Inside Slant: Officiating quietly changes

May, 15, 2014
May 15
11:00
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Instant ReplayKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNFL owners voted in March to use a centralized system to help referees in stadiums make decisions on replay reviews.
I probably don't have to tell you about the state of public discontent with NFL officiating by the end of the 2013 season. A series of rule misapplications and high-profile missed calls, taken together, begged for a rigorous offseason review from the league office.

So as teams return to the field for spring practices, it's worth noting a number of quiet and incremental changes that have taken place over the past few months. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino is restricted by a labor contract and some deeply ingrained traditions, but his attempts to modernize and enhance officiating have not gone unnoticed around the league.

Most noteworthy has been the largest turnover of officiating personnel in 12 years. According to FootballZebras, a website that tracks officiating assignments throughout the year, Blandino has replaced 11 officials -- including two referees -- through retirement and attrition. (Blandino has confirmed the retirements of referees Ron Winter and Scott Green, but in general the league does not comment on the status of officiating personnel.)

There will be a total of 12 new faces in 2014, a number that might not seem like much when you consider that it's less than one per crew. But in the insulated world of NFL officiating, it is more replacements than in the past four offseasons combined, according to FootballZebras. In all, it represents roughly 10 percent of the league-wide officiating staff.

Everyone loves to call for officials to be fired or otherwise be replaced, but as with a decision to hire a new coach or general manager, different faces aren't necessarily better. Officiating can be a thankless job, but like anything else in the NFL, it shouldn't be a tenured one. This type of turnover in one offseason tells me Blandino does not view it as such, which should be a good thing for the NFL and its fans.

That 10 percent, of course, doesn't include a critical offseason addition of eyes that has received substantial publicity. Beginning this season, referees will consult with Blandino and other members of the league office during instant replays to reduce the chance of a poor interpretation of video.

[+] EnlargeBenJarvus Green-Ellis
AP Photo/David KohlBenJarvus Green-Ellis was awarded a controversial touchdown when officials, after reviewing a replay, ruled he scored against the Colts.
The change, approved in March by owners, is directed at avoiding disasters like the one in Week 14 last season. As you might recall, referee Jeff Triplette reversed an on-field call and awarded Cincinnati Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis a touchdown even when the video seemed to confirm that he was down by contact short of the goal line against the Indianapolis Colts.

Reliable technology to support this addendum has existed for some time. The NHL has been using an off-site location in Toronto for 10 years, and Major League Baseball moved to a similar format this season. The NFL was once a leader in introducing replay to American professional sports, and this move seemed long overdue.

A more arduous task is attacking the NFL rulebook itself, a monstrosity of exceptions and random parameters that seems difficult even for veteran referees to keep straight. I thought it played a role in the surprising number of instances last season of referees misapplying rules, and we noted indications last fall of an intent to simplify and reorganize the rulebook's format and content.

That job began quietly with two rule proposals that were approved during the March owners meetings. Rule change No. 10 updated the presentation and wording of what is (and is not) reviewable under instant replay, placing them in related categories that make sense. It also eliminated a silly exception, paving the way for a fumble recovery in the field of play to be reviewed -- the so-called "NaVorro Bowman rule."

"Dean and his staff have done a great job reorganizing and cleaning up [that section] so it makes sense," said St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who is co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee. "Because we were adding things to replay here and there over the last few years. It just makes sense for an easier read."

Rule change No. 13, meanwhile, reduced the options for enforcement required of referees when a penalty occurs against the defense behind the line of scrimmage. Instead of asking officials to determine where the foul occurred and/or where the play ended, and determining the best result for the offense, the penalty will simply be enforced from the previous line of scrimmage. Any change that reduces the variables in an official's decision seems like a good thing to me.

"Basically," Fisher said, "this proposal number 13 is going to simplify everything, clean it all up, make sure we don't have any issues. We have a lot of conferences and there are a lot of things that can happen with the enforcement. When it's all said and done, we're going to enforce from the previous spot rather than the end of the run or the spot of the foul. We think it really cleans things up from a rule enforcement standpoint."

I don't expect anyone to believe these changes will eliminate all of the problems we saw last season. Mistakes will still be made in 2014, and in truth, controversial calls are a staple ingredient in the drama of professional sports. But there are always ways to improve officiating, and in this offseason more than any in recent memory, we've seen the NFL work to that end.

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