The uproar over NFL officiating has grown even louder this season.
Lately even stars such as Patrick Mahomes, the face of the league, and Micah Parsons, Myles Garrett and even Troy Aikman in the ESPN booth have joined the army of apoplectic fans drowning in the pool of seductive sports betting following a call that takes money from their pockets or ruins their fantasy teams.
It has forever been a rite of autumn and winter, imperfect men unrealistically asked to officiate a perfect game in a dizzying sport where to err is human is simply not acceptable to the masses. Especially now, with the league cozying up to DraftKings and Caesars Sportsbook and the like, and the integrity of the game always at the forefront.
As the stakes for impatient owners and front offices and coaches and players and bettors rise, as the spotlight becomes even more blinding, especially from here to the Super Bowl, open season on the zebras is not about to go away.
“It’s the one profession that you can be really good at what you do, and you can make decisions,” Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino told Serby Says, “and half the people are gonna think you’re an idiot.”
These NFL officials are by no means idiots, let’s get that straight. But they hold a thankless job in the eye of a storm — during which they cannot throw a flag on roughing the referee, or the side judge, or the back judge.
Technological advances have helped, but they have not only failed to temper the fury of the fan and the call from everyone and everywhere for the NFL to fix the officiating problem that rears its ugly head on virtually every given Sunday, they have added to the suffocating pressure on NFL officials.
“The scrutiny is greater than it’s ever been,” Blandino said, “and it’s gonna continue to ramp up, with everything that’s going on, with everything that’s riding on these games, as sports betting continues to become a bigger part. It was a big part, but now with it being legalized in so many different states and the NFL really leaning in, the scrutiny is as intense as it’s every been, and I think the officiating is under a microscope right now.
“There always was pressure, but now with social media, and the access that we have and the technology, I think there’s a disconnect between an on-field official that has to make a call and then we get to evaluate and critique them based on five or six different angles and slow motion and all these bells and whistles that we have, and that’s always been a challenge, but as technology continues to get better and the ability for people to get on social media and complain and show different things, it’s as intense as it’s ever been.”
For NFL officials, the technology has proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
“I’ve kind of felt the last couple of years with how much we’re relying on technology, and while the technology’s good, and replay is overall good, I think the on-field officials are relying too much on the help they’re getting from upstairs, and they’re deferring to that and they’re being less decisive,” Blandino said.
Mahomes went ballistic last week after Kadarius Toney was penalized for lining up offside, which nullified a potential game-winning touchdown, but the officials were correct. Mahomes apologized the next day.
“When you have Patrick Mahomes, one of the faces of the league that’s criticizing the officials, that hurts the credibility of the officiating staff, and that’s never good,” Blandino said. “I get it, I understand the emotions, I understand what happened, and these players are under so much pressure.”
Aikman criticized officials for taking their sweet time making a decision on a Packers kickoff with 13 seconds left in the half against the Giants.
“We talk to our announcers at Fox Sports and stuff, when you’re critical of officiating, there’s a way to do it without being disrespectful, because what happens is people watch that and their kids are playing youth football or whatever it is and then they treat the officials the same way,” Blandino said. “That’s the challenge we’re having at the lower level. I was just as frustrated Monday night watching the game. Troy Aikman was saying what I was thinking, like ‘Let’s go, make a decision, let’s keep the game moving.’ It’s not great for the league, and I think the league has to just continue to work toward correcting some of these things.”
You read that the NFL doesn’t feel enough urgency because controversy sells, and the public is obsessed by the game and will watch no matter what. The integrity of the game, however, is no less important to the league than it has been. See players suspended for betting on NFL games.
Grin and bear it, football fans: There is no cure-all.
But what about full-time officials? Better-paid officials? Aaron Rodgers thinks it’s a good idea.
“We throw the word full-time around,” Blandino said. “And I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘Hey, if you spend more hours at your craft, you’re not gonna be better at it.’ I think that’s true. I do think officials during the season are as full-time as they can be. It’s not like other sports, like baseball and basketball where they have multiple games each week.
“They look at a ton of film, they have conference calls, Zoom calls. They get feedback from the league office, they’re evaluated, they’re looking at their previous game, and then they’re looking at their upcoming game. They spend a lot of hours. Yeah, a lot of ’em do have other jobs, and that is gonna mean you’re gonna work a job and then have to do these other things at night and they do make sacrifices.
“But I do think they are putting in a lot of work during the season, and I think there’s an opportunity in the offseason to get together more, to work on getting them on the same page. They do go to OTAs, they do go to training camp with the clubs. I don’t know if just putting a full-time moniker on them and paying them a little more solves ***** all ***** the issues, I don’t think they’re ever gonna be perfect, and I think that’s what people expect, and I think that’s never gonna happen.”
The speed of the game mandates younger, fitter officials, for sure. Twelve officials, the highest number in a decade, left or retired following last season.
“There’s no replacement for experience — as you get more reps, you get more snaps, you’re gonna get better as an official, but as you get older, you get a little slower and things like that,” Blandino said. “When I first started in the mid-’90s, officials were coming into the league, they were 45-to-50 years old when they first got in. They’re coming in younger, they’re coming in in their 30s, early 40s. I think that’s a good thing because with where these athletes are and the speed of the game, the officials have to be able to keep up, and so I don’t necessarily think it’s an age thing, I just think it’s having that right combination of experience, youth and putting an emphasis on physical fitness.”
What about a sky judge?
“I think the league is moving in that direction,” Blandino said. “I did the XFL last year in the spring, and we let the coaches challenge anything one time and you could challenge whatever you wanted, and it worked. It helped eliminate some mistakes that were gonna have a big impact on the outcome of the game. I always hear [former Giants GM] George Young in my head when I worked at the league office and we were talking about bringing replay, George was tremendous, just kind of making sure, ‘Let’s not let replay take over the game, and I would never want to see a game where we’re just waiting like a green light after every play’: ‘OK, I checked everything, we’re good.’
“I just think we need to find a balance. Limit it, correct whether it’s the last few minutes or the last five minutes where those plays, a team has less time to overcome an officiating mistake with a minute to go. We gotta live with some mistakes, it’s a human game played by human beings, but I just think that a sky judge concept could work.”
“I do think there may be an opportunity for that,” Blandino said, “but the bottom line, especially in a game like football, I don’t know if we could ever replace the on-field officials, because the best officials, especially the best referees, they’re great game managers — they keep the game moving.”
NFL deputy CIO Aaron Amendolia told SiliconAngle: “Our officials, our skilled people in the field, that’s where the decision’s going to happen. But how can we take some factors of information, supply it to them faster, supply it to them more accurately. Do we have wearables or other types of devices that we can pipe information to officials, you know, potentially to other people who have aspects operating the game? That’s what we’re looking at.”
Rules changes have left officials and players alike confused. Roughing the passer is not always roughing the passer.
“I do feel like on some of these body-weight calls, I think we’ve gone a little too far,” Blandino said. “Look, player safety’s always gonna be the most important when you talk about rules and rule changes and officiating, but you feel like on some of these plays, it’s just a normal tackle. It’s the momentum, it’s a big guy, a defensive lineman trying to tackle the quarterback. They just go to the ground and we’re getting 15-yard penalties. So I’d love to see them just kind of review that in the offseason.”
Total penalties per team each game, which includes declined penalties, is 7.2 this season, up from 6.6 last year.
“Defensive pass interference numbers are up this year,” Blandino said. “They’re calling more, and I don’t know if that’s because we’re just seeing more contact. I think some teams do play very aggressive in the secondary because they have the approach of, ‘Hey, they’re not gonna call it every time.’ But I don’t see a major issue with pass interference right now other than the numbers being a little bit up.”
Is there enough accountability?
“They are held accountable, but we know it’s just not publicized,” Blandino said. “The officials that grade out well will get postseason assignments, there’s bonuses tied to that, compensation. If you don’t grade out well, you’re sitting at home, and if you don’t grade well and you’re in the lower tier, and it’s over a course of time, you could lose your job.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated this week that officials get 99 percent of calls right.
“I love Roger, but 99’s a stretch,” Blandino said.”It’s probably closer to 95, 94. … He added a couple.”
But 99, 95, 94 — not good enough for fans.
“It’s not,” Blandino said. “They want 100.
“And it’s not possible, it’s just not possible.”