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Is NFL Officiating Getting Out Of Hand And Hurting The NFL Product?

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Officiating in the National Football League has always been a hot topic for Monday morning water cooler talk. Is the officiating getting out of hand?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Every single week in the National Football League, there is going to be some annoyance with flags that were either thrown or not thrown. It's just the way of the game. How many times have we been sitting at a bar or around the house watching football and screamed about officiating crews? It happens every weekend but lately, an argument could be made that officials have taken over games by either making or missing calls.

An old friend of mine, Frank, who is 84 now, loves to regale us with tales of his days officiating football and basketball games. He never got to the NBA or NFL but he was able to call some big collegiate games in his tenure and he loved his time as a referee. The one quote that I remember most was "Mikey, the number one rule of officiating is to know when to let the players play. You never want to the game to be decided by the officials. Our job is not to dictate the outcome of the game."

Well, for so many reasons, the recent criticisms of the officials seem to be warranted. Just this past weekend, officials have really been taken to task about their performance levels. Let's start with the Sunday Night Football division matchup between our beloved Cowboys and Eagles. We had the "privilege" of getting Jerome Boger's team, who have averaged a league-high 20.3 penalties called per game. To their credit, they only called 16 penalties in this game, which is about league average, but that doesn't mean they're off the hook.

Though it wasn't Boger's fault, we have to mention that the Oakland Raiders were flagged a league-high 23 times this week in a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's a crazy number of flags being thrown even for a team that is routinely atop the league in penalties.

In an article, last updated in 2015, they showed, in 2012, that the league average of penalties per game was 12.55. By the chart, they only projected an increase to 14.05 per game in 2016. If you check the table below, as composed by Kevin Seifert of ESPN, it shows you the average penalties per game each official's crew calls.

NFL Week 8 Officiating Assignments
CREW GAME PENALTIES/GAME*
Boger, Jerome Eagles-Cowboys 20.3
Allen, Brad Lions-Texans 19.8
Triplette, Jeff OFF 19.6
Parry, John Patriots-Bills 19.3
Hussey, John Jaguars-Titans (Thursday) 18.3
McAulay, Terry Raiders-Buccaneers 17.3
Blakeman, Clete OFF 17.3
Anderson, Walt Packers-Falcons 17.2
Hochuli, Ed Seahawks-Saints 16.9
Corrente, Tony Chargers-Broncos 16.5
Steratore, Gene Vikings-Bears 15
Cheffers, Carl Redskins-Bengals 15.5
Torbert, Ronald OFF 15
Wrolstad, Craig Chiefs-Colts 14.5
Morelli, Pete Jets-Browns 14.1
Vinovich, Bill OFF 13.3
Coleman, Walt Cardinals-Panthers 11.7
*Includes accepted, declined and offsetting
Source: ESPN Stats & Information

Though this was before last weekend's games began, the increase was actually 16.5 penalties per game. After this weekend, in particular, the NFL should be called to task. What is the deal with all these penalties? This is actually a two-parter because sometimes the referees miss calls that should be made and make calls that shouldn't. There are two sides to this coin.

Take, for instance, this saga with the reigning MVP, Cam Newton. He's not happy with the protection or lack thereof of himself being treated as a quarterback.

"At times I don’t even feel safe … I just can't keep accepting, ‘Oh we missed that one’ or ‘I apologize for doing that’ or ‘I didn't see it.’ That’s horse crap … When you constantly see the hits, constantly see flags being picked up, and you constantly see flags getting thrown, and to see other quarterbacks getting hit, lesser hits, lesser physical hits, then it’s taking the fun for me out."

This springs from a blatant missed call where the defender (Calais Campbell) went low on a quarterback hit. As much as people don't necessary like Newton, he's got a point. If that were Tom Brady or other quarterbacks and someone went for the knees, while he was in the pocket, you bet your pants it would have been called. There is the key phrase though for Newton. He was 'in the pocket' and therefore should have the same protection any quarterback is allotted. When Cam runs like a running back, he should be expected to be treated like a running back but when he's in the pocket, no excuses for the referee to miss that call.

The last point on Cam Newton, he has sort of waged a war on officials this season stemming from the first week, in which, admittedly, they were very lax with the calls. The Broncos beat him up and even took some liberties that should have been flagged. To the credit of the NFL, statistics show that Newton hasn't been as ignored as he thinks. In fact, he ranks among the Top-10 quarterbacks to get a roughing the passer or unnecessary roughness calls over his years in the league. Still, as of late, Dean Blandino has admitted in the article above that they have missed some calls on Cam.

Cam is far from the only player, coach or NFL personality to call out the officiating this season. Back to the infamous "Boger Crew", ESPN's Monday Night crew were not too pleased with the amount of calls that were made in the Jets-Cardinals game. In this game, there were 23 penalties called and 13 in the first half alone. This led to the ESPN guys taking a shot at the Boger's officiating.

"The way this game has been officiated is not something that anyone wants to watch," ESPN "Monday Night Football" host Sean McDonough acknowledged during the game.

"Tough game to watch, with all the penalties," Jon Gruden offered later.

From that same column before about Boger's crew, Seifert predicted that Sunday Night Football's matchup would feature quite a few flags:

Boger's crew quite clearly errs on the side of calling a penalty. For further context on the way it approaches games, keep in mind that there have been 10 games this season in which the total number of penalties has been less than half of Boger's average (10 or fewer). About 60.7 percent of all games in the NFL have been called with fewer than 18 penalties, the lowest total Boger has produced in a game.

Not to keep picking on Boger's crew but come on guys, what gives? Now, let's shift to some criticism that makes the most sense and that is from New Orleans Saints head coach, Sean Payton.

"There aren't many Mondays that go by that there aren't at least 28 to 30 head coaches that are ticked off about certain calls that were missed or weren't made. You see it all the time," Payton said on Pro Football Talk Live. "And it's the frustration that the system currently hasn't improved. We say it has, but it hasn't."

"We're the only league that has officials that have primary other jobs, which is really madness. We can pay these guys. They should be full-time NFL officials, and they should be working throughout the week, communicating. And I know they get their hour in here, their hour in there, and maybe even more than that. But by and large, every other sports league employs full-time officials. And ours, these guys all have other significant jobs. And I just think it's very difficult to do with the speed of the game."

He's right, you don't see umpires for the World Series doing other 9-5 jobs throughout the week. Why must the NFL keep their officials as part-timers? If the teams consisting of their players and coaches have to work all week in preparation for the on-field product, so should officials. They are and have been since the dawning of TV ratings, big markets and commercialized football a part of the on-field product. They most certainly should be held to the same high standards.

What you are seeing each week is inadmissible, the NFL's on-field product is suffering and that's something that will hit the big wigs where it hurts. They are over-committed to marketing and under-committed to their product. The Washington Post had an interesting point about ratings:

When rookie quarterback Dak Prescott led the Dallas Cowboys over the Philadelphia Eagles with his touchdown pass to Jason Witten in overtime late Sunday night, it was clear how much animation the league has been missing. But even that terrific game, which had high divisional stakes and featured a bright new star, was crushed in the ratings by Game 5 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It’s the first time since 2011 that a World Series game beat "Sunday Night Football."

Surely that little nugget did not sit well with the NFL's brass losing out to baseball. They have seen their numbers go down and will continue to analyze and come up with terrible conclusions like "millennials attention spans" but that makes no sense. The fact is that Thursday Night Football is down by 18%, Sunday Night Football is down by 19%, and Monday Night Football has seen a 24% decrease in viewership. When you compare that to the NBA and MLB who have both seen steady increases over the last few years, it's certainly an issue.

The problem isn't the officials themselves, it's the fact that they are almost set up for failure no matter where they turn. They are either calling too many penalties or missing on calls and it's getting worse each week. Yes, that does turn fans off as the Washington Post has suggested but it has more to do with the NFL's  flooding the market and less oversight of their on-field performance. In short, if you have more televised games and more accessibility to your product, you need to put the effort forth to ensure it succeeds. Having all of the stoppages and flags thrown only decreases the likelihood of a quality end result which decreases the likability of the sport and makes your product less meaningful to the consumer.