The 2016 “Official Playing Rules of the National Football League,” the gospel of governance for North America’s most powerful sports league, is 88 pages long.
NFL officials, Roger Goodell’s on-field police force, are not permitted to officiate NFL games until they have acquired at least 10 years of experience at the high school and college level. At least five of those years must be spent officiating Division 1 college games.
As of this writing, not one of these officials is employed by the NFL on a full-time basis.
Perhaps that explains the current state of the league.
Take Cam Newton, for example, who officials can’t seem to agree on how to officiate. During Carolina’s 26-15 win over Washington on Monday, Newton absorbed what appeared to be a head-to-head hit after giving himself up on a slide. Washington LB Trent Murphy, who delivered the hit, was not flagged. Newton, however, drew a 15-yard taunting penalty for flipping the ball in Murphy’s direction after the play.
To reiterate, Newton, the league’s reigning MVP, took a shot to his head and WAS FLAGGED on the play. Walt Coleman, the sideline judge who threw the flag, was asked why he didn’t penalize Murphy after the game.
“I didn’t see any forcible contact with the head,” Coleman said, per USA Today.
Regardless of whether or not Murphy made contact with Newton’s head (if he did, it was hard to tell, for what it’s worth), the fact that he led with his head as Newton was clearly surrendering himself should have at least caught Coleman’s attention.
“We just work the game,” Coleman said. “And if it’s a foul, we call it a foul. If it’s not, then we don’t. We just officiate the game and do the best of our ability. So it doesn’t make any difference to us who is playing or who the quarterback is. We’re trying to get the plays correct.”
Read that again: “it doesn’t make any difference to us who is playing.” Bold statement, Walt. If that’s the case, what a remarkable coincidence it is that officials tend to swallow their whistles when Newton, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger or other, er, “unconventional” quarterbacks take questionable hits.
Now, I certainly understand that players, quarterbacks included, essentially render themselves field players when they exit the cozy confines of the pocket and sprint upfield. The league penalizes hits to “defenseless” receivers, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to lump sliding quarterbacks into the “defenseless” category. But, that’s for the NFL to discuss at a later time.
At present, the issue at hand is officials’ inability to enforce rules on a consistent basis. Tom Brady is obviously the gold standard for the “what if this happened to” comparison, but if you think even a mid-tier dude like Matt Ryan or Andy Dalton would have escaped the aforementioned play without the benefit of a call, you are crazy.
In addition to bungling (haha) forcible contact rules on a fairly routine basis, officials frequently misjudge celebration penalties. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, for instance, received a 15-yard penalty (and fines) for a somewhat-choreographed handshake during Pittsburgh’s victory over the Colts on Thanksgiving. Brown was also flagged for excessive celebration in Pittsburgh’s other nationally-televised games against Washington and Kansas City.
Cowboys halfback Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, escaped without a penalty (or a fine) after jumping into a comically large Salvation Army bucket during Dallas’ win against Tampa Bay last Sunday. So, too, did Bengals running back Jeremy Hill, who attempted (and failed) to rip a Terrible Towel after a scoring run in the second-quarter of Cincinnati’s loss to Pittsburgh. Of course, these celebrations were both awesome (even Hill’s), and if you have ever read one of my articles, you know exactly where I stand on celebrations: I love them with a childlike enthusiasm. The excessive-er, the better. However, if the NFL is going to punish Bell, Brown, or Odell Beckham Jr. for celebrating excessively, then those punishments must be applied consistently. Ideally, the NFL would allow everyone to twerk, bucket jump and destroy team-licensed property as they please, but this is the same league that punishes players for writing on their eye tape, so good luck with that.
And to Coleman’s point: yes, officials absolutely do scrutinize individual players. Brady gets an extra pair of eyes so he doesn’t get injured. Vontaze Burfict gets several extra pairs of eyes so he doesn’t injure somebody else. Brown and Beckham get extra pairs of eyes so they don’t have too much fun. It is no coincidence that Dre Kirkpatrick received three or four defensive holding penalties during Sunday loss to Pittsburgh; after committing the first one (or, potentially, after Brown or Roethlisberger mentioned something to the officials), Kirkpatrick became a focal point of the officials attention. In fact, they were watching Kirkpatrick so closely for defensive holding that they missed several obvious facemask penalties.
The whole point of this article isn’t to totally besmirch Coleman or any other NFL official. These guys are simply part-time employees who are performing a job that none of us could perform effectively without the help of high-definition televisions, instant replay, slow motion and hundreds of camera angles.
Given the complexity of the position, however, the NFL needs to make good on its promise to implement some full-time officials. It won’t fix everything, but at the very least we can expect more consistency.
For better or worse.