Commentary

Five ways to improve officiating

NFL's replacement referees haven't been good, but must they be this bad?

Originally Published: September 24, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

It isn't getting better. The replacement officials are still missing basic calls, still unable to control a game and act decisively without momentum-killing breaks to determine where a ball should be spotted or what down it is.

And it doesn't seem as if a resolution between the National Football League and its regular officials is coming anytime soon. The two sides remain at an impasse, dug in on their convictions and demands, while the NFL brand suffers. The game is not better with replacement officials. It is worse.

But this is what we get. They are inexperienced men charged with maintaining order in an inherently violent sport in which the goal of each side is to gain an advantage and exert its will. It makes no sense that the league, a multibillion-dollar industry, would leave the integrity of its game in the hands of officials who aren't used to the speed and intensity of the professional game. But here we are, staring at Week 4 with replacement refs.

So be it.

They can be better. Here's how.

• Set the tone early: The beginning of the New England-Baltimore game is an example of how not to do this. These two teams don't like each other. They have history, most recently in the 2011 AFC title game. The Ravens and Patriots are veteran teams with playoff success. They understand how to test the rules.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Doug Kapustin/Getty ImagesBill Belichick's frustration with the officials boiled over Sunday night.

And they did so early. Players were pushing and shoving early and carrying on after the whistle. But at the start of the second half, the officials tried to regain control. They called a couple of penalties. After Bill Belichick dug his red challenge flag out of his white sock, the officials overturned their own erroneous call of a completion. Belichick's question of "What are you doing?" was quickly answered with a "We're getting it right." That was good.

It deteriorated at the end, however. Belichick grabbed an official after the game, a move that surely earned him a sizable fine. Not good.

Be strong. Be firm. And be right. That will help.

• Don't be afraid to make a bold call: Toss a player if it is warranted. Send a message. The word will get out. As people are wont to do when a substitute is in charge, players are trying to gain any advantage they can. Then they try to get away with more, almost daring the officials to make a call.

Take Denver linebacker Joe Mays' hit on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub. Mays hit Schaub so hard that Schaub's helmet became dislodged. Schaub said afterward that he lost a piece of his earlobe. It was brutal, unnecessary and unsafe. Fox Sports analyst and former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said on Twitter after seeing the hit that Mays should have been ejected and fined at least $50,000.

So throw him out. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety one of his mantras. Protect the players, particularly the quarterbacks. They are the franchise. They are why people watch.

• Understand the basics: Down and distance. The rules on challenges and timeouts. What constitutes a horse-collar tackle.

We saw a little of all of it in Sunday's games, but nothing seemed as silly as referee Ken Roan's decision to give San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh two challenges even though Harbaugh was out of timeouts. It didn't end up mattering in the overall scheme of the game, but still.

[+] EnlargeNFL Official
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliSimple things such as down distance seem to be confounding the replacement referees.

In the Tennessee-Detroit game, the referees marked off a 15-yard penalty from the Lions' 44-yard line instead of the Titans' 44-yard line, giving Tennessee 27 yards. It was a basic, fundamental football mistake that the referees cannot make.

And, this might be asking too much, but please make the calls in a semi-timely fashion. Get the communication between the booth, the sideline supervisor and the crew down. The games are taking too long. The goal is to keep games around three hours, not three-and-a-half hours and certainly not four.

• Don't throw a hat: Seems simple enough, but apparently, given what happened in Dallas, it bears repeating. Bean bags, hats, these things need to be kept out of the field of play. An official in the Dallas-Tampa Bay game threw his hat into the end zone, and Cowboys wide receiver Kevin Ogletree slipped on it while running a route. He got up, but was not where Tony Romo expected him to be, thus an incompletion that otherwise could have been a touchdown.

That shouldn't happen.

• Learn the players' numbers: There's a lot going on. We get it. But when calling a player for an infraction, identify him. This might seem like nitpicking, given all the other issues, but it goes to credibility and getting it right. Too many of the replacement crews, including the one that worked the Minnesota-San Francisco game, are not announcing uniform numbers for penalized players.

It is amateurish. At least try to give the impression that you know what you're doing.

And now, on to a few other Week 3 observations.

We still don't know anything yet: It is only September. There are more than three long months to this regular season. Teams typically don't start taking shape until four games in. So we're almost there.

San Francisco looked like a world beater in the first two weeks, then lost to Minnesota, which received stellar play from second-year quarterback Christian Ponder on Sunday. Robert Griffin III looked like a can't-miss rookie in Week 1, and now the Redskins seem to be relying too much on a college-style offense for Griffin. Four rookie quarterbacks lost in Week 3, and a fifth, Russell Wilson, is set to play Monday night against the Packers.

Give it time.

But take note: The two best-looking teams thus far have been Houston and Atlanta. Another week and we should know for sure.

Sean Payton is the early leading candidate for Coach of the Year: Much the same way Peyton Manning showed his value to Indianapolis by not playing last season, Payton is showing his value to New Orleans by not coaching this season. The Saints dropped to 0-3 after blowing a lead versus Kansas City. Three games, three losses by eight or fewer points.

The Kansas City game was especially telling. Playing their second game at home, the Saints held a 24-6 lead late in the third quarter. They were in control, yet they let the winless Chiefs score 21 unanswered points, including a safety on Drew Brees that led to a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation. Kansas City won 27-24 in overtime behind running back Jamaal Charles' 233 rushing yards in the game.

The season isn't over for New Orleans, but it sure seems as though it is. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only three of 113 teams that have started a season 0-3 since 1990 have made the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesThe Falcons are 3-0, and Matt Ryan is looking like an MVP.

Matt Ryan is making a case for MVP: Yes, it is early, but no one has had a hotter start than the fifth-year Atlanta Falcons quarterback. Think getting shut out against the Giants in the playoffs last season didn't bother Ryan? Think the criticism of being winless in the playoffs didn't sting? Think again.

Ryan would never say so, but he has let his play speak for him. He has been on fire from the jump. The Falcons are the only team in the NFL to have scored a touchdown on each of their three opening drives this season. With a 107.8 passer rating Sunday, Ryan has broken 100.0 in three straight games, and, with a win at San Diego on Sunday, the Falcons improved to 26-0 when he does so.

Ryan has excelled running the Falcons' no-huddle, and he has an array of weapons. The Atlanta offense has been nearly unstoppable, and Ryan has been sharp. It is only three games, but it is a start.

Kevin Kolb has earned the Cardinals' starting job: It is a myth that a player can't lose a starting job because of injury. Kolb did in Philadelphia in 2010. And now, in three games filling in for John Skelton, who injured an ankle in Week 1, Kolb has done what he couldn't do in training camp and the preseason: earned the right to be Arizona's starting quarterback.

The Cardinals are 3-0 for the first time since 1974. Kolb led Arizona on a game-winning drive in Week 1 against Seattle, won at New England (which hadn't lost a home opener with Tom Brady as its starter) in Week 2, then helped the Cardinals crush Philadelphia 27-6 in Week 3. Against the Eagles, Kolb looked calm, confident and relaxed in the pocket and in command of the offense. He was steady early, didn't make mistakes and spread the ball around. He recognized that the Eagles -- even with Nnamdi Asomugha, supposedly one of the best cover corners in the game -- could not cover Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald caught all nine balls thrown in his direction for a game-high 114 yards and a touchdown.

Kolb completed seven of his first 10 passes as Arizona took a 10-0 lead. By halftime, he had completed 13 of 18 passes for 177 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and Arizona had a 24-0 lead. Overall, he completed 17 of 24 passes for 222 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 127.4 passer rating. By comparison, Michael Vick was 17-of-37 for 217 yards, zero touchdowns, two fumbles and a 64.8 passer rating.

Skelton was inactive for the Eagles game, but he could be ready to go this week when the Cardinals host Miami. Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt will have to decide. Go with the guy he brought to Arizona to be the starter, or go with the guy he was forced to play because the other guy couldn't cut it? Kolb has shown he can cut it now, and suddenly Arizona is leading the NFC West.

Greg Schiano must cut the act: The whole business of rushing a team that is in victory formation is sophomoric and amateur. It doesn't fly in the NFL, where professionals play the game for money. These are not kids on athletic scholarships.

Schiano called for the play again Sunday at the end of Tampa Bay's loss to Dallas. The Cowboys had won the game 16-10. All that remained was to take a knee. The Bucs rushed. And they lost.

It is understandable that Schiano is trying to establish his program and instill a never-quit attitude. But come on. Try being more effective on offense. Try getting better play out of the quarterback. Try to win the game in the first 59 minutes, not on some rah-rah Rutgers play at the end that isn't going to work.

This is the National Football League, after all.

ALSO SEE