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Saturday, October 30, 2010
Have at It: Fixing officiating

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

We were never going to solve the (football) world's problems in one random post, but I thought you guys and gals gave it a pretty good run in this week's "Have at It." I asked you if the NFL's officiating could be improved. And if so, how?

It's true. This post was sparked by Sunday night's game at Lambeau Field, which had three touchdowns reversed by instant replay and two calls that the NFL ultimately acknowledged were wrong. But as close readers of the blog know, huge officiating blunders have been a weekly staple this season in the NFC North. I could spend the next 1,000 words just listing them all. I mean, could you imagine what would have happened if the Minnesota Vikings had won Sunday night's game on Percy Harvin's clearly illegitimate touchdown reception with 48 seconds remaining?

But instead of hashing through each instance, let's instead try to be productive for a few minutes. Can anything be done to even out at least some of the most egregious calls?

As is often the case, some of you rejected the initial premise. "The players certainly aren't perfect," wrote dgnfcnorthaz. "I can't see why people expect the referees to be perfect." Metalsman was more verbose:
Face it people, until we go to robotic games where artificial intelligence oversees everything, we will always have the "human element." That's just the way it is.

There will always be missed calls, wrong calls, overturned/upheld calls. Above all else, there will always be judgment calls. That's the "human element" of it all. The NFL, coaches, players, fans and organizations can wish all they like for refs to "just get it right the first time, or get it right with replay." But until you take the human element, OUT of the game, we will forever find ourselves embroiled in controversial calls.

Pretty easy to figure out really. If everyone wants every single call right... then let's change the game and just take humans out of it.

Fair enough, but there is a difference between the "human element" and poor performance. What we saw Sunday night, and on multiple other occasions, was closer to the latter.

NFL officials are not full-time employees of the league, which RestoreTheRoarMan sees as a fundamental problem: "The best way in my opinion is to provide intense training for the officials. Have them spend the entire week reviewing film of the plays that helped write the rulebook. Show them film of blown calls and explain to them why the calls were made the way they were. Depending on where they are on the field, they should be required to endure a large amount of training about how the game is played by players in different positions. Specialize the officials, in other words."

Discipline for poor performance should also be considered, wrote mer810: "Many scoff at the thought of fining a referee or an entire crew for botched calls, but it seems to me to be the only fair option. It hardly seems kosher that a coach gets fined for having an opinion about a bad call, yet the ref who commits the bad call goes virtually unpunished. Any other aspect of the league is subject to fines for various indiscretions (players, coaches, presidents, teams) yet the refs get a free pass. They are compensated to do a job, and like anyone who doesn't perform a job up to par, there should be consequences to pay (pun intended)."

Of course, the NFL doesn't publicize much about the way it handles officials. For all we know, fines and/or suspensions are handed out on a weekly basis. That Iron Curtain is part of the problem, wrote cags777: "What I see from the NFL is a corporation not willing to add any accountability to the public. Yet, it is players and coaches who are the ones who are punished. ... Unless the NFL is willing to be more transparent and at least try to improve with making concrete rules with what a catch is and what clubs are supposed to do with instant replay on the big screens, there will be many fans who question the integrity of the league."

Most of the discussion, however, centered on changes to instant replay. "Replay should not be a part of a team's strategy," wrote Shanerator. And ultimately, wrote brianinindy, it shouldn't be up to coaches to start the process: "Is it really the coach's job to oversee officiating and make sure it is done right? I think that's one of the biggest flaws."

Instead, a frequent suggestion was to pull aspects of the NCAA replay system, where booth officials buzz referees if they are reviewing a play, and even the NHL -- where a centrally-located official watches television feeds from league headquarters.

Writes Cranial_Cheddar: "I agree with those saying that they should go to a college style replay system where every play is reviewed. With how many close calls there are and the speed of the game at the pro-level this might result in a lot of reviews and draw out games more, but its better to have long, drawn out games where the officials got it right."

If nothing else, suggested tmonson78, the league should ensure an equal number of television cameras in each game to guarantee a fair chance to overturn poor calls: "How often is a review not overturned because there was not a good angle from which to view the play. To me, this is unacceptable."

My take? Yeesh. This is an issue that has been debated for generations and will continue forever. I'm not sure if we've just hit a bad stretch, or whether the NFL has reached a juncture where its game can no longer be officiated effectively using traditional means.

I think the NFL should strongly consider hiring some officials full time, particularly the referees. It hasn't been necessary in the past, and I'm not sure how busy they would be during the week. But it would be an appropriate response to a run that has put some awfully questionable instances on full display. Let's at least find out if it would help, regardless of the expense.

I also think there should be some level of streamlining the rules. There are only so many things that a human can keep in the front of his head at one time. When an official has to judge whether a special teams player is a yard off the long-snapper prior to a punt, on top of everything else happening on the field, we might be hitting oversaturation.

Finally, I'm in favor of finding ways to normalize replay, regardless of how big the TV audience is or whether you're in your home stadium. Replay shouldn't be a home-field advantage, and they shouldn't be limited by how many cameras a television executive assigns to the game. Each coach should have the same access to the same replays, across the board, every week.

We're just touching the surface of this issue. Perhaps in the offseason, when we have nothing else to discuss but the lockout, we'll hit it again in more detail.