February 07, 2006

Blowing the whistle on NFL refs

I’ll preface this by saying that I normally could care less about officiating. I’m not big on blaming the refs for a loss, or cursing out the ref after a questionable call. I don’t know their names, and I don’t care to know their names. I’d prefer to not notice them during a game. In fact, my definition of a good official is an official who I don’t notice throughout the game. If he’s staying out of the action and letting the players play, he’s got my seal of approval. For the most part, the refs in college sports do a good job of that, so I usually don’t have much to say about officials.

The NFL? Now that’s a different story. How can you not notice the NFL officials? They have become the focal point of the NFL experience in recent years. As everyone already knows, there’s been a lot of discussion about the officiating throughout the NFL Playoffs and especially following the Super Bowl. Whether or not you thought the Seahawks would have won the game without the costly flags, there’s no denying that the officiating in the game had a major impact on the Super Bowl. Not only did some big plays get called back, but I felt like it was hard to get into the game with so many penalties and stoppages of play. Don’t get me wrong. Pittsburgh was the better team, made the plays they needed to make, and deserved to win. I was rooting for (and betting on) the Steelers, but thought Seattle got the raw end of the deal on some devastating penalties.

Was the officiating poor in the Super Bowl? Technically it was not. Those officials are lackeys for the league office. They are told what to call and what not to call, and I’m guessing their calls on the pass interference and holding penalties were technically correct. HOWEVER, are the league policies on holding and pass interference completely ridiculous? You bet.

If you’ve watched NFL games over the last five years, you’ve probably noticed that more and more games are being dominated by yellow flags every Sunday. Personal fouls on the sideline, roughing the passer, helmet to helmet, block in the back, holding, pass interference. The list goes on and on and on. Seems like every other touchdown drive is spurred on by a huge penalty, and punt returns are constantly being called back.

I understand that penalties are penalties. I don’t blame the officials. They are taught to throw the flag on certain occasions, and if they are in position to see a penalty, then they have to throw that flag. That official who called the push off on Darrell Jackson had to make that call. He was standing right there, and he was following the rules of the league. You can’t really blame the official even if you thought the call was cheap. If anything, I’m advocating for some policy changes in the NFL league office to lessen the impact that officials have on the outcome of the game. As it stands now, officials dominate the action of the game. Constant flags, constant reviews, meetings, controversial calls. The referees slow down the action, and take away momentum. Most importantly, they are taking the game out of the hands of the players. The few chances that players have to make spectacular individual plays (knocking a deep ball down, a big punt return, throwing a big block on a reverse) are the plays that are the most penalized in the NFL. That shouldn’t be the case.

Here are three changes that I would love to see implemented by the NFL (and college for that matter).


Why are there so many ticky tack holding and block in the back penalties these days (especially on special teams)? Here’s the primary reason. Has anyone been to an NFL game recently?! There are like 37 officials on the field during the game! You got line judges, back judges, backfield guys, endzone guys. You don’t really notice them on tv, but look for this next time you attend an NFL game. There are officials EVERYWHERE. When you have an official behind the linebackers, an official in the backfield, and two officials on the sideline, you think they might get a little antsy to call a holding penalty once in awhile? There are too many eyes looking for penalties, so calls that don’t need to be made are being called.

Think about your average punt return. With seven officials standing there looking over the action, there is literally one official for every block that is made on the play. You wonder why there are so many “block in the back” penalties called on punt returns? There’s your reason.

I say cut the officials down to 3 or 4, and let the players play. Tell the smaller crews to focus on the important things (spot of the ball, sideline, and fumbles), but keep the flags in the pockets unless something obvious comes to your attention. It hurts enjoyment of the game when every decent punt return gets called back for a holding call.


What is the #1 complaint that NFL fans have about officials these days? Hands down, the answer is the questionable pass interference on a deep ball into the endzone. You know the play. QB tosses up the 45 yard bomb from midfield, both the receiver and the defender go up for the ball, the defender nudges the receiver, ball falls incomplete, yellow flag falls to the ground, team gets the ball at the 1 yard line. Absolutely infuriating if you’re the fan of the team that just got penalized. The other team basically got a free 45 yards for a questionable call on a ball that probably wouldn’t have been caught anyway.

If that’s the biggest complaint from NFL fans and coaches, why the heck can’t you review that play? Tell me what is a bigger play between these two events:

1. 8 yard pass to the sideline where the official ruled the player only had one foot

2. 45 yard pass interference penalty putting the ball on the 1 yard line

Pretty sure that answer is #2, and yet only #1 can be reviewed. If pass interference penalties make such an impact on the game, why not allow a coach to challenge the penalty and have it reviewed? What’s wrong with kicking the call up to the booth to determine if the defender really interfered with the receiver? I’ve never understood why a play as big as a pass interference penalty can’t be reviewed.

If you allow the replay, maybe the official can take a second look it in slow motion and determine whether the contact by the defender really warranted a pass interference penalty. Maybe he’ll see that the receiver pushed off, or that both players were bumping each other, and decide to reverse the penalty call. Maybe he won’t. At the very least, it should be an option. I bet if you pooled all the NFL refs about it, they’d probably support review of penalties.

This change needs to happen. I’m guessing it isn’t easy to make that call in the end zone as an official, so there should definitely be a support system in place to help these guys out.


If you ever listen an ex-linemen or linebacker talk about holding, they will tell you an official could call a holding penalty on every single play. Every one of these guys is clutching and grabbing throughout the game.

If that’s the case, then how are officials able to pick out 5 or 6 instances where they feel the need to throw the flag? Here’s my take. They aren’t. It’s almost as if they are throwing flags at random. The whole thing just seems very subjective to me. It’s especially frustrating when you watch the replay and don’t see an obvious hold.

Here’s my solution to the problem. Eliminate holding penalties. I’m not saying that you can’t call a guy for a hold. Put the egregious holding penalties under the “unnecessary roughness” umbrella or something like that. In other words, if a guy tackles a blitzing linebacker before he gets to the QB, throw the flag. If a special teams blocker shoves a gunner to the ground from behind, hit him up for “unnecessary roughness.” Otherwise, just let it go. A 10 yard penalty is a huge drive killer, so that type of penalty should only be for something really bad.

Holding penalties have gotten way out of hand in recent years in the NFL. NFL teams probably have reached the point where they have to scheme for 1st and 20 situations to deal with the constant holding penalties. That hurts the game.

There you go. Make those three simple changes to the league rules, and I think there would a lot fewer controversies and a better overall flow to the game.


Jimmy said...

Interesting take. I certainly agree that penalties should be reviewable, especially with the rash of shaky calls having a significant impact on games.

For the record, Referee #86 Bernie Kukar is one of the finest men to don the stripes. He officiates with the mantra let the players decide the game. Is that too much to ask from Tagliabue and the Gang?

Sean said...

#85Ed Hochuli is probably the finest Ref in the game. I want all NFL refs to take a lesson from the man. Hochuli for President!