Nauseating or just right? NFL officiating in the crosshairs

Published 10:20 pm Friday, January 4, 2019

By TIM DAHLBERG, AP Sports Columnist
Mike Pereira was in his customary spot next to Troy Aikman in the Fox Sports broadcast booth for the Bears-Vikings game on the final week of the regular season, ready to chime in when needed on any close calls on the field.
Instead, he got one in the booth when Aikman declared the officiating for the game to be “nauseating.”
“I turned away because I didn’t know if he was going to throw up on me or not,” the former NFL officiating guru turned TV analyst said with a laugh.
The weekend before, New York Jets coach Todd Bowles wasn’t laughing after his team was flagged 16 times for a team-record 172 yards in an overtime loss to the Packers.
Bowles, who was fired the next week, got a parting gift from the NFL in the form of a $25,000 fine for angrily blasting the officiating after the game — which featured a penalty about every five snaps.
“I thought we were playing two teams,” Bowles said. “I thought we were playing the Packers — and the striped shirts.”
Nothing terribly new about that. Complaining about officials is a time-honored tradition that goes back to the days coaches — and fans — saw things only as they actually happened, without the benefit of super slow motion replays that at times get more study than the Zapruder tapes of the Kennedy assassination.
Never mind that NFL officiating crews get it right a lot more than they get it wrong — the NFL said that in 2017 officials made the correct call between 95 and 97 percent of the time. The wrong calls get magnified by incessant replays, and they get discussed long after the whistle blows a play dead.
That was the case more often than the league may want to admit during the just concluded regular season, when players sometimes got just as angry as coaches about calls on the field.
— The reaction by Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins last month after teammate Kamu Grugier-Hill emerged from a pileup on the opening kickoff against the Cowboys with the football and the only other players in the pile were Eagles.
Somehow, though, the ball went to the Cowboys after replay officials ruled there was “no clear recovery” of the football. Dallas would go on to win a crucial late-season division matchup 29-23 in overtime.
“Whoever is watching that in New York should stay off the bottle,” Jenkins said.
It didn’t take long for Jenkins to be fined for insinuating replay officials at league headquarters were drinking.
—A season that began with Packers linebacker Clay Matthews accusing the NFL of “going soft” after getting a string of roughing-the-passer penalties — one on a sack that some coaches around the league called “textbook — ended with a string of calls that were both confusing and, at times, maddening.
—The Chargers were the beneficiaries of two false start calls at Cleveland and Pittsburgh that, well, weren’t called. Both led to touchdowns.
After fourth-year down judge Hugo Cruz was fired by the league in October for a series of errors, including not calling the false start in the Cleveland game, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said: “I think that’s the first time I’ve seen an official get fired during the season. Maybe it’s happened before and I just don’t know, but they have jobs to do. We have jobs to do. Coaches get fired during the season and players get fired during the season. That’s accountability — it happens.”
Lynn was choosing his words a lot more carefully than did Bowles or Jenkins.
The good news is that changes to the catch rule worked, and there weren’t any huge outcries over what a catch really is the way there were a season earlier. And despite Matthews’ early complaints, new measures to protect the quarterback seem to be working without taking away the physical part of the game that attracts so many fans.
But games continue to be held up for replay reviews that are far from instant. The flow of the game is way too often interrupted so calls can be reviewed, and then reviewed some more.
Replay was supposed to fix everything. But it can cause its own set of problems, too.
“I think replay has created some messes,” Pereira said. “Replay, more than anything, has generated conversation about officiating.”
Pereira, the first former official to be hired as a TV analyst, said he now watches games more as a fan than he did as vice president of officiating for the NFL, and understands better now fan frustration about officials. Today’s officials are the best of the best, he said, but are taught to make calls based on what is in front of them and not how they might play out in living rooms across the country.
“They don’t think about whether it’s a good fan experience,” he said. “They just think about getting the call right because they’re graded on every game and on every call.”
And there can be so many calls available to them. Some players — even an owner or two — joke that the rulebook would stretch from one end zone to the other. Truthfully, there are hundreds of rules that have addendums and tangents, plus various points of emphasis the league stresses each season. There have been suggestions about adding another on-field official, but perhaps condensing the rules would be wiser.
The number of flags thrown in the league hasn’t changed much in recent years, with NFL officials calling around 4,000 penalties each year. But there are wide discrepancies between the league’s 17 officiating crews on how many penalties they call each game.
Four of those officiating crews were headed by rookie referees this year, and they were all in the top eight for flags thrown. One crew, headed by rookie referee Shawn Hochuli, called an average of 20.4 penalties a game, while at the other end veteran Bill Vinovich’s crew called an average of 13.1 penalties a game, still a relatively high number.
That’s in part, Pereira says, because officiating has become more of a science than an art. Newer officials tend to call all penalties they see, where those more experienced might not toss a flag for, say, holding, if it takes place away from the play and has no effect on the outcome.
It might be time, he said, to revisit why some fouls are called and why others aren’t.
“Let’s be frank about the situation,” Pereira said. “Ninety percent of the ire raised by fans and coaches is based on what they call, not what they don’t call. I’d rather see the tendency go toward fewer calls.”
Fewer calls might mean fewer complaints, though the one constant is that officials are always going to be a target of angry fans. That’s especially true in the NFL, where the action is fast and getting faster, and calls have to be made instantly.
The league’s 121 officials are the best of the best, having proven themselves from high school fields through colleges and then into the select fraternity that is the NFL. But even they aren’t going to get everything right — though the NFL proudly points out they are so good that only 37 percent of calls reviewed by replay are overturned.
“The fact remains 98 percent of what they do is right, but the focus is on the 2 percent that is wrong,” Pereira said. “Whether we like it or not we speak more about the 2 percent.”
AP Pro Football Writers Dennis Waszak Jr. and Rob Maaddi, and Sports Writers Joe Reedy and Genaro C. Armas contributed.