NFL officiating isn’t getting better, and the league has itself to blame

Updated: October 21, 2019

7:30 AM ET

More replay. Add a sky judge. Do both. Do neither.

None of it will matter, not now or in the future, until the NFL embraces its proposed fixes for officiating.

What is clear beyond all else is that, sometime after Week 2, the league sabotaged its new rule to review pass interference. It has not confirmed that conclusion, of course, and officially a spokesman said no changes have been implemented. But the numbers speak for themselves.

Since the start of Week 3, coaches have lost 27 of 28 pass interference challenges, including some that seemed no less egregious than the non-call that sparked the rule change in last season’s NFC Championship Game.

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  • In reality, it seems the NFL chose the appearance of addressing a shortcoming rather than actually doing the work necessary to fix it — a reality that suggests a significant moment of reckoning looming this winter for the league’s officiating department.

    In the meantime, everyone has a suggestion for how to reduce the number of officiating controversies in the NFL. Many of them have merit, including various versions of a sky judge — an additional official in the press box who alerts on-field officials to obvious mistakes. But if the league kneecapped its signature rule this season after only two weeks, why does anyone think it would embrace and see through the challenges of a sky judge? In many ways, the sky judge presents the same issues the NFL encountered and then punted on when reviewing pass interference.

    I’m not sure why NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron raised his standard for reversals to a near-impossible level. Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the NFL’s fall owners meeting that the rule was designed only to “correct the obvious and clear error,” and he implied that coaches are still coming to grips with that intent. But even casual observers could pick any a number of unsuccessful reviews that seemed ripe for reversal, especially based on the way Riveron defined the standard before the season.

    During the spring and summer, Riveron pointed to a series of representative plays when coaches and media members asked how he would decide whether to reverse a pass interference call or no-call. Most notably, he said he would use as a guide the contact that occurred in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII, when New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore pinned one arm of receiver Brandin Cooks before the ball arrived.

    It was the kind of play that generated imprecise analysis: Clear contact that fell short of “egregious.” But Riveron’s use of that play suggested that if he saw a reasonable facsimile of pass interference on a review, he would make sure the flag was thrown. That stopped happening after Week 2, and the shift was noticeable.

    On Thursday Night Football during Week 4 at Lambeau Field, Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox slammed into Green Bay Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling along the right sideline before the ball arrived. The contact, in fact, wasn’t much different than what occurred during last year’s NFC Championship Game. Riveron posted a Twitter video on the decision, saying only that “there was no clear and obvious evidence that [Maddox] significantly hindered the opponent.” He did not explain why he thought the clearly visible contact was not significant enough to merit a flag, and as it turned out, that was the last time Riveron addressed a pass interference review on his social account.

    Let’s not get lost in these details in service of the larger point, though. The NFL has a rule on its books that allows coaches to seek overturns on plays where on-field officials made mistakes. And, just as it did in 2018 with its new helmet rule, the league has largely declined to enforce it in part because the officiating department didn’t immediately find a way to do so in an equitable and consistent manner.

    The same issue would crop up with a sky judge. What standard would define a “clear and obvious” mistake worthy of buzzing down to the referee?

    How egregiously would an offensive lineman need to hold a pass-rusher to warrant intervention? Would the lineman need a fistful of jersey? Would his hand need to be outside the frame of the defender’s body? How significantly would a cornerback need to hinder a receiver from playing the ball? How forcefully would a hand need to touch the neck or head to be declared illegal hands to the face?


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    These are not unanswerable questions. They would require work and training to create a standard that could be followed by 17 sky judges in crews across the league — the same kind of work the NFL has not yet undertaken as it relates to reviewing pass interference. And it’s debatable at best whether the NFL has the infrastructure to handle the challenge. As ESPN officiating analyst John Parry noted earlier this season, the NFL’s once-robust training staff has dwindled to two employees.

    Parry’s own idea for a customized version of the sky judge is even less invasive, as he relayed it during a phone call this week.

    Under his proposal, the NFL would hire a handful of college officials, who are also part of its developmental program, after their seasons are over in November. Those college officials would perch in the press box and participate in an experiment that would envision them as an eighth official in the crew. They wouldn’t have the authority to overrule any calls based on what they see on their television monitors, but they could provide insight that the referee wouldn’t have from field level. The goal wouldn’t be to ensure every call was accurate but instead to protect against major credibility-influencing mistakes.

    creation of a new executive-level job to handle training — suggests that the NFL officiating is gearing up for a momentous offseason.

    Whatever they decide, let us hope that they embrace the plan rather than settle for the appearance of having one.

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