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Hey NFL, How Bad Does It Have To Get?

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There are bad calls in pretty much every NFL game, to one degree or another. And if you scrutinized every play in slow motion, there would be at least one penalty on every play, too. And probably more bad calls. This has been the reality for the last 100 years.

The Obvious Missed Call

And yet with all the changes - more referees, instant reply, etc., etc. the NFL has not made much progress in eliminating the most glaring deficiency in NFL officiating: the clear and obvious missed call.

40 years after the infamous Drew Pearson push-off, another obvious pass interference call was missed in a playoff game, which pretty much decided the outcome. But this time, with Sean Payton a member of the NFL Competition Committee, and his team was victimized, a new and stupid rule was put in place. And it didn’t work. And it was bad for the game. And so it has more or less been unofficially disregarded, as fairly clear PI penalties are not overturned when challenged. They need to be off-the-charts bad or forgettaboutit. Ok. Same thing happened last year too, with a different new rule based on a knee jerk reaction to a single play. NFL, please learn from this.

All this is a mistaken route.

It’s mistaken because it’s not solving the central problem: the obvious missed call.

The solution has already been proposed, but seemingly rejected out of hand: have a replay official review every game in real time. Have that person watch the game film, just as fans see, and be available to consult via headset whenever needed. No challenge needed, can change any call, or non-call, that is a clear and obvious mistake. He or she just needs to relay to the referee via headset, “Hey Bob, got a call for you to make/change,” before the next play. The referee blows his whistle, and the call is made. Quick and simple. If it takes a minute to review in slow motion, it’s probably not clear and obvious enough.

Replay Makes It Worse - When It’s Not Reviewable

This isn’t the days before television, or even the days before 480P TVs with blurry slow motion. This is 2019 with 4K TVs the size of a barn with crystal clear slow/stop motion and 50 HD cameras covering every point on the field with two or three angles at least. And millions of fans at home and at the stadium watching crystal clear replay images in slow motion.

And so when a clear and obviously bad call, or non-call, is made, the whole world knows about it. Before the next play begins. But, if that call, or non-call, is not reviewable, or the coach doesn’t have or use a challenge, it doesn’t matter. A clear and obvious mistake, which will alter the outcome of a game to one degree or another, is not corrected despite the fact that everyone and their mother at home knows it was a bad call.

At that moment, the game is flawed. Fans become distracted and detached. Disenchanted. Cheated. Powerless. Even fans who’s team benefited from the call feel uncomfortable- if they’re honest- because they know it was a bad call. Sometimes they try to justify it by saying the other team got a bad call in that game, or another game, or last year, or 40 years ago. But they still know it was a bad call.

And all of that is bad. It’s bad for the game, it’s bad for the NFL, it’s bad for players, it’s bad for coaches, it’s bad for referees, it’s bad for owners, it’s bad for fans.

And all of it is unnecessary. Or perhaps a better word is Unsportsmanlike.

NFL’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct

The general definition of unsportsmanlike conduct is anything that is considered contrary to the rules of sportsmanship or fair play. And so if the NFL has the power to correct clear and obvious bad calls, but chooses not to do so, that should be considered unsportsmanlike conduct in and of itself. Having the choice to increase fair play, by eliminating clear and obvious bad calls, but not doing so, is unsportsmanlike conduct. It’s also conduct detrimental to the league, which can get players suspended in a hurry.

It’s Time For the NFL To Get It Right

I watched the Packers-Lions game on Monday night. Although I’m sure some less scrupulous Packers fans would argue with this, or try to justify them, there were a number of bad calls in that game. Some more impactful than others, but still many pretty clear and obvious mistakes that effected the outcome of the game. They may not have been as egregious as the missed DPI penalty in the Saints playoff game last season, but still they were clear and obvious mistakes that impacted the game. And there were several. All of which could have been easily corrected, quickly and easily, with a replay official with headset communication to the head referee.

Here are a few examples:

Illegal hands to the face (called twice) on Trey Flowers. In both cases, Flowers was grasping the shoulder pads of David Bahktiari, at about his collarbone, right where the top edge of his shoulder pads are. His hand was not on the face or neck area. And yet that penalty was called. Twice.

The above was on a 3rd down late in the game where Aaron Rodgers was sacked out of field goal range, effectively ending their drive, or forcing a very long 4th down conversion attempt. You may notice as well that two Packers, #69 and #74, had hand contact to the face of the Lions’ defender on that play.

Another clear and obvious mistake, again late in the game, was a missed defensive pass interference penalty where a Packer defender basically pushed the Lions receiver across the chest, before the ball arrived, causing him to not have a chance to make the catch. It was not necessary to see the play in slow motion to spot this. And the defender had his back to the ball.

Still another, albeit minor, but still very clear and obvious, was a missed illegal procedure penalty against the Packers defense for having too many players on the field. They actually had 13 players on the field and no official threw a flag.

All of those penalties could have been corrected in minimal or no extra time with a replay official.

Of course even a reply official is not infallible- they also missed a scoring review of a Packers touchdown that the player clearly had his knee down before the ball crossed the plane of the end zone. How this was missed after replay review seems sloppy at best. Even so, most often replay gets it right and eliminates a bad call.

And that’s the goal: eliminate obviously bad calls.

Better Than Perfect

Given enough time, careful scrutiny of super slow motion video, thoughtful deliberation, and extensive litigation of the precise meaning and definitions contained in NFL rules and standards, you may get close to perfection in getting every call or non-call correct. But that would probably take a very long time, creating a game even longer than a typical baseball game with even more dead time between plays.

But that isn’t the goal. The goal is to eliminate clear and obvious mistakes. The experience of making pass interference reviewable has shown that trying to get every call perfect is more trouble than it’s worth, and if you’re gonna review a whole play in slow motion, you might as well just call a do-over because most of the time you’ll probably find off-setting penalties if you look long and hard enough. When both players are pushing and shoving to some roughly equal extent, who gets flagged? Those types of calls are not going to be solved conclusively.

But rather than perfection, simply focus on the clear and obvious. That’s what a replay official can, and should, do. And it’s not likely to add more time to complete a game.

First of all, there aren’t that many clear and obvious mistakes in a typical game. There is usually one or two. There are also a bunch more questionable calls that are outside of a replay official’s mandate. Most can live with some seemingly ticky-tack calls, or non-calls erring on the ‘just let ‘em play” side, so long as they’re not clear and obvious mistakes and an equal standard is applied.

And for correcting a handful of clear and obvious mistakes, and how long that would take, consider this:

NFL Game Pass offers a ‘‘condensed’ version replay of NFL games. You know how long they are, on average? About 40 minutes. That’s right, 40 minutes. To watch a 60 minute game. Without missing a play. Not three hours, or three and a half. How is this possible? They cut out all the time in-between plays, including time when the game clock is running. That’s how you can watch a 60 minute game in 40 minutes. So, that noon game that ends about 3:10pm has about two and a half hours of “filler” in there, or time in-between plays. Even subtracting a half-hour for halftime, that’s a lot of time to review plays without adding a second to the length of a game.

Other Benefits of a Replay Official

Having a replay official should eliminate or reduce the need for coaches challenges, which saves time. It also gives teams without a challenge or timeout the opportunity to still have a clear and obvious missed call/non-call corrected. And any such call/non-call can be corrected, not just a chosen few.

It can also eliminate some bias. Players and coaches are always pleading and cajoling officials to call certain penalties, or look for this, pay attention to that, etc., etc. throughout the course of a game. And try as they might to ignore all that, sometimes it can have an effect, and lead to a bad call. The replay official isn’t a part of all that, however, and he/she can help straighten out any clear and obviously bad calls made because of the not so subtle influence of players or coaches on field officials.

The replay official is also a part of the crew, and should there be a play that requires an official’s conference, as happens occasionally, he/she can be a part of the discussion with access to replay.

Bottom Line

NFL teams are victimized by clear and obvious mistaken calls (or non-calls) on a weekly basis in the NFL. It’s been happening throughout the 100 years of the NFL. It’s not enough to simply shrug and say it’s part of the game. As the most popular sport in the US with roughly $9 billion in annual revenue, expectations are higher. There is a solution worth exploring, and the NFL should take steps to implement it.

The NFL has the power to create a replay official who can eliminate a lot of these clear and obviously bad calls. There are only 16 games in a regular season and each of them carry a lot of weight - much more so than one baseball, basketball, or hockey game. Not to mention single-elimination playoff games. That places a premium on eliminating clear and obvious mistakes in the relatively few games in the NFL.

Will it eliminate all the bad calls? No. There are many questionable calls that are difficult to correct because they’re very close, one way or another. But there are many clear and obvious mistakes that could easily be corrected by a replay official. It’s an easily implementable solution. The NFL just needs to give it the green light.


Should the NFL add a replay official charged with correcting clear and obvious officiating errors?

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