Football Officiating

We have all done more than a little complaining about NFL officiating this season – – and a lot of it is driven by compelling visual evidence that the officials “got it wrong”.  Instant replay was supposed to cure all those problems; to put it simply, it has not.  We have to come to grips with a sporting parallel to Al Gore’s screed,

  • An Inconvenient Truth.

Take a deep breath; put yourself in your happy place; take a sip of coffee and absorb these next two statements:

  1. Many of the worst officiating mistakes – and the decisions not to overturn those mistakes upon review – result from basic human error.
  2. It is not possible to remove the spectre of human error from any endeavor that involves humans.

College football provided an example of fundamental human error on the part of officials earlier this season.  In the Washington State/Cal game, officials threw a flag for “hands to the face” on a return play.  They enforced the penalty and the teams ran the next play.  Here is the problem:

  • The officials enforced the penalty on the wrong team.  [That resulted in a 57-yard swing in field position.]
  • The officials realized their mistake after the next play had been run – meaning that, by rule, there was no going back and correcting the mistake.
  • The officials informed the Washington State bench of the error during the game.

That is about as bad as it gets – – and there is no way to guarantee that it will never happen again so long as human beings are used as officials and as the replay overseers for the games.

The referee in the game – the crew chief – was suspended by the PAC-12 for a game and the other members of that crew were “downgraded” by the Conference for whatever that is worth.  I have no problem with the discipline there.

This season at the NFL level, there have been too many examples of missed calls and decisions not to overturn said missed calls to list them here.  Those mistakes have led to multiple cries for the NFL to dip into its $15B revenue tsunami to come up with fixes for these “gaffes”.  At some point, the weeping and gnashing of teeth will be sufficiently loud that the NFL and the NFLPA will have to make some revisions in how the game is officiated.  Be very wary when that time comes if they tell you that whatever they propose to do will “fix things”.  Sadly, it will not.

There are three officiating improvement suggestions that have been voiced so many times as to become trite.  They will come to the surface again at the end of this season when reports emerge about the deliberations of the NFL Competition Committee.  Let me list them here and comment:

  1. Microchips in the ball
  2. Sky Judges
  3. Full Time NFL officials

In principle, putting microchips in the balls would assist with ball placement and measurements for first downs and touchdowns – – did that ball break the plane before the knee was down?  It could also be used to determine if a field goal or PAT that goes higher than the goal post upright is good or not.  There is only one way to find out if this technology offers sufficient benefits to justify the cost and maintenance of the systems and that is to try it out in game conditions.

  • Memo to the NFL:  If you think this is even a marginally good idea, try it out in a bunch of those meaningless Exhibition Games that you continue to foist off on fans.

A “sky judge” is a fancy way to describe another official (another human official) in the “press box” who has a link to the referee so that the “press box official” can buzz the referee on the field and tell the official on the field that the last play needs to be reviewed.  Sounds good on the surface…  Here is how I view a “sky judge”:

  • He/She is one more person who can challenge a call on the field – – except the “sky judge” has an infinite number of challenges, not just two.  Perhaps this will improve the accuracy of officiating; certainly, it will make the games run longer and have a choppier rhythm.  And most importantly, the “sky judge” is subject to human error as are the officials on the field.

Related to the possible existence of a person with an unlimited number of replay challenges, please consider this observation on replay challenges from syndicated columnist, Norman Chad:

“The day synchronized swimming incorporates replay challenges, I’ll know it’s all but over.”

The idea of “full-time officials” for the NFL has been around for at least 25 years that I can recall.  The problem with implementing that solution to the problem is that it does not put in place any means to provide those newly hired full-time-officials with what they need most to improve their performance.  Having officiated sports (mostly basketball) and having tried to teach young folks how to officiate games, there is no substitute for active participation in real games played at the speed of real games.

Full-time officials can spend hours upon hours studying the rulebook; at the end of two years on the job full time, I would expect that some of the officials could recite the rule book with less than three prompts.  That familiarity is a plus – no doubt about that.

Full-time officials can spend hours reviewing film and working on officiating mechanics that are developed for the purpose of putting officials in the right place to make the calls they need to make.  Mechanics deal with where the officials should be during a play and what areas of the field each one is responsible to monitor.  It would do no good at all to have all 7 officials focused on something on the near sideline as a play proceeds down the far sideline; officials need to practice where to be and how to look for rules violations during live action.  Full-time officials can practice these mechanics over and over until they are “hard-wired” into their collective brains.

As you think about those last two paragraphs, remember that full-time officials will be “on the job” for 8 hours a day and about 230 days a year.  (I am being generous in the amount of vacation time allowed here.)  In that time, there will be 20 days wherein the full-time officials will be actually officiating NFL games for about 4 hours.  [The best of those officials will do more work in the playoffs; 20 games are the baseline for all the full-time officials.]

Therein is my problem with full-time officials.  What they need to be doing more than 20 times a year – remembering that only the 4 Exhibition Games are practice for those full-time officials – is unavailable to them.  Let me now present you with

  • An Inconvenient Truth 2

The thing that will do the most good in terms of improving on-field officiating is a chimera; it does not exist.  NFL officials need to officiate games involving real players who are playing at real speed and with real intensity.  It helps if they “officiate” scrimmages at practice; it helps if they officiate XFL games.  But the real stuff – what they must be able to handle – is not available to them in any imaginable practice/rehearsal setting.

Let me suggest here that all prospective solutions to this “problem” be subjected to the criterion suggested in the beginning of the Hippocratic Oath:

  • First, do no harm…

Try the microchips in the balls during Exhibition Games; the only “harm” I can see there is that it might be a costly experiment that shows little likelihood of being worth further pursuit.

Try a “sky judge” in the Exhibition Games while you are at it.  The added cost is minimal; it would be a small sample way to test the benefits derived and the unintended consequences incurred.

Before hiring full-time officials – – and necessarily fire those current officials who do not choose to accept full time employment by the NFL – – find out for sure what the loss of experience/competence is going to be.  We have seen what “replacement refs” look like and it is not pretty.  Currently, the NFL has a roster of 122 officials; 23 of those officials (19% of the roster) have been officiating NFL games for 20 years or more.  I would surely want to know that I would not lose all or most of that experience by mandating full time employment for NFL officials.

There is no doubt that officiating football in college and in the NFL can be improved – but it can never be perfect.  When considering changes to the way games are officiated, it is important not to believe that there is a silver bullet out there to kill off all the demons and turn football officiating to an uplifting place such as might exist in a Disney princess movie.

Finally, since I have stated that perfection is not possible in sports officiating, let me close with a definition from The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm:

Perfectionist:  The worst kind of boss; the best kind of sex partner.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



2 thoughts on “Football Officiating”

  1. Is sky judge the same as sky pilot?

    A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot
    Remembers the words….

    1. TenaciousP:

      I doubt anyone installed in that job would like being called a “sky judge” or a “sky pilot”…

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