The officiating this season has been bad, and the NFL knows it.
It’s cost teams games, it’s frustrated coaches and fans, and it’s tarnishing the shiny product the NFL likes to put out.
Let’s recap just a few of the lowlights from this season:
■ Referee’s missed a false start that would have negated the Jaguars’ final play in a 22-20 last-second win over the Ravens.
■ The Seahawks blatantly “illegally batted” the ball out of the endzone in the final two minutes that would have given the Lions the ball inside the 1-yard line and a chance to win. No call or penalty was given.
■ There were multiple officiating flubs in Monday’s Patriots-Bills game, including an inadvertent whistle that ended a potentially big play for the Patriots. Referees also mistakenly used the college football rule to run the final two seconds off the clock even though Sammy Watkins had gotten out of bounds.
■ 18 seconds were allowed to run off the clock in the final minutes of the Steelers-Chargers game.
■ Officials gaffed when calling the Ravens for an ineligible receiver, even though Ravens lineman John Urschel checked in with referee Ronald Torbert and identified himself as eligible.
So what gives with the officiating this year? Thats not a straighfoward answer but lets start with a few things that could be leading to the inconsistent and below average performance of the NFL’s referees.
1. There has been a huge turnover in referees in the last two years.
The NFL hired 23 new officials and swapped out 20 over the past two years, which am officiating source called “an unusually high number” when speaking to the Boston Globe. There is no substitution for experience. We have new, green, and inexperienced referees calling crucial NFL games.
2.The current evaluation system isn’t working.
The NFL grades its officials on every call made every week, rewarding the highest-graded officials with postseason games. But the grading system perhaps isn’t as transparent or communicated to the officials as well as it should be. Officials are graded and ranked into three tiers, with the third tier being the worst performers. The worst referees are then given enhanced training and focus, and if no improvement is seen the NFL considers moving on from these officials.
Sources that spoke to the Boston Globe on this about the system, “Ask some officials and they’d say, ‘What grading system?’ ” one of the officiating sources said. “Sometimes it causes more confusion than answers questions.”
3. Instant replay booth review is making referees worse.
The most significant change this season is with the instant replay system. Officials and VP of officiating Dean Blandino watch every game from league headquarters and communicate with referees during replay situations. Multiple officiating sources within the league told the Boston Globe that this implementation “has mostly caused the officials to question their calls on the field and rely on Blandino and the league office for guidance.” Many officials also question the choice of Blandino in guiding replay calls as he has never been an on-field official in the NFL.
4. NFL officials aren’t full-time employees.
This is a compelling argument for a change in policy. Simply put, refereeing isn’t the full-time occupation of the men and women that wear the stripes. It’s not their day job. Roger Goodell recently spoke on this saying that the league would be open to the idea of full-time officiating.
“We believe that at least on a limited basis it could be very much a positive for officials, for our clubs, obviously our fans to bring that consistency level up,” he said.
The idea of full-time officials would be to increase training and focus of these employees. They are currently highly paid part-time professionals making, on average, more than $173,000 per year (plus a 401k plan) working 14 or 15 games per season (plus playoffs), so expectations should be high. It’s not a matter of pay, but of commitment to the craft and hours put in to be an expert.
5. The development and scouting of referees isn’t working.
The league has a regional network of 92 officiating scouts looking for potential candidates from the high school and college levels, which has led to a pool of about 2,000 officials that were invited to apply to the league’s Officiating Development Program. The NFL then tracks their performance and chooses about 20 officials to be in the Advanced Developmental Program, where they are groomed to be NFL officials and are the first people called when there are vacancies.
But the officials aren’t getting enough in-game, live training of NFL rules, which leads to situations like the official in the Patriots-Bills game calling a college rule instead of an NFL rule. There has been a lot of talk about the NFL needing a developmental league to help the players, but the league could also use one to help its officials.