Criticism of officiating in the NFL is more prevalent right now than Christmas music. Every week, the public outcry pierces the ear like yet another chorus of “Jingle Bell Rock.”
The prevailing feeling was captured on video last week. As Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman exited Lincoln Financial Field, Thurman appeared to tell referee Ed Hochuli and his crew the job they did during the Bills’ game against the Philadelphia Eagles was a “disgrace to the NFL.”
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said one current player who is approaching a decade in the league. “It seems like every week there are calls dictating who wins and loses.”
Said another, more succinctly, “Man, I’m straight up tired of the refs.”
Pretty much everyone involved in the NFL in some way – from Commissioner Roger Goodell to current players and coaches, along with the media that cover teams and fans who spend their money on the product – agree the blunders have been one big black eye.
Everyone, that is, except the man in charge.
With complaints about officiating having reached a fever pitch recently, Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, did the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and singing “la la la.”
“There’s a perception now that officiating is not very good at the moment,” he said in a recent video that is distributed to media who regularly cover the league. “But the reality is that the officiating is very good.”
The problem for Blandino is nobody’s buying that, and the league even took steps this week aimed at reducing the likelihood of controversy tainting the playoffs.
“People from the outside looking in don’t understand the amount of hours and preparation that go into just a single game, and for it to be compromised in any way, other than one team beating you, it’s very frustrating,” said another current player.
When that happens, the topic naturally becomes about how – and why – so many calls are being blown.
“The league doesn’t want the conversation to be about officiating,” said Mike Pereira, the outspoken rules analyst for Fox Sports who previously served in Blandino’s role from 2004-09. “Back in the old days, they swept officiating under the carpet and wouldn’t ever comment about it. … They’d rather it be about the players and the game, but that’s not the reality anymore. Officiating has always had an impact on games, but it’s having more of an impact now than I can ever remember.”
Blandino cited statistics to make his opposing case. He said through the first 12 weeks of the season, more than 29,000 plays have taken place – about 160 per game. Officials are averaging 4.3 mistakes per game, he said, or about 2 percent of all plays.
“When you think about those numbers, 29,000 plays – the number of decisions that each official has to make during each play, before each play, after each play – that number is much more than 29,000,” he said. “We are talking about a very small number of mistakes. We are talking about a handful of plays that have happened in high-profile situations.”
Pereira agreed it might not be the volume of mistakes that have occurred, but rather when they are occurring that sparks concern.
“They’re coming in critical times of the game, whether it’s the last play or the last series,” he said.
They’re also becoming easier to spot. The advent of high-definition television has given viewers at home a front-row seat. When one of them spots an officiating error, it’s easy to simply rewind the game, pull a clip of the gaffe and share it with the world on social media.
“Times are different in that respect,” Pereira said, “but I also don’t think that you can sit back and say that things are not worse at this point this year.”
In the high-stakes world of the NFL, when all it takes is one play to impact the outcome of a game – and potentially a season – Blandino’s reasoning about “a handful of plays” sounds flawed. If Blandino’s estimate of 4.3 mistakes per game is accurate, there would be more than 1,100 officiating errors in 2015. Official statistics on how many mistakes are typical in a season are not available publicly, but whether that number is more or less in years past doesn’t really matter. What’s clear is that something needs to change.
Current players, who were granted anonymity in exchange for speaking freely, blasted the state of officiating in the league.
“Since Blandino’s been there, the officiating has gotten worse,” one said. “They’ve got to do something about it. The owners have to get together. It’s affecting too many games. Players decide the outcome of games, not referees.”
If there was a tipping point to the officiating crisis this season, it may have come during a game between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots in Week 11. In front of an audience of millions on Monday Night Football, officials made three glaring errors that the league was forced to acknowledge the following day.
• In the third quarter, an erroneous whistle was blown as Patriots QB Tom Brady scrambled toward the right sideline. Brady threw a pass to Danny Amendola, who made the catch, but the whistle was blown while the ball was in the air. Because of that, the down should have been replayed. Instead, officials awarded New England the ball at the spot where Amendola made the reception, a 14-yard gain. It was the rare play where both teams felt cheated: Amendola probably could have gained more yardage after making the catch, while the rules stated the down shouldn’t have counted at all.
• Later in the third quarter, New England snapped the ball quickly to catch the Bills offside, but Buffalo should have been given an opportunity to match the Patriots’ substitutions. New England ended up scoring on a 6-yard touchdown run.
• On the last play of the game, Bills receiver Sammy Watkins scooted out of bounds with 2 seconds remaining, but officials incorrectly wound the clock, meaning time expired. Had the clock correctly stopped, the Bills would have had enough time to attempt a Hail Mary from midfield in a game they ultimately lost, 20-13.
“Those are just awful things that have happened that reflect bad not only on the officials, but reflect bad on the league,” said Pereira, who speculated that the error on Watkins’ catch might have been caused by what he views to be one of the biggest problems with the current state of officiating.
A dearth of experience
Second-year head linesman Ed Walker incorrectly wound the clock in the Bills’ game with New England. Walker previously worked as an official in the Pac-12, and it’s been speculated that he reverted to the college rule.
“He’s been in for less than two years, it’s a pressure-packed situation, maybe he reverts back to that,” Pereira said.
An influx of new blood is a part of the problem. In the past two seasons, 23 new officials have joined the league – meaning nearly 20 percent of the workforce has turned over.
“The NFL’s not like the Big Ten or it’s not like the SEC,” Pereira said. “The NFL is quicker at every position. It’s more complex. It takes years to getting used to working at this level.”
NFL officials aren’t eligible to work a Super Bowl until they have five years of experience.
“There’s a reason for that,” Pereira said, “because it really takes that long to get fully adjusted. So I think that’s caused some of the problems.”
Pereira hypothesized that with so many green officials, their veteran counterparts have tried – and failed – to cover for them.
Another issue is the message officials are getting from above. Blandino is the third boss officials have had in the past six years, dating to Pereira’s final year and the three-year run of Carl Johnson before Blandino took over with the 2013 season.
“That’s three different sets of messages – or at least the way the messages are delivered,” Pereira said.
One of Blandino’s main priorities upon taking over was the physical fitness of his referees. There is a Catch-22 of sorts in that experience is generally viewed as the key to improvement, but with it comes the inevitable aging process.
“You have to understand you’ve got guys who are roughly in their later 50s or 60s trying to keep up with guys in their mid-20s,” one current player said. “We understand that’s not really going to happen.”
The NFL has a regional network of 92 officiating scouts who have developed a pool of 2,000 officials – mostly from high school and college – who have been evaluated and invited to apply to the NFL’s Officiating Development Program. Those who move up the ladder will be the next wave of NFL officials.
Here is just a sampling of some of the more egregious errors that have been committed this season.
• During a Week Four game between Seattle and Detroit, back judge Gregory Wilson failed to call a penalty on Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright for intentionally batting the ball out of the back of the end zone. Had the penalty been called, the Lions would have had possession inside the Seattle 1-yard line trailing by three points with less than two minutes remaining. “It’s a foul,” Blandino said of Wright’s play on NFL Network after the game. “We have to make that call.” Later in the season, Wilson was reassigned to a lower-profile game.
• During a Week Five game between Pittsburgh and San Diego, side judge Rob Vernatchi did not notice or correct a running clock after a touchdown, which ultimately resulted in the Steelers losing 18 seconds. The error, which ultimately is on the clock operator, didn’t cost the Steelers the game, but Vernatchi’s responsibility is to monitor the clock and make sure it’s correct. Because he failed to do so, the NFL suspended him for one game with pay. The website Football Zebras noted that it’s only the seventh known suspension of an NFL game official in league history.
• In Week Seven against Jacksonville, Bills cornerback Nickell Robey was called for pass interference on a third-and-15 play from the Jaguars’ 47-yard line in the fourth quarter with Buffalo leading, 31-27. Replays showed that Robey played perfect defense against Jaguars receiver Bryan Walters, but penalties are not reviewable. Two plays later, the Jaguars scored the go-ahead touchdown. Had Robey not been flagged by referee Terry McAulay’s crew, the Jaguars would have been forced to convert fourth and 15. Robey said afterward officials informed him the flag for pass interference should not have been thrown.
• During a Week 10 game between Jacksonville and Baltimore, referee Pete Morelli’s crew missed a false start against the Jaguars that should have resulted in a 10-second runoff of the clock that would have ended the game. Instead, the play took place, and Ravens pass rusher Elvis Dumervil was called for a personal foul that allowed Jacksonville to move into range for a game-winning field goal.
• In a Week 12 game between Oakland and Tennessee, referee Jeff Triplette’s crew missed three calls on the deciding touchdown for the Raiders, according to Titans interim coach Mike Mularkey. A false start against Oakland receiver Michael Crabtree wasn’t called, an offensive pass interference in the end zone on tight end Andre Holmes was missed and the defensive pass interference that was whistled against Titans cornerback B.W. Webb shouldn’t have been called.
• Also in Week 12, Morelli’s crew mistakenly took a down away from the Arizona Cardinals when assessing a penalty against the San Francisco 49ers. Morelli spent nearly four painful minutes communicating with the league’s command center in New York trying to straighten things out.
“The officials were struggling,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “Mightily. They can’t count to three.”
It wasn’t only the Cardinals who had a problem with the officiating. San Francisco center Alex Boone said “those refs sucked” after a game in which the 49ers were penalized 13 times, while the Cardinals had seven flags.
The league apparently agreed – reassigning Morelli off a Sunday Night Football game the following week, the third time the NFL responded with some sort of punishment for officiating errors.
“Now those have been mistakes,” Blandino said. “We own them. We have to make the corrections, the adjustments to ensure that they don’t happen again.”
So what can be done to prevent it?
The great debate
Officials in the NFL are divided into 17 seven-person crews, with three additional “swing” officials who rotate among those crews, for a total of 122.
All but one of them work on a part-time basis. The only full-time official, Johnson, serves as a line judge on referee Clete Blakeman’s crew.
Naturally, whenever there is an issue with the officiating, the debate begins anew as to whether the job should become full time.
“Ten years ago, if you’d have ever told me that someday I would think the notion of full time was a good one, I’d have probably jumped off the 15th floor of the Park Avenue building that the NFL is housed in,” Pereira said. “But I’ve changed.”
Pereira would like to see at least the referees become full time.
“The most important people in officiating, in my mind, are the 17 referees,” he said. “They carry the perception of the whole entire staff. They’re the ones that are on camera. They are the leaders of their individual crews, and they are supposedly your best. I do think those 17, it’s time to take that step. It’s time to make those guys full time.
“And I mean full time. Not sitting at home, sitting on their tushes, watching video. There needs to be an officiating institute, an officiating office some place in the middle of the country, and after every game they don’t go home, they go there. And they work together and they’re involved in every aspect of officiating.”
As part of the eight-year agreement signed by the NFL Referees Association and the league in 2012, officials can be hired on a full-time basis to work year-round. The sticking point, according to NFLRA Executive Director Jim Quirk, is that officials would be at-will employees, meaning they could be fired “if they don’t like the way they comb their hair.
“The officials are members of a union and you can’t do that to a union member,” Quirk said recently in an interview with USA Today. “You can’t terminate them unless you have adequate substantiated cause.”
If the NFL changes its stance, Quirk said the NFLRA would be “very happy to start negotiations tomorrow for full-time employees.”
Speaking last month before a game between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers, Goodell said the league believes making officials full time “at least on a limited basis … could be very much a positive for officials, our clubs, obviously our fans.”
As part of the collective-bargaining agreement, officials will see their yearly average salary climb to more than $200,000 by the 2019 season. That’s competitive pay by any measure, but it might not be enough to entice officials to leave their weekly full-time positions. Ed Hochuli, for example, is an attorney in the Baltimore area. Morelli is a high school president.
It’s possible the more experienced officials with high-paying jobs may balk at joining the NFL full time.
“Don’t tell me that you’re going to get guys that don’t want to do this, so you might lose a couple referees.” Pereira said. “I say that’s fine. Tell them to go back to their old position, and bring in others to work full time.
“Getting consistent messages by these 17 guys and having them be your focal point, and having them go back to their crews and deliver strong, consistent messages I think is a good, positive step that’s really only going to cost money.”
The league is considering a shuffling of officiating crews in an effort to get more consistency.
“We see there is a range from high to low as far as the number of fouls that are called by crew,” Goodell said. “What can we do to try to make sure that it’s done consistently and there shouldn’t be as much of a range?”
Peirera was adamant that shuffling officials between crews is not the solution.
“I mean, that’s not going to help,” he said, adding that the reasoning as to why officials are not yet full time sounds hollow. “Don’t tell me problems with the union, don’t tell me money. If you’re telling me that those are your road blocks, then you’re telling me that you don’t really want to do it.
“If you want to try something to really make positive change, that’s the big step you need to take. Not, ‘Well, let’s mix up the crews halfway through the season.’ ”
The fact officials work part time is not lost on players.
“He might be having a bad week at his other job,” one said. “I don’t know. If he’s full time, at least I’d know he’s tuned into what’s going on on the field.”
“This is our livelihood. This is all we do,” another said. “We’re in this – coaches, players, – are in this every single day, and you have these guys who work other jobs who come in and do this part time, and mess it up? It’s atrocious.”
That same player believes making officials full time is the best solution.
“The rule book is too big. It’s so complex, and every year they’re changing it,” he said. “We have a competition committee that makes points of emphasis, you come in the preseason and the early part of the season and these guys are just throwing an insane amount of flags on these points of emphasis. I think the only way to change that is have a system where you have referees that are working and training year round with teams and amongst themselves to work to give us more even officiating.”
A tough read
Technically, the 2015 Official Playing Rules of the National Football League lists 18 rules. But it takes 80 pages to explain them all.
“It’s just very uneven,” another current player said. “The rule book is way too complex. These guys aren’t full time. These guys are part-time officials and there are too many judgment calls. There’s too much up for interpretation, and from crew to crew it’s uneven, and you see it.”
To Blandino’s credit, he recognizes the need to streamline the rule book – as anyone who has tried to wrap their head around what constitutes a catch can certainly understand.
To that end, the league last week announced a new six-member committee that will work to improve that rule. Former Bills General Manager Bill Polian is on the committee, as is former Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, along with former Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt, ex-Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, former Redskins receiver James Thrash and former side judge Tom Finken.
They will make a recommendation to the competition committee on how to clarify the catch rule.
Of course, rewriting the rule book will also bring about its own issues as officials familiarize themselves with the new guidelines.
“The rulebook has evolved over the years as the game has evolved,” Blandino said on NFL Network after the Bills’ game in New England. “But we are certainly looking to simplify things whenever we can and whenever a rule change is put in, you always have to take into consideration the officials and can this rule be officiated consistently and accurately?”
Generally speaking, players can accept that human error is a part of officiating. When it comes to penalties like pass interference and holding, what meets the threshold for an infraction in the eyes of one official may not for another.
“We scout ’em,” one current player said. “We know what they’re throwing the flag on. ‘All right, hey, they’re not calling holding? Wrap ’em up.’ Yeah, it’s very uneven from crew to crew.
“Things happen so fast on the field and within the flow of the game. These guys have to make a quick decision. It’s easy to sit back and watch it on TV and get 20 different replays at very slow angles. These guys see it once, they make a decision, and they go with it. And more times than not this year, I think it’s magnified that they’re making a lot of mistakes, and it’s affecting a lot of games.”
When that happens, there has to be more accountability, a current player said.
“There are such huge implications with these calls that it’s not OK for them just to say ‘We messed up.’ ”
In an effort to make sure that doesn’t happen, the league announced Wednesday that officials will be permitted to communicate with Blandino directly during the playoffs in regards to the correct application of rules in situations not currently covered by instant replay.
From the NFL’s officiating headquarters in New York, Blandino will be able to consult on the appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, the proper administration of the game clock and the correct down, along with other administrative matters that are not reviewable.
“The committee feels strongly that giving the referee and Dean the ability to consult with each other in certain situations beyond instant replay will further support officiating in the playoffs,” NFL Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay said. “The officials do a very difficult job exceedingly well, and we think this adjustment in the playoffs will make them even better.”