The NFL’s 2019 officiating fiasco has snaked far beyond the calls we see on Sunday afternoons or in prime time. It has invaded offensive huddles, perverted the league’s carefully cultivated replay system and dented the NFL’s integrity. Worse, the debacle has exposed systemic issues that can’t be fixed during the season without unprecedented intervention.
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s response at an owners meeting last month — “You see it in every sport,” he said — suggests a dramatic solution is unlikely in the coming months. But it is crucial that the NFL not blow off what we’ve seen as a coincidental accumulation of high-profile controversies. Instead, it can be viewed only as a moment of reckoning for the product it presents to fans.
Even if you’re inclined to accept officiating mistakes as a fact of life, you might be disturbed at the connection between the NFL’s rule changes and offensive production. And whether or not you care about high-scoring games, you might question a league that has sabotaged a signature rule change rather than do the work necessary to administrate it effectively.
So as the second half of the season begins, it’s important to understand and follow the tentacles of this calamity. The alarm extends far and wide, all the way to Troy Aikman — whose stature as a Hall of Fame player and high-profile broadcaster makes him a leading conscience of the NFL. “Our league,” Aikman tweeted this week, “has a lot to address this offseason as consumer confidence continues to wane.”
Just how bad has it gotten? Let’s take a look.
The mandate of NFL owners was clear last spring when they approved replay review for pass interference: Change only the most clear and obvious mistakes. Interpreted from afar, the league’s top-line data seems to confirm that approach: There have been nine reversals in 63 total reviews (14.2%).
But anyone who has watched the plays themselves knows that plenty of obvious mistakes have been left unaddressed. ESPN officiating analyst John Parry estimates that 25 of the reviews should have been reversed, even using the highest reasonable standard imaginable. The refusal to overturn has been particularly notable since the start of Week 3; coaches have been successful on only two of their 40 challenges over that period.
“They have raised the bar so high,” Parry said. “When it’s clearly a foul, or clearly not a foul, they still haven’t made those changes. So they have boxed themselves into a corner and now they can’t win. What is going to happen late in the season, when there are clear playoff implications? Or in the playoffs? If they make a change, then we’ll say, ‘Whoa. That play happened 40 times during the 17 weeks and you didn’t change it. But now you do?’ Or, if they don’t change it, then the wrong team moves on to the next round.”
Parry was in the ESPN booth on Monday night during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium, when New York Giants coach Pat Shurmur lost a challenge on an obvious instance of pass interference by Dallas Cowboys defender Chidobe Awuzie against Giants tight end Evan Engram. Minutes later, Shurmur just shook his head when Giants cornerback DeAndre Baker was flagged for pass interference even after replays showed minimal contact with Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper.
The sequence prompted Aikman’s plea and led Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy to suggest that the league stop allowing coaches to challenge pass interference. The NFL has offered no explanation for senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron’s impossibly high standard and why it differs from the examples he showed players, coaches and media members during the offseason. But the results haven’t surprised Glen Johnson, who was the Canadian Football League’s officiating chief when it began reviewing pass interference in 2014.
Dan Orlovsky expresses disappointment in the officiating in the NFL this season, saying owners should take action now to resolve the issue.
Johnson, who retired in 2017, said it took his review staff almost two full seasons to overcome the psychological reluctance to overturn on-field calls. Their efforts culminated in a reversal late in the 2015 Grey Cup that added a much-deserved pass interference flag to the Edmonton Eskimos’ winning drive.
“The real issue,” Johnson said, “is that when you’re the command center, you’re in the moment, the pressure is on and you’re dealing with humans, often the human falls to whatever the least worst thing to do is. It’s just a reality of human nature. The worst thing you could do is change a call and be wrong about changing it. It’s just easier by human nature to leave that call up there and have it be somebody else’s issue. We spent a lot of time trying to train our guys to understand that it’s not about doing the least worst thing. It’s about trying to find that standard and be on the right side of the line.”
The easy answer for the NFL is to shelve the rule after this season, which some league decision-makers already favor. That would be a frustrating and demoralizing outcome for those who know the league needs a safety net in the HD television era. Instead of tackling a complex problem with a nuanced solution, the league would have thrown up its hands and given up without trying to see it through.
“If you step away from it all,” Johnson said, “the greater good is still there. The greater good is having the ability to fix a play that is happening in a playoff game and could eliminate somebody. That’s where we got to. It took some time to get to a standard that was generally supported. There will always be detractors, but it’s better to have it than not have it.”
Changing the on-field standard
The replay debacle has cast a brighter light on pass interference calls, whether or not they are reviewed. And if you’ve found yourself questioning their accuracy more often this season, you’re not alone. Parry, who spent 19 seasons as an NFL official, said he has found himself “sadly” doing the same.
“I think the psyche of the official has changed with this rule,” Parry said. “There used to be an on-field standard of what they did and didn’t call. Now they see a different standard of what stands and what gets reversed. Coaches have a different standard because the weeks change, the game changes, and they’re throwing that red flag with vigor and frustration. Their standard is different.
“So now you have all of this data in your head, what is going to stand, what is going to get reversed. As an official in the NFL, the standard has to be so clear so you can consistently be correct. And that’s why there have been more misses.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones downplays criticism of NFL referees, saying the NFL trusts the judgement of its officials.
Look no further than the controversial no-call on that pass intended for Engram in the Week 9 Cowboys-Giants game for an example.
“When the ball goes in the air, five officials go to that receiver,” Parry said. “So we have five officials that chose not to throw a flag for pass interference. And a few plays later, we saw an official throw one that was very technical. There was just nothing there. That happens game in and game out now. There are more bigger misses. We always missed a few, but we didn’t miss this many.”
In the CFL, Johnson said he spent “a lot of time” counseling on-field officials about potential reversals.
“We wanted them to not worry about calls getting changed,” he said. “Sometimes, guys never have a chance to get a call right because of the angle they have. That’s exactly what happened in that Grey Cup game in 2015. Once you get officials to accept it, that some of the calls are going to be changed and that it’s not their fault, you can go ahead with it. So much of this was focusing on human nature.”
It’s more difficult to trace other NFL officiating mistakes to the new replay rules. But a deterioration in pass interference accuracy is serious and significant enough on its own. Through nine weeks, defensive and offensive pass interference flags have cost teams more penalty yards (2,661) than any foul other than offensive holding.
‘Referees aren’t held accountable’
When an early whistle negated a scoring play in Week 8, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians let it fly. He derided the NFL’s officiating department for refusing to hold referees and their crews accountable in the same way players, coaches and front executives are.
“My biggest thing is, referees aren’t held accountable,” Arians said. “Coaches get fired. General managers get fired. Players get cut. Referees aren’t accountable. And it’s a shame. It’s been that way for 40 years, and now that we’ve got a new [collective bargaining] agreement, it’ll be that way for 40 more years.”
The NFL does grade officials on every play of every game, and the results largely dictate playoff assignments. Parry estimated that two or three major errors over a season can be enough to knock an official out of postseason work, which brings extra paychecks as well as prestige. But Parry agrees that the league has been too passive in managing underperforming officials.
“I would say that’s a problem for the NFL,” he said. “When you look at the number of officials forced to retire or get terminated for their performance, those have been very few in the last six years or so. It happened to [down judge] Hugo Cruz last year, but as far as the lunch-box people who get hired, worked three, four or five years, struggled and were then terminated, that’s few and far between. They just don’t do it. And boy, there should be a few every year. At this level, be good or be gone.”
The NFL’s new CBA with the NFL Referees Association, signed earlier this fall, will allow for more turnover. New hires will spend three seasons at a probationary status before they get full veteran benefits. And officials with 20 or more years’ experience are entitled to a one-time enhanced severance if they retire before next season. It is estimated that between 10 and 20 officials will accept the offer.
While it seems reasonable to hold existing officials to higher standards, no one would suggest that the NFL — or any other sports league — has a deep bench of ready replacement officials. The biggest issue facing officiating in all areas, Parry said, is the pipeline.
“Officiating has a problem and the problem right now is on the front end,” he said. “Less and less people are getting involved with officiating at the grassroots level. It’s staggering.
“So finding good officials that can feed the system is a problem, and then on the back end you have people that have aged and are coming off the field. So we’re stuck, for lack of a better word, with a group of officials that didn’t have the experience coming in. They’re cutting their teeth in the NFL, and it shouldn’t be that way. But it is.”
In other words, Arians and the rest of the frustrated majority should be careful what they wish for.
This crisis is best viewed in a broad tapestry that reaches beyond individual calls or replay decisions. The rules that officials are attempting to enforce often have a hidden impact on the game product itself.
Every season, NFL owners approve changes to the rule book, and the competition committee implements points of emphasis for officials to focus on. This season’s primary tweaks — reviewing pass interference, an expansion of illegal blindside blocks and a point of emphasis on offensive holding — have almost certainly played a role in a notable offensive slowdown.
Flags for offensive holding have risen 33% from last season. Most of that came during the first two weeks of the season, a time period the NFL inexplicably uses to teach players new rules and expectations. Illegal blindside blocks, more than half of which have been called on offensive players, have nearly quadrupled. And while many feared that defensive pass interference calls would rise under the new review system, it has actually led to a 32% uptick in offensive pass interference penalties.
Intentionally or otherwise, the rules NFL officials are administering this season make it more difficult to block and harder to complete passes. In all, offenses have been called for 17.5% more penalties and absorbed another 1,087 penalty yards than they had at this point last season. And that doesn’t include the thousands of gained yards that have been wiped out by those penalties.
The 2018 offensive “explosion,” as we noted last season, was driven in part by an inverted trend. The NFL made offensive play easier by focusing on illegal contact as a point of emphasis, as well as cracking down on roughing the passer. A change in focus has now left offense trending the other direction.
So where will this all lead? Aikman’s tweet tapped into the increasing likelihood that the NFL will expand its officiating bureaucracy after the season. It has already created one new position, a vice president for training, and more could be on the way. Altering the replay system, as Dungy suggested, seems unlikely. Competition committee chairman Rich McKay said last month that the league won’t begin to evaluate it until after the season.
Parry, for one, has spent his first season outside of the NFL calling for enhanced training, a modified “sky judge” and, most recently, more aggressive accountability. Ultimately, though, there is no single answer.
“It has to be a culture thing,” he said. “We could do so many things so much better that would improve officiating, and at this level, it has to be done.”
What is clear, however, is that the NFL has a much more far-reaching problem than it has acknowledged and possibly realizes.