Although just about all NFL fans feel that their team regularly gets jobbed by the zebras, the truth is that bad calls tend to even out. But now, it is not so much an issue of bad calls that favor one side or the other. It is that almost every game seems to have at least one egregiously bad or controversial decision by the referees, and often multiple ones come up. It is hurting the league and the fans, and something needs to be done about it.
The Dallas Cowboys have a prominent role in this issue. One of the most noted controversial calls of all times is the Dez Bryant catch in the playoff game against the Green Bay Packers that was determined after review to have been an incompletion. There was disagreement on the field by the officials, and many observers, not just Cowboys fans, feel that the league got it wrong. Now, a phrase that you hear in almost every NFL broadcast is "No one knows what is and isn't a catch anymore." This came into play again in the last Cowboys game against the Seattle Seahawks, in a situation where the determination by the replay officials wound up being in Dallas' favor.
But that was not the only one where there were mistakes in that game. There were three plays that saw some strange decisions by the referees.
The one that was the worst was when Pete Carroll tried to call two time outs in a row on a Dallas field goal attempt. The Seahawks somehow wound up with twelve men on the field after the first one, and Carroll signaled for a time out to try to avoid a penalty that would have given the Cowboys a first down. The officials blew the whistle erroneously. They should have not stopped the play, allowing it to continue. Since they did stop the play, there was no penalty. Since the second time out was not intended to ice the kicker, Seattle was not liable for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, but the five yard assessment for too many men would have resulted in another set of downs for Dallas to try and score a touchdown that might have made the difference in the game. The officials admitted after the fact that it was their mistake, and it may have affected the outcome of the game. They simply did not remember the proper way to address the error by Carroll.
The second one was the flag for a blindside block of Ricardo Lockette by Jeff Heath on a punt. Here is a video of that block.
The problem is that this simply was not a blindside block. Heath hit Lockette about as squarely from the front as he could. Watching the video, it appears that Lockette saw Heath coming and squared up for the collision. It was just a very solid, very hard, completely legal hit. The flag was dropped more as a reaction to how violent the collision was and that it obviously hurt Lockette. But that is not illegal. Under NFL rules, Heath should be fined for getting flagged, but as of the time this was written, there has been no announcement of a fine. The league may have decided that since the flag was incorrect, it is not going to assess a monetary punishment, but in the past it has levied fines for similar questionable penalties.
Third on the list of strange calls was an incompletion thrown late in the game by Matt Cassel. It was initially called a fumble, but replay showed that he was clearly in the act of throwing the ball when he was hit on the arm, causing the ball to come out and fall to the ground a few yards ahead of him. It looked like a forward pass in real time as well. Video also shows an official was right there a few yards ahead of the play and looking right at it, but still he allowed the play to continue as a fumble before it was overturned. The puzzle here is just what that official saw that kept him from blowing the play dead, as it should have been.
I discussed all these plays with rabblerousr and Landon McCool in the latest podcast, but that was too brief to get into all the issues. This is now a serious factor that is disrupting far too many games. There are several things contributing to this growing problem that need to be addressed.
First off, the rules, including the ones about what constitute a completed pass, have become far too complicated. There are simply too many things that have been included for the referees to be able to factor in for a real-time judgment on the field. Once, the only real factors to consider for a catch were whether the player controlled the ball while getting two feet down, but now the official has to determine if there was a "football" move involved and whether the payer controls the ball all the way to the ground. It leads to plays being called on fine, legalistic details that involve far too much parsing of the language of the rules, and this is not unique to that one rule. The rule book needs a reworking to simplify things and take away some of the influence the referees and instant replay have on the outcome of plays and, at times, the final score. The long reviews also interrupt the flow of the game and force the viewers to suffer through long waits.
The replay system has itself been a major contributor to many of the problems. Slow motion, multiple camera angles and extreme closeups have led to a desire to get everything perfect, yet even with the use of additional replay officials, there are still too many calls that seem unclear. The idea of clear and indisputable evidence is very hard to achieve. Further, nationally televised games have more cameras than regional broadcasts, which makes things uneven depending on when a game is scheduled. The game is meant to be played by human beings, with human referees. Although advancing technology should make some things like spotting the ball and breaking the plane of the goal line easier and quicker to determine over time, right now there are some noticeable flaws at work. One thing that might be considered is to stop using slow motion in the review process. Make the determinations at real time speed instead of incorporating what is essentially an inhuman level of accuracy to overturn people that are just trying to do their job to the best of their ability.
And clearly referees need to be better at their job. The NFL still uses part time referees due to cost, which seems shortsighted and rather stingy for a league that is raking in billions of dollars. The focus of the league needs to be on putting the highest quality product on the field to ensure the continued popularity of the game, not pinching pennies to put a few more dollars in the pockets of owners, most of whom are worth a billion dollars or more. Full-time referees who can be trained in the offseason could make them not only more proficient but also more confident. Currently there seems to be a bit too much caution on the part of the zebras. They seem hesitant on the field out of fear of being overturned. With full-time officials, they also could be held more accountable as well. As Dawn Macelli pointed out to me, there needs to be more accountability among the referees. Crews that make too many or too egregious errors need to be suspended, with some kind of reduction in pay.
The league does not help at times with the long, convoluted defense of some of the decisions. The NFL needs to be more open and frank about mistakes that are made instead of trying to justify some of them to try and look less fallible.
It is not something that will be quick or easy to fix, but the league cannot let this go on. Fans are naturally suspicious of the referees anyway, and having so many glaring mistakes is just aggravating that. Simpler, more clear rules, better training, and less reliance on video to try and get things perfect all the time could help make the game much more enjoyable for the fans - and that is the name of the game.