Can the NFL fix its officiating problem?
It's November, which can only mean the NFL has an officiating problem on its hands.
"I've been around officiating a long time," former league officiating director and current Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino told theScore. "There's always something."
That something seems to be more acute this season. The league is cracking down on taunting, of all things, even when it's penny-ante stuff like this:
Meanwhile, the enforcement of roughing the passer has been cartoonishly haphazard. A sampling:
"We've seen it happen each weekend with the officiating," New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton told the "Dan Patrick Show" on Thursday. "That's the hardest thing to get past - when they're not up to speed."
Payton's Saints had a red-zone interception taken away last Sunday against the Tennessee Titans because of a roughing the passer penalty that shouldn't have been flagged:
The Titans wound up scoring a touchdown on that second-quarter possession and went on to beat Payton's Saints by two points.
Payton recently left the NFL's competition committee - the group that literally makes the rules - for reasons he declined to explain. In his conversation with Patrick, he suggested there's a systemic problem within the officiating ranks.
"Those kinds of things can't happen," Payton added. "I look at that more from an overall leadership perspective and training perspective. Those problems start at the top, not at the individual crews. Somehow, we've got to reduce the variables."
The NFL is a multi-billion-dollar business that now embraces gambling - factors that create obvious tension when game outcomes are decided by inconsistent officiating.
"Don't you want to say to the betting public, 'We're taking this seriously?'" Patrick wondered.
"We have to," Payton replied. "We have to improve. We have to. And, look, everyone watching and participating and involved in it deserves better."
There will always be bad calls, of course, and the NFL has created a number of problems for itself over the years by overlegislating many of its rules in a futile effort to perfect an imperfect process.
Officials are charged with interpreting this complexity by monitoring the entropy of 22 players crashing into each other in countless ways while making decisions in real time without the benefit of frame-by-frame replays from multiple angles. And nearly every attempt at a fix has resulted in unforeseen consequences that create a groundswell for some new fix.
"Obviously, there's not a single solution or else they would have done it already," Ben Austro, an officiating expert and the founder and editor of website Football Zebras, told theScore.
Payton is correct to say there are deep-seated problems within the officiating department - issues that range from a recent wave of turnover in personnel to a limited pipeline and training ground for new officials to constant leadership changes in the league office. But his proposed solution to have officials work full time isn't feasible.
For one thing, unlike in the NBA, MLB, and NHL, NFL games are played only once a week, and the league's offseason is longer than those other sports. The NFL also lacks a minor league that can serve as a proving ground for potential officiating candidates. The league primarily draws new hires from the Power 5 college conferences, according to Austro.
Those officials at the college level are also part-timers who have other full-time jobs. And those full-time jobs are often lucrative - one ex-referee, Ed Hochuli, is a partner at a law firm, while another, Mike Carey, runs a successful ski apparel business. Austro suggested that if officials had to give up their main gigs to work full time for the NFL, some might be inclined to stay at the college level, which could further restrict the talent pool.
Most officials also have the financial means to be able to climb the ranks in the first place. The officiating clinics, where a lot of networking takes place, tend to be expensive affairs, according to Austro, so it helps to have a lucrative full-time job and the flexibility to fly around the country. There's also still something of an old-boys club to the NFL's officiating ranks, and nepotism remains a factor (as it is in many other professions).
"Somebody who just doesn't have a strong network but is a fantastic official can get lost in the weeds," Austro said. "They've broken it up a little bit, but it's still there. There's got to be a better way to get some of the better officials up through the pipeline."
The college ranks have a consortium led by Big Ten officiating director Bill Carollo that allows several major conferences to share resources, Austro added, but not every conference is part of it. The pipeline is mostly a patchwork, and the NFL really only has the Senior Bowl, the Shrine Bowl, and perhaps a preseason game or two to get a look at a potential candidate.
"It's just not enough to see if someone's up to the NFL level," Austro said. "They need to really get the resources into going down a few levels and picking those officials. It's not easy, but if anybody's got the resources it's a multi-billion dollar international company with brand-name recognition."
Austro thinks the old NFL Europe and defunct World League presented the NFL with great opportunities to groom officials for the big time. He also said the AAF and XFL likewise could have served the same purpose and that the NFL missed a huge opportunity by not doing more to salvage one or both of those leagues after the pandemic accelerated their demise.
Why does this matter? Austro shared data showing that 33 of the league's 121 officials - roughly 27% - have been on the job for less than five years. Typically, according to Austro, it takes three-to-five years for officials to develop fully - it's one of the reasons every official has to have five years' experience to be eligible to work the Super Bowl.
"There's no replacement for experience," Blandino told theScore.
In the last decade or so, the NFL has cycled through numerous leadership changes at the top of the officiating department, from Mike Pereira to Blandino to Alberto Riveron to the current dual-role split between Walt Anderson and Perry Fewell.
Anderson, a former official in the league from 1996-2019, does the direct work with officials on performance and replay; Fewell, a longtime coach, handles the administration and deals with teams.
This constant change at the top can create additional problems.
"The rules are the same and the philosophies, for the most part, are the same, but teaching styles and communication styles and management styles change, so there’s an adjustment there," Blandino said.
Though roughing the passer penalties dipped slightly in 2020, they have been trending upward in recent years. This season, roughing the passer calls are on pace to be flagged 157 times.
"It feels like more often than not we're getting two or three calls a week that, quite frankly, they're not fouls," Blandino said. "They're big hits. It's not like it's a complete phantom call where there's nothing that could be roughing the passer."
Ironically, the roughing the passer rule has evolved into something very specific after long having been a judgment call. It's an infraction if passers are hit at or below the knees or in the head/neck area, or if the defender falls on the passer with his body weight.
None of that applied on the call that went against the Saints last week, which leads Blandino to wonder how these plays are being evaluated.
"Officials are graded, and if you say that's a correct call, now that official knows, 'OK, we're going to call that,' and other officials see that and say, 'OK, they want that to be foul,' and that's the concern," Blandino explained. "If they grade it incorrect and they put it out to their officials and say, 'Look, this is not a foul, we don't flag this,' then hopefully you can correct some of that."
Blandino said when he evaluated calls like that, he would ask the official why a flag was thrown to gauge the thought process.
"A lot of times you get the answer, 'Well, it was unnecessary.' And I'm like, 'That's not specific enough,'" Blandino said.
"It's an important position and they should protect it when it is a foul, but I just feel like we've gone overboard a little bit. It comes down to what the direction is, how they're being taught. Is that the direction, or are we saying that a shove to the ground is unnecessary and we're going to give the referee the ability to make that call?"
Taunting falls into this category. The league has publicly made the enforcement of taunting a point of emphasis and has doubled down on its commitment to calling it, even when the nitpicky nature of some infractions doesn't seem to fit with the spirit of why the rule was made.
Never mind that the enforcement of taunting to this degree requires an official to gauge intent, which is a subjective standard.
One last thing about roughing the passer: It's also ironic that the NFL expanded the umpire's responsibility in the middle of last season to include assisting the referee with making roughing calls. The flag that went against the Saints was thrown by umpire Barry Anderson. From Anderson's vantage point, it may have looked like Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was struck in the head. But Anderson also may not have been able to see there actually was no contact. He's the official in the offensive backfield to the left of the screen here:
"I get why we want to have the extra set of eyes in case we miss something, but I just worry that if you give the umpire the ability to throw the flag, at least have the conversation with the referee," Blandino said. "I'm sure that happens most of the time, but we didn't end up with the right result on that play."
Anyone hoping for clarity from the league is out of luck. Fewell puts out a video each week explaining why the league's officials made certain calls the way they did. The roughing infraction from the Saints-Titans game was not included in this week's feature.
The concept of a sky judge - an official in the booth with access to video replay who can be empowered to reverse an incorrect call - has been floated in recent years. And this is the first season the league expanded the replay official's duties to include "specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present and/or to address game administration issues."
The sky judge concept sounds good in theory, but without restrictions on how and when its discretion can be applied, there's the risk of opening Pandora's box. Will every play be subject to review? Who wants to watch that? Just the obvious ones? Well, what's obvious and who determines that? As the league has discovered with instant replay over the years, any limitations to it inevitably run up against a circumstance that goes beyond those limitations. Then what? And here we are.
The AAF and XFL used a sky judge, but even that wasn't foolproof. In the week before the XFL shut down, the sky judge official made an incorrect call at the end of a game and had to be reassigned.
Besides, as Austro noted, the AAF and XFL were using college referees who were working with leagues that had entirely different sets of rules about basics like formations. Those extra eyes in the sky were more of a necessity.
Blandino said New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once approached him with an interesting idea: Let any play be challenged for any reason, but leave it up to the coaches. Knowing they only have two challenges, coaches will be judicious about how to use them.
"There's always downsides," Blandino said. "You could have a game-ending interception and you have a challenge left you're just going to challenge something. 'Hey, look for holding.'
"I don't think there's any perfect answer, but we've got to keep working with the technology and prevent the avoidable, obvious mistakes."
Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.