Earning their stripes

So there we are. Another NFL season is in the books (well done Denver!).


Whilst the ever-evolving hierarchy of the League continues its fluid journey year on year (did anyone really expect the Redskins to make the Play-Offs, or the Cowboys to prop up the same division back in July?), some things seemingly remain constant.

The Patriots will still be playing in January.

The Rams will finish the season 7-9.

The officiating will come under severe scrutiny.


Whilst all of these were again true for the 2015 season, the latter of the three was perhaps the one to create the most “noise” this time around.


Several times throughout the regular season (and beyond) the officiating crews were taken to task by analysts both of the professional and couch variety for errors in judgment or flat out mistakes that, in some cases, had a definitive input in to the outcome of certain games. The former used their television and radio platforms to pour over the incorrect decisions ad infinitum, the latter taking to social media in ‘real time’ to express displeasure at the zebras’ apparent lack of ability to govern the on field play accurately.


So was 2015 the worst year the NFL has ever seen in terms of officiating, or was it simply a case of the dissenting voices shouting louder than ever? Personally, I think the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.


There can be no doubt (or counter argument) that officiating crews made some terrible calls during the course of the season.


In Week 4, Seattle’s terrible start to the season could have been further compounded with a correct call by the back judge when KJ Wright batted a Lions fumble out of the endzone with Detroit trailing by 3. The Lions should have been awarded an illegal bat penalty and given the ball on the Seattle 1 yard line with a fresh set of downs. As it was, the back judge called it a touchback and Seattle got the ball at their 20 and ran the clock out for the win.


Week 11 saw the Bills/Patriots encounter not only suffer from an ‘inadvertent whistle’ on a potential 70 yard TD pass from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola, but also poor clock management by the officials when Sammy Watkins ran out of bounds with two seconds left in the game. It should have stopped the clock and allowed the Bills one final shot at the tying score (albeit via what would have been a Hail Mary from the Patriots’ 47 yard line), but the side judge incorrectly allowed the clock to run having deemed Watkins to have given himself up and time expired before the Bills could get to the line for the final play.


However perhaps the worst (and most tangible) instance of an officiating faux pas that decided a game came in Week 10. The Jaguars were trailing the Ravens by one with under 10 seconds left in the game. A quick play and subsequent rush to the line saw a false start prior to the snap that ultimately went uncalled. What should have been a 5-yard penalty and 10 second run off on the game clock (thus ending the game) was allowed to play out and the Ravens were called for a facemask penalty on the resultant play. This gave the Jaguars one final open-ended play (because you can’t end a game on a defensive penalty) which they grabbed with both hands and kicked the winning field goal having had the ball advanced 15 yards by the officials.


None of these were particularly ground breaking errors by the officiating crews on duty that day, however significant they may have been in the course of the games in question, nor were they anything new in reality – you only have to look back through the archives of sports pages to see similar grumblings of discontent with referees and their crews from years gone by:


“It is hard to remember a season that produced such a rampant display of human

fallibility as has been revealed – on television, always on television – by the officiating

crews of the NFL.” – Sports Illustrated, 1978


“Criticism of NFL officials has seldom been as vociferous as it has been this season.” – USA Today, 1998


Even after the tumultuous events of 2012, when the NFL and NFLRA’s failure to reach agreement on several matters (including retirement benefits for officials) saw a month’s worth of games officiated by short notice replacements, the regular crews’ eventual return was met with apparent derision by the mainstream media:


“Regular officials are back, and so are complaints.” – New York Times, 2012


The problem comes from, I believe, not only the rise in the quality of the TV coverage and the sheer number of platforms available for the ‘Average Joe’ to have his opinion heard when he believes things to have gone South, but also the rules themselves.


Every play, movement and decision on the football field is available to professional (and not-so professional) analysts via a multitude of cameras and angles to be watched, rewound, watched again, and then played one more time in super slow-motion for them to declare where the failings were or why it should have been ruled a catch rather than an incompletion. Officials get to see it once, in real time, and have to call it there and then.


The endless replays also allow for the Joes to take to Twitter, Facebook, football forums etc. and declare it to be the worst refereeing decision they’ve ever seen in the history of watching football and have their opinion validated with endless re-tweets or replies from fellow disgruntled fans.


Of course, replays are also available in the modern game for officials, but the criteria by which plays are allowed to be reviewed under the hood are relatively strict. As such, the majority of the time crews get that one look at a play and at real time speed from just the one angle. Inevitably, perhaps, they aren’t always going to see everything their critics will as a result. This, of course, doesn’t absolve them of blame for errors relating to the basic rules of the game (see Week 10 above for that) but it does go some way I think to explain why they are seemingly making so many “errors”.


I think it’s also worth remembering one very important matter at this juncture – referees and their compatriots are not full time employees of the NFL.


Almost all of the 120+ men (and one woman) that don the stripes on a Sunday also have ‘regular’ jobs to provide additional income, despite the average salary for an NFL referee being around $180,000 a season. Only one official – Carl Johnson – is currently a full time employee of the National Football League. One.


As such, the people on the field to enforce the rules do so without being fully immersed in the game year round. Of course, there are many many hours spent being evaluated by the League and preparing for games (rules exist that govern when officials should travel to games and how many hours preparation they must conduct) as well as endless hours of study of the rule book and any variations for the coming year but the officials are, essentially, part time employees.


Some have suggested that, even if the NFL did decide to move toward full time officiating crews, many would baulk at the idea of going full time, and indeed the CBA itself dictates that a maximum of 17 game officials can be hired on a full time basis by the NFL (unless otherwise sanctioned by the NFLRA). That agreement is set to expire at the end of the 2020 season, and you have to suspect that particular clause will be looked at very closely by both parties before renewing.


Were that to happen and the League moved to full time crews, I’d question whether the rule book allows for a clear and definitive understanding of each and every scenario come gameday anyway, as mentioned earlier. Does anyone really fully understand the catch rule? At which precise point a player transitions from receiver to runner? I know it’s something we’ve debated many times this season alone at GentsHQ.


I understand the NFL wants to allow officials to have the benefit of being allowed to use their own judgment during the game, and that the language used in the rule book is such that this is permitted, nee actively encouraged, but there has to be mileage in revisiting it to allow for clearer, simpler guidelines for the officials. It’s clearly too ambiguous as it stands in my opinion.


Of course, the examples I cited earlier are all of a procedural nature (except perhaps that of Sammy Watkins’ play) but I think the additional noise of disagreement with those calls that result from individual interpretation only serves to compound these errors. Given a six man League committee are set to review the now infamous “catch rule” and its associated sub-text this off-season it would seem the NFL are, at least partially, in agreement with that opinion. Indeed, current Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino has previously expressed a desire to try and ‘simplify’ the rule book for his officiating crews.


Blandino also claimed just after the midway point of the 2015 season that crews were being assessed to have made an average of 4.3 mistakes a game to that point, in line with numbers from the last 15 years or so, which would suggest that the officiating itself isn’t actually any worse than in previous times.


It’s clear to me that he’s blatantly aware of the need to try and improve that however and his expressed desire to review the rule book as well as an apparent willingness to change procedures during the season to try and assist his crews (systems were introduced for the Play-Offs this year that allowed for increased communication between officials and HQ in New York during games), lend themselves to the possibility of the job being made a little bit easier for the men in stripes moving forwards, which can only be a good thing in my opinion.


Whether the future holds a scenario whereby the status quo is maintained given the officiating is seemingly no worse than previously, or continued advances in technology and/or modifications to the existing rules are used in an attempt to simplify things for officials remains unclear. Either way, love them or hate them, officiating “mistakes” are as much a part of the game today as they have always been, and likely will be for some time to come I think.


The bottom line for me is they play a small, albeit not totally insignificant, part in the nuances of the game we all love over the course of a season and the dissenting voices shouldn’t be allowed to cloud the fact that the men in stripes are, after all, only human.


What do you think? Has the officiating gotten noticeably worse in your opinion? Is that down to the officials, or the rules? Or do you think Dean Blandino has it about right? Let us know on Twitter, either @GridironGents or @headedforhades!