On Officiating in the NFL

Championship Sunday has come and gone. Both of the games were fun and exciting for the most part, but both were also marred by terrible officiating. The most egregious officiating error occurred very late in the Rams/Saints game, when Rams DB Nickell Robey-Coleman smashed into Saints WR Tommylee Lewis in a way that is definitely pass interference according to any agreed-upon definition of the term. Had the penalty been called, the Saints would have gotten a first down, then been able to run down the clock and kick a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. Instead, they were forced to kick the field goal with plenty of time left on the clock, which the Rams successfully exploited to get in field goal range and send the game to overtime, where the Rams would then win the game. Therefore, in the eyes of just about everybody, this missed call swung the result of the game.

While there wasn’t a single call in the Chiefs/Patriots game that led to the Patriots victory, there were at least two highly dubious calls in the fourth quarter that went in their favor. First, this apparently muffed punt by Patriot Julian Edelman was later overturned, as the referee decided that the ball didn’t actually touch Edelman at all. Second, Chiefs DE Chris Jones was flagged for roughing the passer after having lightly grazed Tom Brady’s left shoulder. Again, neither of these calls was solely responsible for the Patriots win. However, I think that both of them are more illustrative of why the officiating in the NFL is so consistently dreary and awful.

For many years now, the NFL’s solution to any problem regarding the game’s rules has been adding more rules. Any point of possible contention or ambiguity in these rules is ‘clarified’ by the addition of even more legal-grade explanatory text, which itself contains its own ambiguities that eventually have to be elucidated. The process of reviewing plays is likewise a bloated morass of tedium. After a play is challenged or otherwise flagged for review, the official reviews the play on the sideline for an interminable period of time while the broadcast team replays the play endlessly so the commentators can parse the living bejeezus out of every aspect of what just happened. When the referee gives his final verdict, the decision often feels as though it was drawn out of a hat. This happens at least once a game, and it really, really sucks to watch.

The muffed punt review was a particularly egregious example of this. The burden of proof in any officiating review is on the negative – in order to overturn the result of a play, the replay must conclusively show that the play did not occur the way it was called. It seemed pretty clear to me that the ball touched Edelman somewhere. The trajectory changed off his person, although whether it was off his hand or his arm wasn’t clear. But, since the burden of proof is on the negative, it doesn’t need to be conclusively proven where exactly the ball touched him. It needs to be proven that it did not. I did not see this proof, but the call was overturned nonetheless. It was baffling.

The roughing the passer call was its own nonsense. Jones had his hand in the general vicinity of Tom Brady’s head, and therefore he was flagged as though he had hit Brady in the head, which he did not. What is clear to me with this call (and, to an extent, the call on the punt) is that due to the speed and complexity of the game, officials don’t focus on what the players are actually doing. They focus on the secondary characteristics of what is happening around the play. Tom Brady didn’t get hit in the head, but his head moved around some and there was a hand there, so it’s a penalty. The officiating in most games, as a result, indicates a referee corps that is less concerned with getting calls right than it is making it look like they got calls right, mostly.

In this sense, the officiating of the game reflects the personality of the game’s commissioner. Roger Goodell embodies the modern paternalistic blowhard. He has declared himself ultimate arbiter of all matters regarding player discipline, and has bungled the ever-living fuck out of every investigation into and punishment for player misconduct. He has no idea what the shit he is doing, but has decided that since he wants to play the part of the master of all he surveys, then by god, he’s going to at least try to make it look like he’s master of all he surveys. This can only result in failure. If you want to see what George Orwell meant when he said “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys”, look no further than how Roger Goodell handles anything. You will see an idiot attempting to feel big and looking foolish as a result.

I really do think the officiating reflects this approach. More often than not the officials in an NFL game appear to be play-acting. They may not know what they’re doing, but they’re in charge nonetheless. The cumulative result over years of inscrutable calls is that no one on the face of the earth seems to know how football is played.

It doesn’t bother me that the result of the Rams/Saints game was directly tied to the officiating. People make mistakes. It just sucks to watch. I’m sick of spending so much time every single game re-watching the same play over and over again while the referee mulls over which of the arbitrary possible rulings he will decide on, based on whatever obscure rule or precedent he feels is most relevant. If the problem is that the game is too complex and fast for human eyes to keep up, stop relying on them. Have all plays quickly and efficiently reviewed in a central location, or in an on-site control booth, or something like that. Maybe that solution is destined to fail as well, but it sure beats watching these befuddled old white guys run around the field, pretending to know what they’re doing.

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