Week after week, NFL officials made a mess for all to see
If it felt like there were lots of officiating gaffes during this NFL season, that's because there were. Enough to prompt Commissioner Roger Goodell to pledge that "no stone will be left unturned" to improve the way games are called.
All of the accumulated mistakes reached a tipping point, so much so that referees will be able to consult with league VP of Officiating Dean Blandino during playoff games.
Who knows what other changes could be in store moving forward? Everyone, it seems, has a theory about how the NFL can cut down on the one time, two or more per game that players, coaches and fans throw their hands in the air and wonder how an "obvious" rule violation could be ignored. Or the game clock could keep running when it shouldn't. Or a team could be penalized when it did nothing wrong.
"There's a lot of room for improvement," Washington Redskins defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said. "The officials don't seem to understand that the calls they're making are affecting games and can affect playoff spots."
He presented a couple of changes he'd like to see:
—Give Goodell the power to fine or suspend officials who make glaring mistakes.
—Switch around the crews, so they're different from week to week, something Goodell himself has spoken about.
"I would love that. Most of these crews have been in the league longer than I've been alive. Break these crews apart and start mixing or mingling them. For 17 weeks, change them. In the playoffs? Change them. Don't let them be together," Jean Francois said. "It's human nature. If you've been together forever, and one of you misses something, they might cover for each other. But if they don't know each other, they're not as comfortable with each other, and they won't cover for each other."
In an essay for Sports Illustrated's Monday Morning Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman offered four suggestions of his own:
—Simplify the rulebook;
—Add an eighth, full-time official;
—Change the officials' spots on the field;
—Improve player-official communication.
Ideas such as those were bandied about frequently over the past several months, in part because of the perception this was the worst-officiated season in memory.
The quality of officiating can be in the eye of the beholder, of course.
"What I think is a bad call is probably because the call is on us," Redskins Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams said with a knowing laugh. "And what I think is a good call is probably because the call is on (an opponent). It's extremely tough on those guys. The game moves extremely fast."
Still, coaches and players alike have not been shy this season about expressing disbelief at certain calls — or non-calls.
Among the memorable was the failure to notice a Seattle player clearly illegally batting a football out of the end zone on purpose in a victory over Detroit.
And the valuable seconds frittered away by the clock operator during a game between Pittsburgh and San Diego.
How about no ejection of Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., despite his helmet-to-helmet launch at Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, part of a trio of personal fouls?
On and on it went.
On the other hand, as pointed out by Mike Pereira, Blandino's predecessor as head of NFL officiating and now a Fox analyst, we might think there are more miscues because we hear about all of them.
"Social media has made it so much more difficult right now, because everyone is tracking everything," Pereira said. "All one person needs to do is see it and put it on social media and then the world finds out about it."
As if to tie a neat bow on all of the ineptness, in the season's last Monday night game, referee Ed Hochuli had problems from start to finish. He mixed up the teams' names during the opening coin toss, left his microphone on at the end of regulation and, in between, took forever to throw a flag on a face-mask penalty against the Broncos.
Denver coach Gary Kubiak said Hochuli told him "he got late information" on that particular ruling.
"I don't know that I know exactly how late they can throw one," Kubiak said. "I know there is a lot of communication going on around the league — from the league office, the officials, from New York, whatever. ... That's a little bit different, but I think I do understand they're trying to get it right."
Whether or not they actually do was the subject of debate week in and week out this season.
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