clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seven Dynamics of NFL Officiating

Bumped back to the top of the page, to hopefully inspire a bit more conversation on the subject during the slow days of late March, with the excitement of free agency largely over and the NFL Draft still more than a month away. - Blitz-

I am going to drift off the beaten path here.  I will take some journalistic license and use assumptions, generalizations and exagerations.  If you indulge me a little hyperbole, I can best make my points by taking these liberties.  With that disclaimer, maybe we can have some great discussion about officiating in general and NFL officiating in particular.  Let's have at it.

The dust from the 2008 season has settled, but still fresh in our minds are some of the season's notorious officating decisions.  Ed Hochuli almost cost the San Diego Chargers a playoff spot, and it will be a long time before any Steeler fan forgets Scott Green playing "eenie meenie miny mo" with Troy Polamalu's touchdown that was not a touchdown.  Still, I am one who generally defends officials, which will probably be clear in discussing the following seven dynamics of NFL officating.

1.  We must assume that NFL games are not fixed.

For starters, let's put this to rest right off the bat.  We must assume that the games are not fixed and that the mistakes are honest.  Every time a bad call affects the outcome of a game, a small gallery of fools screams "Fix!"  Yes, we recently witnessed the Tim Donaghy deal with the NBA and yes, all professional sports are vulnerable to similar issue, but nothing peeves me more than people reaching presumptive conclusions that cannot be argued.  You can't prove a negative to people who reach conclusions without any evidence to support their presumption, except that an incorrect call was made.

2.  Bad calls are a one-way street.

When a bad call goes against a team, it is clear that the team got shafted.  When a bad call goes in favor of a team, it is one of those iffy, could-go-either-way calls.  Even if that bad call is clear, the team will quickly point out other calls in the past that have gone against them.  Bad calls against a team change momentum and alter the outcome of the game.  Bad calls in favor wouldn't have changed the outcome anyway and simply even out over the long haul.  I always found it amusing that John Madden has spent a lifetime insisting that the Immaculate Reception was an illegal play, yet we never hear a peep about the Holy Roller that Ken Stabler intentionally fumbled into an "immaculate" playoff victory.

3.  Officiating is the most thankless profession in America.

Officiating might be the only profession that starts at zero and works backwards.  Officials are never thought of on the positive side of the ledger.  Near-perfection is ignored.  Anything short of perfection is hung out to dry.  If you were in a marriage like that you would soon file for divorce.  If your own job was like that you would put in your resignation before the five o'clock whistle.  For reasons that can only be explained by social phenomenon, we accept human failures to at least some degree by our athletes and coaches.  They drop passes, they miss tackles, they blow coverages, they make the wrong calls, etc.  These are all part of the game.  Without human error, there would be no game. 

But with officiating, we somehow have a built-in zero tolerance level for any error.  They're not accepted to any degree.  We have one tolerance level for athletes and coaches and another much higher for officials, yet they are all human just the same.  This double standard is created by the strong desire for victory.  There is a sense from anyone who has vested interested in the outcome that the game is hard enough with our own shortcomings; we can't allow any additional failures from the neutrality and fairness of the game itself.  Officials, unfortunately and unfairly, pay dearly for this double standard.  Put one officiating mistake, five coaching mistakes and 10 player mistakes in a pile after a tough loss.  Which one of these 16 items is most likely to be the public scapegoat for the loss?

4.  Those who whine the most have the least comprehension.

We've all come across the incessant whiners - every play in football or every trip down a basketball floor.  I have to leave the room, otr tavern, or wherever I am.  When I see excessive criticism, I want to take those people and put them on the field with a whistle and let them feel the wrath.  Conversely, those who have worn the stripes, in any sport, tend to be the least critical of other officials.  They know exactly how hard it is and how impossible it is to be perfect.  What frustrates me the most about officials' bashing is that those who do it the most are those who themselves have never officiated.  They see the game through their own team-colored glasses.  They think that officiating a football game is like taking a second-grade math quiz - it's easy to get them all right.  They have no idea how hard it is to see in live action what fans see in slow motion with all the preferred angles.  Officials often don't have the best angle.  They are also on the move much of the time, which greatly decreases their visual acuity.  People sitting on a couch don't understand how hard it was to see accurately while running amidst bodies flying all over the place.

5.  Transparency and Accountability.

It is quite noticeable that since the Doneghy incident, the NFL has gone to great lengths to be transparent.  Head of Officials Mike Periera has been more visible last season than any I can remember.  He comes out immediately after games to answer questions and he answers them candidly.  He goes on the NFL Network regularly to address every issue.  He clarifies rules and interpretation and he acknowledges when officials error.  He also points out when the officials were correct with calls, but could have gone about procedure a little better.  You can't ask any more.

Fans often scream for "accountability" with officials.  What they really mean by that is a public lambasting.  Fans don't want to concern themselves with an official's batting average.  They want them in a public stockade when they error.  That's what fans mean by accountability.  The truth is, officials are indeed accountable, just not so much on a public level.  Officials are graded and critiqued after every game.  They lose games, even playoff games, when their ratings aren't acceptable.  Sometimes they lose their jobs.  Fans never know when these things happen, so they sometimes think there is no accountability.  Fans don't know what goes on behind closed doors, and it should be that way.  It's hard enough as it is.  Why exacerbate the situation by giving fans a public stoning?

6.  Full-time officials would not improve the NFL.

Whenever something bad happens, invariably someone from the gallery will proclaim that NFL officials should be full-time, as if this billion-dollar league hasn't exhausted that question a thousand times.  Fact is, sitting around all week long looking at film isn't going to help officiating.  Football is different than other sports, that play 81 games or twice that and play all throughout the week.  NFL officials work maybe 14 times a year.  They look at film during the week and during the offseason as much as can be helpful.  If the NFL thought that somehow taking their day jobs away and looking at more film 40 hours a week would help them get better, this billion-dollar league would surely go in that direction.

7.  The downward spiral.

What concerns me the most is the downward spiral.  It was absolutely shameful what happened to Ed Hochuli.  Yes, he blew a call.  Yet if you look at his entire career body of work, the man is outstanding.  His career batting average is better than mine, and I'll bet far better than the people who wanted him tarred and feathered.  Those cowards never put on the stripes and if they did, they couldn't carry Ed Hochuli's whistle. 

When this type of thing happens, young people become discouraged from entering the profession.  What would encourage them?  Learning that a great official received death threats?  When people are discouraged from the profession, the profession gets worse.  If the profession gets worse, the screaming gets louder.  As the screaming gets louder, more people stay away, etc.  We need to work on reversing the spiral.  We need to see officials in a positive light and not just ignore excellence..  We need to somehow find a way to educate fans on how hard it is to officiate.  We need to stop focusing on the specific negative plays and start understanding the overall batting average.  When this happens, maybe more young people will want to enter the profession; thus the profession gets better and the spiral heads in a positive direction.