How Can NFL Officiating Be Improved?

It seems we can’t have a single high-profile or prime-time game go by this year without having a questionable call by the officials that gets scrutinized to death and debated as to whether or not that call should have been made and, if not, that it decided the game.

The latest one was in last night’s game between the Packers and the Lions, in which the Packers attempted an endless lateral that led to the Lions’ Devin Taylor tackling Aaron Rodgers, but Taylor getting flagged for grabbing the face mask. On the next play, Rodgers completed a Hail Mary pass for the winning touchdown.

It’s not the only high-profile game to have a debated call, but it’s only compounding the narrative that officiating has gotten worse. There have been multiple suggestions about how to solve issues with officiating, but most of them tend to be reactionary or not understanding all the facts. Let’s go over a few things:

* Bad calls have been part of the game ever since organized football leagues or associations started. This is what happens when you put rules into place — people interpret rules differently, coaches and players try to bend the rules, and referees are forced to account for those attempts. One reason why it seems officiating is getting worse is because 24/7 sports media, the Internet and social media allow people to react instantly to bad calls and debate them, especially those in the final minutes of a game. Another reason is because there are more means for NFL fans to access games and watch them again, these fans can further scrutinize everything that happened, thus drawing more attention to referee errors.

* Cries for making officials full time aren’t likely to be heeded because the last negotiations between the NFL and the referees union allowed referees to remain part -time officials and keep their jobs. (For the record, I’ve been guilty about considering that NFL refs should be full time before I was reminded of that fact.) And while it’s hard to sympathize with somebody who makes six figures at a full-time job and six figures at what is technically a part-time job, nobody is going to give up one full-time job when another becomes full time unless they get a significant increase in salary to make up for the money lost from dropping the other full-time job. That’s just human nature.

* Making too many plays subject to review not only slows down the game, but tells referees that they are no longer allowed to make judgment calls. And, really, that’s what the bulk of calls are. And for those that are subject to review, there’s a legitimate argument to be made that the referees are ruling so that the calls will get reviewed. Case in point: Because scoring plays are reviewed, a play will be automatically reviewed if the referees rule a touchdown, but it will not be automatically reviewed if it’s not ruled a touchdown. So it’s not surprising a referee may err toward making the call that ensures the play is automatically reviewed.

* There seems to be more confusion among referees as to what they are supposed to look for, based on how rules are written. Some of the additions are made in the name of player safety; others are made with the intent to clarify. But the problem is, if you add too many rules or use too many words to spell out a rule, you make the rulebook longer and may do more to confuse the officials than to help them.

One of the issues I’ve found with our current law-making process is that we make our laws too lengthy because we are too worried about covering every specific detail, to the point we make people confused as to what the rule is actually supposed to be. A brief perspective regarding our law-making process: Without getting into political details, when Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1933, it was 37 pages long. The act was repealed, then along came the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which was 849 pages long. It’s not difficult to figure out which act you are going to have the patience to read, understand and be able to properly enforce. Who wants to read legislation that has more pages than a typical novel?

The NFL seems to have the same problem — the committees who come up with rules are too concerned about covering every specific thing and add to existing rules, rather than just rewrite the rule so you get to the point. From just looking at this section of the rulebook, it’s not difficult to see the same thing is happening. You have a long list of illegal acts, many with lengthy explanations and exceptions, which is more likely to confuse people than it is to help them. I imagine most referees are trying to go through every rule to make sure they understand them, but trying to enforce those rules is a more difficult task because they have too many points and exceptions to remember. So it’s no surprise they have difficulty calling the action.

So here are a few suggestions that might help improve officiating.

* Review the rulebook and simplify rules whenever possible. In other words, you rewrite the rules so that they use fewer words to explain something. And whenever you revisit a rule, you rewrite it in its entirety. Your task in rewriting rules is to understand that, in most cases, judgment calls will be made, so don’t try to clarify everything you think may need to be. All you do is weigh down the referees with more things they have to look for, to the point that they may no longer trust their own judgment or call fouls based on what teams or players have generally been called for during a season.

* Revise the review process so that any call may be subject to review, but that doesn’t mean a call will always be reviewed. The replay officials will review every play and, if first evidence shows the rule was incorrectly made or applied, the replay officials will buzz down for a review. If replay officials determine it’s a judgment call, they will not buzz down. This shouldn’t cause games to drag too long, because if we are honest with ourselves, the bulk of calls come down to judgment calls and the replay booth would only be tasked with intervening on calls in which an immediate glance determines the calls were wrong. Additionally, replay officials will not buzz down until the referees make a ruling, allowing for officials to discuss what they saw (as they should) before making a ruling.

* Allow coaches to challenge any call made or call they think was missed, but they remain limited to two challenges per game. Additionally, they don’t gain a third challenge at any point; they get two for the entire game. But they can use the challenges at any time they wish and, if the game goes into overtime and the coach has unused challenges, they carry over into overtime. While coaches might have more instances in which they may challenge a ruling, they have to be careful when to do it. For example, is it really worth a coach challenging a holding call missed in the first quarter when that challenge might better be used later in the game when an incorrect ruling is more likely to affect the outcome of a game?

So what about those that replay officials think are judgment calls? It comes down to this: Because the coach has challenged, he’s requesting a thorough look, not an immediate glance. Immediate glances are all that is needed to determine a call that is clearly wrong, but judgment calls require closer inspection. Because the coach has challenged the call, the replay booth will take its time, but only when the coach challenges.

Note: A coach could not challenge a reversal made when replay officials buzz down and inform the officials about an incorrect call.

So what would these changes mean? Let’s take a look at some prominent examples that have been debated.

* The Aaron Rodgers face mask call in yesterday’s Packers-Seahawks game. The note regarding that “if a player grasps an opponent’s face mask, he must immediately release it” is confusing. It may be better to say this: “It is a penalty to grasp or pull the face mask of another player. If a player touches the face mask but does not grasp or pull it, it is not a penalty.” I am open to suggestions here if one has a better way to reword the rule.

* The offensive pass interference called on Rob Gronkowski in the Denver-New England game. My own assessment is that this falls under “judgment call” and the bulk of reviews I’ve seen from those who aren’t playing favorites either way say that the call was “borderline.” But both “judgment call” and “borderline” mean the replay booth won’t demand a review, although under my suggested changes, Bill Belichick could challenge if he believed there was enough evidence to overturn the call upon closer inspection.

* The Sammy Watkins out-of-bounds fall that was ruled as Watkins surrendering himself, during the Pats-Bills Monday night game. That one would be subject to review, because the replay showed Watkins did not surrender himself.

* K.J. Wright taps a ball out of bounds to force a touchback in the Lions-Seahawks Monday night game. That one is also subject to review, because the replay showed strong evidence that Wright illegally touched the ball.

The suggestions I’ve made won’t solve every criticism about officiating, nor will they eliminate every mistake. But the intent should be to simplify processes and understand that sometimes judgment calls will come into play. And the only time you want to be correcting officials is when it’s clear they got something wrong, and there’s no room for an opposing interpretation.

Remember, the goal of improving officiating in the NFL should be to take steps that try to make their job easier. Referees won’t get every call right, but perhaps if we simplify some matters, they can become more effective.

Published by

Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.