The 2015 season has been horrible for officiating, infuriating coaches, players, and spectators alike. From losing track of downs to errant whistle blowing, this season had some of the biggest blunders since the Year of the Replacement Officials in 2012. Even top ten lists of the biggest replacement fails pale in comparison to some of the mistakes of this years' officiating crews.
What impact will this have on the divisional playoff games this weekend?
1) The game will be even more stressful and uncomfortable to watch. In addition to worrying about poor tackling, mental mistakes, and other miscues, fans will likely have officiating on the radar.
2) Referees have the opportunity to determine the outcome of the game. During the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the referees whistled dead a play that should have resulted in a Ryan Shazier touchdown. Theoretically, mistakes should balance out, but it is horrifying to think that a botched call could result in an undeserved loss. The only solution is for the Steelers to create enough of a buffer that an occasional mistake from the officials does not lose them the game.
3) There is a lot of money involved in professional football from merchandise to gambling to fantasy sports and player salaries. It is an industry. While no organization is perfect, officiating is one of the weakest links in the NFL. Fans can grumble about suspensions and personal conduct problems, but when officials on the field fail to enforce rules (or enforce rules incorrectly), it undermines the integrity of the game even more than deflated footballs.
Part of the problem could lie in instant replay. Referees know that for many plays they will have a second chance. If they are wrong, the replay official will catch it. That complacency could result in shoddy calls on plays that aren't reviewable. There has also been a recent influx in less experienced, younger officials. While they are able to keep up with the physical demands of the game, they could interpret rules differently and have less knowledge than officials who have been in the league longer. This could account for some of the inconsistency between the ways crews make calls. (Though there is also inconsistency within crews, at times).
Officiating should be a top priority in the NFL this off season. It is sad that officiating is even a topic of conversation going into the Steelers most important game of the season. Referees have an incredibly tough job and get most calls right. The problem appears to be systemic and organizational. Hopefully the league can figure out a way to improve matters.