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Six officiating controversies that could spark offseason change

With any luck, 2015 was the tipping point for NFL officiating. It began in January with the Dez Bryant catch caper and continued all the way through December with the Incredible Unejected Odell Beckham Jr. saga.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has, in quick order, instituted emergency policies for the postseason and formed an offseason committee to re-examine the catch rule. What else could happen? What should happen?

Let's consider the possibilities through the lens of six incidents from the 2015 regular season.

1. Illegal batting

Solution: Expand list of reviewable calls

In the fourth quarter of a three-point game in Week 4, back judge Greg Wilson failed to penalize Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright after he tapped a fumble out of the back of the end zone. It was a violation of Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook, known as an illegal bat, and the Detroit Lions should have regained possession.

But the NFL considers an illegal bat to be a judgment call, and thus it is not reviewable and could not be corrected. The unfixed error renewed calls to expand the scope of instant replay or perhaps make all calls subject to review. So did an 18-second clock error in Week 5 at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, another mistake that could not be addressed during the game.

The Canadian Football League crossed into judgment calls in 2014 by adding defensive pass interference to its replay system in 2014. It has worked well. The NFL's competition committee, and its owners, will at least discuss a replay expansion this spring.

That no one realized in real time that an illegal bat had occurred -- the Lions didn't protest, and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said he was unaware as well -- leads us to our next point.

2. Seahawks kickoff chaos

Solution: Simplify the rulebook

In Week 1 -- seems so long ago, doesn't it? -- Seahawks place-kicker Steven Hauschka mishit a kickoff. The St. Louis Rams' Bradley Marquez then recovered it via a fair catch 14 yards downfield.

Referee Jeff Triplette first announced a penalty on Marquez for an illegal fair catch signal but later reversed it, highlighting an obscure condition for fair catches and providing an obvious example of a rulebook that trips up veteran officials.

As it turns out, Rule 10, Section 2, Article 1 allows a fair catch only on an "airborne scrimmage kick." Triplette initially thought Hauschka's kick had bounced off the ground, and he got so wrapped up in that issue that he failed to penalize two Seahawks players for diving into Marquez after the fair catch.

The NFL has been mulling ways to pare down its rules for years, but it has gotten to the point where even coaches acknowledge they can't keep track of all the rules. Expect an intensified strategy to emerge this offseason.

This play doesn't just represent a complicated rulebook, however. After all, how did Triplette find out that the kick did not in fact bounce off the turf?

3. Ed Hochuli's face mask call

Solution: Transparent communication

Triplette's reversal sparked suspicion throughout the officiating community that he received artificial (and illegal) help to fix the mistake. Did he see the kick on the replay board? Or did someone nudge him via the wireless headset all officials wear? Perhaps the replay official in the press box or even vice president of officiating Dean Blandino from the league office in New York City?

Former NFL officiating chief Mike Pereira is the most notable conspiracy theorist, saying it would be "very, very, very naive" to think referees aren't receiving help. Pereira also was quick to condemn the most suspicious such call of the season, in a Week 16 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos.

In that sequence, referee Ed Hochuli threw a flag more than 30 seconds after the previous play had ended, penalizing Broncos defensive lineman Malik Jackson for pulling the face mask of Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron. The Bengals already had broken their huddle for the next play when Hochuli blew his whistle.

Extra help makes perfect sense, as long as it is transparent. The NFL has granted Blandino more access to the wireless system during the playoffs, officially to correct "administrative" errors but more generally to minimize the possibility of a major uncorrected mistake. Indeed, Blandino admitted after Week 15 that he "reminded" officials via the headset that they had the option of ejecting Beckham for multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

This type of communication is an important safety net and will help officials get their calls right. But the ethical issues involved require the NFL to formalize and permanently codify the process. Officials are independent third-party administrators of games, and it's more than troubling when a respected and high-profile observer such as Pereira suspects the league of circumventing their authority surreptitiously.

4. Final play of Bills-Patriots

Solution: Slow down officiating turnover

This Week 11 play capped a game full of controversial calls. Head linesman Ed Walker did not stop the clock when Bills receiver Sammy Watkins appeared to fall out of bounds, and time expired before the Bills could get off another play.

Blandino later said that Walker should have ruled Watkins out of bounds, stopping the clock. Walker's relative inexperience -- he is in his second year as an NFL official -- brought to light the NFL's quiet overhaul of its officiating personnel.

Blandino has presided over the most significant turnover among officials in more than a decade, and the NFL's public roster shows 23 officials with two or fewer years of experience -- about 19 percent of the full staff. In some cases, the changes were needed. But there will be a case made this offseason to pull back on the effort to preserve a level of experience leaguewide.

5. Golden Tate's Week 6 touchdown

Solution: Modifying the catch rule

There are no easy answers for Goodell's offseason committee, which will re-examine the catch rule after the league's competition committee has been unable to improve the rule in several years of offseason discussion. But Tate's Week 6 touchdown for the Lions was arguably the most inconsistent and complex catch ruling of the season.

The rule requires a player to "become a runner" by taking multiple steps with the ball secured. Only at that point is possession granted and a catch official.

We can begrudgingly apply that definition to understand rulings on plays involving Bryant in the 2014 playoffs, as well as Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert and Atlanta Falcons tailback Devonta Freeman earlier this season. But the decision to give Tate a catch in the end zone was aggressive.

Blandino suggested that Tate had the ball for two full steps before losing it, but CBS rules expert Mike Carey was among those who thought the ball got loose during the second step. It was one of 73 complete/incomplete passes that were overturned via replay, by far the highest number of any reviewable play.

It might not be possible to align the eye test to the catch rule during offseason discussions. But Tate's touchdown was an extreme example of the gap between perception and reality the current rule creates.

6. Officiating discrepancies

Solution: Crew rotation

Goodell noted earlier this season that penalty calls can vary widely between crews, a topic we discussed in detail in November. One updated example: Entering Week 17, referee Carl Cheffers' crew had called more than twice as many offensive holding penalties (65) as Gene Steratore's crew (27).

As long as NFL games are officiated by humans, it's unrealistic to expect 17 crews to mirror each other on a weekly basis. But one strategy for evening out some of the most egregious discrepancies is to rotate crew members throughout the season.

Before making that change, however, the NFL must carefully consider the possible consequences. While calls might be more uniform, there could be an uptick in mistakes caused by a lack of familiarity among crew members. Officials are like offensive lines: cohesion and reps help.