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RealSport Roundtable: How should the NFL fix its officiating crisis?

In 2012, the NFL 'locked out' their officials, in order to force them into signing a new Collective Bargaining Agreement


In 2012, the NFL ‘locked out’ their officials, in order to force them into signing a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, as they had done the season before with their players. This led to the use of replacement referees through the first three weeks of the 2012 season, who were widely ripped apart as being not-fit-for-purpose. The replacement ref debacle culminated in the infamous ‘Fail Mary‘ on Monday Night Football, where a nationally-televised blunder caused such embarrassment to the League that their labour dispute with the officials’ union was quickly resolved. This season has seen what has been widely called the worst officiating crisis since those replacement referees – but this time, it’s the League’s ‘official officials’ that are causing error after error after error. Roger Goodell had to come out to publicly support the officials, but behind closed doors, the NFL are finding themselves having to sanction their own officials. So with the League’s officiating situation now at a ‘crisis point‘, we decided to lock two of our writers in a room together to argue how to resolve this quagmire.  

It’s not the referees that need fixing – it’s the rulebook

by Nathan Hards

 A week ago today, Green Bay beat the Lions with one of the most gut-wrenching Hail Mary plays I have ever seen. This is why I love football. In the dying seconds of the match, Detroit looked to have completely shut out the Packers in the final quarter, and were looking at going home with another win to pad out their season. Then there was the flag. One call of facecaging, and the Lions lost 15 yards, giving the Packers an extra play after the clock had expired. Aaron Rodgers throws a 61-yard touchdown. Game over.

This season, like most, has been full of dubious decisions made by officials on the field, some of which have made no difference, and some of which have cost teams the game. Missed time, catches that never were, bad calls. There are three teams on the field in every game: home, away, and the officials. The officials can never win, but they have a major influence over who does. They are the people that take away or give teams extra yards. These are the people that make the call as to whether a ball was under control, or if the player stepped out of bounds. The fate of a team’s entire season can lay on those little yellow dusters, and where that official is standing when he observes the play.

Most NFL coaches and players show great respect for the officials, and take the decisions as they are presented, regardless of where it puts them at the end of the game. The match would last much longer if the players argued with the officials the way they do in European football. So, what can be done about it? How can we improve the decisions that these people make?

Part of the discussion is about getting rid of part time refs. Making them full time employees of the NFL could, in theory, improve the quality of the officials’ decision-making on match day. I personally disagree with this. Most officials in the NFL take their jobs pretty damned seriously, and I’ve never seen one waiver on their decision. These people make calls, and present them as they see them, with conviction. They can be wrong, and they can make mistakes, but employing them full time would have zero impact on this fact. Human error, especially based on observer’s position, is not something that can be negated by longer service. Full time refs in other sports still make bad calls, and the players still have to suck it up, and deal with the fact that the ref’s decision is final.

What the NFL needs is to review its rules, take out the vaguely-worded clauses and conflicting perspectives, and re-inforce the fact that a ref’s decision is final. These guys are some of the most hated people on the field, and not one person is cheering for them; they need to know that someone has their back when they make a call like last night’s one.Was it facecaging? No. Did the penalty guarantee the Packers the win? No. Did Rodgers throw one of the best Hail Mary plays I have ever seen, in the dying seconds of a match to pull the victory out from under the Lions? Undoubtedly. Will changing the status of referees in the League from part time to full time alter the standard of calls being made? Probably not. In my humble opinion, leave the Refs alone, and concentrate on getting the rules to make more sense. The players recognise that the refs are only human, the Coaches can see that they make mistakes, even the fans can let it go – eventually. If you’re blaming the refs, you might as well remove them from the field, put them in front of screens, and have them call the game from there.  

Was it facecaging? No. Did the penalty guarantee the Packers the win? No. Did Rodgers throw one of the best Hail Mary plays I have ever seen, in the dying seconds of a match to pull the victory out from under the Lions? Undoubtedly. Will changing the status of referees in the League from part time to full time alter the standard of calls being made? Probably not.

In my humble opinion, leave the Refs alone, and concentrate on getting the rules to make more sense. The players recognise that the refs are only human, the coaches can see that they make mistakes, even the fans can let it go – eventually. If you’re blaming the refs, you might as well remove them from the field, put them in front of screens, and have them call the game from there.  

We need to make the right call, every time

by Toby Durant

The NFL has one of the largest rule books in professional sports, but this is still a functional game – or at least it was a few years ago. Since player safety measures were bought in to protect receivers, we’ve seen heavy hits to the chest penalised as is they were direct head shots. We’ve had holding penalties missed because one referee is assigned to watch nine players at once. So what’s the on-field solution?

The NFL could add another referee to their officiating crews, but if seven doesn’t get the job done, will an eighth really help? I doubt it. You could start to alter the rule book here and there, but there are very few subjective calls left in the NFL. What a hold is. or what pass interference is. has already been defined to the Nth degree. The other option, and one that I think will work, is to allow coaches to challenge penalties.We have the technology to get the camera angles. That’s been proven with challenges over touchdowns, catches and first downs. Baseball has instituted a challenge system that works. Perhaps more importantly, the CFL allows coaches to challenge both called and non-called pass interference.

We have the technology to get the camera angles. That’s been proven with challenges over touchdowns, catches and first downs. Baseball has instituted a challenge system that works. Perhaps more importantly, the CFL allows coaches to challenge both called and non-called pass interference. This was demonstrated to great effectiveness in this year’s Grey Cup. The winning score only happened because Chris Jones, the head coach of the Edmonton Eskimos, was able to throw a flag and challenge that defensive pass interference had occurred on an incompletion. It was obvious on replay that there had in fact been DPI, but the referee had missed it.

It was human error, and that can happen to anyone, but in the end the officials got the call right thanks to the challenge flag. And isn’t that what we all want? For the call to be correct and the game decided by the players and coaches, rather than referees and human error? With all the hi-def, slow-mo camera angles the NFL has now at every game, with automatic reviews of turnovers and scoring plays to make extra-sure the call is correct, would it be so terrible if the coaches had an extra red flag they could throw when pass interference is missed or three different holds and blocks in the back aren’t called as Eli Manning escapes and launched a pass onto his receivers helmet? (Sorry, flashbacks of a dark, dark time.)

In the end, what matters is that the right team wins. If Jim Caldwell could have challenged the that facemask penalty, he would have. The correct call would have come down and everyone would have been happy.


RealSport Roundtable: How should the NFL fix its officiating crisis?

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