s contract is up after this year, Sanu’s after next year.

Outside of those two, keep an eye on the Jets’ Robby Anderson. He’s a legit deep threat and is up after this year, and would be expensive for New York to keep. I don’t think GM Joe Douglas would aggressively look to move him. But the Jets need draft capital, so I don’t doubt they’d listen.

One more name: Miami’s DeVante Parker, the former first-rounder who’s been on the trade block in the past, has had a nice year with the Dolphins’ new coaching staff.

From Dom (@dom_q94): Why all the sh-- calls from the refs?

Dom, we covered a bunch of officiating stuff at the top of the column. The one thing that I’d leave you with here—I don’t think all of the trouble officials have had falls at the feet of the individual officials. I think the league has blood on its hands here too.

If you ever see an NFL game at field level, you know it’s a freaking blur. I don’t know how any overseeing the action, coaches or officials, makes heads or tails of what they’re seeing from that vantage point. Which means that to do it, you have to train your eyes to see it efficiently, and to look for certain things. Now, with that in mind, can you imagine having that as the foundation for what you do, and then having to deal with, say, a dozen or so changes annually?

To me, that’s a huge part of the problem. The league is so reactionary, that every year there are new rules, and points of emphasis, Throw in the health-and-safety changes that keep coming, and these guys are looking for different things each year, and doing it while the game gets faster and faster. It’s hard. That’s another reason why I think it’s asinine that the NFL isn’t using the technology available more aggressively.

From Abdullah Ahmed (@Abdullah12): Who are some under the radar players who could be on the move by the trade deadline?

Abdullah, we’ll do more on this as the deadline gets closer. But as I’ve said, Atlanta and Denver are two teams that have talented guys in contract years, and have hit hard times, so it makes sense to look at names like DeVondre Campbell, Vic Beasley and Austin Hooper with the Falcons, and Sanders, Chris Harris and Adam Gostis with the Broncos as trade targets.

From J. Ryan Caldwell (@YPG_CEO): Are they planning on discussing the issues with the Chargers in L.A.?

From George Kalamaras (@GDKalamaras): When will the Chargers move back to San Diego?

As we said, this is a problem that’s not going away. The shame is, George, the NFL really like San Diego as a market. And many believe that they should’ve focused on the Mission Valley site with San Diego State rather than chasing the dream of the ritzier downtown project. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed, and it’s hard to imagine the NFL winding up back there unless it’s with a deep-pocketed new owner privately financing a new stadium there.

But I can say that I’m all for the NFL going back there. And I know I have company on that.

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