When a cornerback misses an easy tackle or a quarterback doesn't notice a wide open receiver, fans get mad. It is part of the game. This year, however, there has been an added layer of frustration. Not since the 2012 NFL referee lockout has there been such ire over officiating.
In 2012 when replacement refs made mistakes, it was somewhat understandable. After all, they were replacements. Guys who weeks earlier may have been officiating their son's high school game were suddenly foisted into the spotlight on national stage. There was also an end in sight. We knew the lockout would eventually end and the regular zebras would be back on the field. In the meantime, their performance made for some hilarious moments:
There is nothing funny or understandable about this year's gaffes that have included missed calls, questionable calls, erroneous calls, problems with the clock, inability to keep track of downs, and slow decision making. After Week 1 two officials nearly got into a fight on the field and had to be separated. While amusing at the time, that level of dysfunction was a portent of things to come.
The crew assigned to the Cardinals vs. 49ers game on Sunday was supposed to officiate Sunday night's game between the Steelers and the Colts, but instead made so many mistakes they have been reassigned to the Philadelphia Eagles game against the Patriots in Foxboro.
This is not the first time officials have faced consequences. Side judge Rob Vernatchi was suspended after he let 18 seconds run off of the clock in the match up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Diego Chargers. For now, punishments are arbitrary, but they could be codified for the 2016 season.
Meanwhile, players and coaches are frustrated. Normally, they stay quiet about their dissatisfaction with the referees, but Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians spoke openly about the shoddy officiating, saying via NFL.com, "The officials were struggling. Mightily. They can't count to three."
49ers guard Alex Boone was even more blunt, complaining, via DeadSpin, "I thought those refs sucked. I thought- you call running into a player when nobody even touched you?... They've had terrible calls all game."
Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira blames their shoddy work on inexperience. According to ESPN, there are 23 officials in their first or second NFL year. There are also 37 who have been in the league for 16-27 years. As the NFL has moved to get fast, young, sharp officials onto the field, there has been a decline in the quality of their work.
Bad calls don't just have an impact on players, coaches, and their teams. They compromise the fan experience as well by undermining the integrity of the game. Fans should be able to trust that the rules of the game will be enforced as accurately as possible. "As possible" includes room for occasional errors. Perfection is not the standard.
The number of mistakes, however, is inexcusable. If deflated footballs are worth the time and energy of Roger Goodell in the name of integrity, officiating should be as well. The refs' mistakes, though unintentional, provide a layer of mistrust, skepticism, frustration, and stress (distress, actually).
Prior to this year, fans could generally take for granted that the referees could keep track of the clock, count the number of downs accurately, and know the rules. Simply knowing that there is the precedent and continued possibility of those kinds of mistakes is a distraction from the competition, rivalries, and on-field match ups.