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Inside the NFL: It's time for full-time officials

I used to oppose the idea of the NFL hiring full-time officials.

I don’t anymore.

The league has no choice but to take the most drastic measures possible to bring some level of credibility back to an aspect of its game that is rapidly trending toward a joke.

What happened in those ugly closing seconds of the first half in Seattle Monday night – a sequence of extreme officiating incompetence beyond what even long-time league observers (this one included) had previously witnessed – can’t be allowed to happen again.

Walt Anderson is the veteran referee who oversaw the debacle that was:

  • Seattle’s Richard Sherman not being penalized for unnecessary roughness for his blatant hit to the leg of Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter,
  • an umpire standing over the ball long enough to cause the Bills to draw a delay-of-game penalty, and
  • the teams heading to the locker room before the half actually ended.

Anderson is a retired dentist.

He has a history of being good at his part-time job with the NFL, but the fact being a referee at the highest level of the game is effectively something that keeps him busy on weekends in retirement only makes the bungling in CenturyLink Field that much harder to fathom.

You have officials who are lawyers, dairy farmers and school administrators. Others double dip in other sports; Gene Steratore is an NCAA basketball ref. They arrive the day before each game. They leave no later than the day after. They’ll usually gather at their hotel for a meeting on the eve of the game and breakfast the next morning before they head to the stadium.

I used to buy the notion the NFL wanted the zebras to be well established in other lines of work and upstanding citizens in their communities, while drawing an extra salary from the league, because it reduced the possibility of taking a chance on throwing it all away by accepting bribes to fix games. But the NFL is more than capable of managing those issues with the help of its security force, which it could easily expand if necessary.

Would the league potentially lose experienced officials who don’t want to give up the greater income and security of their full-time gigs to let their entire livelihood ride on something that puts them under greater scrutiny and at more risk to be fired? Probably, but so what?

Cultivate a new crop of officials with a salary structure that works within the parameters of the current entry level of about $78,000 and the 20-year high end of $200,000-plus. And let them literally earn their stripes, season-to-season and even week-to-week, the way players and coaches (whose livelihoods are greatly impacted by officials’ calls and non-calls) do.

I’ve heard the argument that, unlike practicing for players and game-planning and teaching for coaches, officials wouldn’t have anything to do between games. I would counter that they could be immersed in studying rules and points of emphasis and the many nuances of judgment (What is a catch? What is pass interference? How do you differentiate between roughing the kicker and unnecessary roughness?) within them.

Every official could be on a rotating assignment of offseason, training-camp and regular-season practices. Even if the tempo and level of contact aren’t the same, just being in the environment, around players and coaches, would help provide a stronger connection to what they’re officiating than just showing up Sunday. It would be a valuable education for all parties, but especially those responsible for maintaining football law and order.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t like the idea of full-time officials. He also doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the state of officiating.

I think commissioner is in a state of denial.

“As you see, there are officiating mistakes in other leagues and they’re full time officials,” Goodell said during a New York Times conference Thursday. “I don’t think that’s going to eliminate the human element. What we want to do is get the best people on the field to officiate the game to the highest levels. Our officials work incredibly hard and the reality is they do a great job.

“But they’re going to miss calls. So what we try to do is have replay available to try to address those issues. But then you have an issue that you have to balance, and we call it the unintended consequences. How much replay do you want to have? Because it can slow the game down to a halt.”

Goodell and other league executives are sensitive about the pace of games, recognizing that it’s a factor in the alarming decline of television ratings. The longer games take to play, the less the chances of the audience sticking with them, something the NFL says is more the problem than people simply tuning out.

“If you can challenge every play, we’re going to spend more of our time watching video,” Goodell said. “We replay all scoring plays and I get this reaction from fans quite a bit, and (TV) partners. A touchdown play, everybody’s focused on it, it’s a great play, it’s a great time to celebrate, but we’re not sure if it’s really a touchdown yet so it takes the celebration out of it. So you have to find that balance in there where you use technology to improve officiating.”

Technology can enhance officiating. Improving it requires having the best and most invested officials the NFL can employ.

Don’t be surprised if …

… The New Orleans Saints have a huge rushing performance against the Denver Broncos Sunday. The Saints have run for 371 yards in the last two games. Tim Hightower had 189 yards in Week Eight, while Mark Ingram followed with 158 yards in Week Nine. In their last two games, the Broncos have allowed 341 yards, including 218 by the Oakland Raiders last Sunday night.

… The San Diego Chargers, who have won three of their last four games, keep surging through the final seven games on their schedule. Despite being 4-5, they’ve outscored their opponents by 21 points. That’s only one point fewer than the Oakland Raiders, who sit alone atop the AFC West at 7-2, have outscored their opposition.

… Philadelphia Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who has attempted 90 passes the past two games, will operate a game plan calling for fewer throws against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. Eagles coach Doug Pederson is convinced his team can run the ball better and have a more balanced attack, similar to the offensive philosophy of the Falcons.

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