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Potential Solutions for NFL Officiating Issues

Something needs to be done, but what?

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cincinnati Bengals lost the AFC Championship game by a score of 23-20 on Sunday, and while poor officiating was not the reason they lost, it certainly didn’t do them any favors.

There were several missed calls during the game, and some of them came at crucial moments. There was a missed holding call on Trey Hendrickson, a possible missed roughing the passer call when Burrow was shoved to the ground a good couple seconds after he threw a pass, and there are questions about the intentional grounding call on Burrow when a similar pass wasn’t flagged from Patrick Mahomes.

Whenever there’s a close game, the fans of the losing team often point to the referees. They’re human and they make mistakes. That’s how football works. Major League Baseball is going to test out a “virtual umpire” in their Triple-A league this season, and you better believe, if it’s popular, you’ll likely not see a human behind home plate calling balls and strikes at your favorite major league ballpark.

I’m 100 percent positive there’s a computer program that exists right now that’s capable of tracking each player and calling penalties when it sees them. I’d be willing to bet, though, that there would be a penalty on every play and playing one game would take 12 hours, so that’s not the answer.

There is an uncalled holding, hands to the face, or an unnecessary roughness penalty on each play of every game in the NFL. Calling all of them would be impractical and impossible. However, calling the ones that could change the outcome of a game, especially in the playoffs, is paramount, as is not calling penalties that shouldn’t be called.

Do you remember this?

That was the end of the NFC Championship. The Rams ended up winning that game and going to the Super Bowl where they lost to the New England Patriots. If that call was made, the Saints get a first down on the five-yard line and probably win the game.

Not every penalty is reviewable with instant replay. Only illegal forward passes, handoffs, passes, and punts from beyond the line of scrimmage, and too many men on the field are the only reviewable penalties. The NFL expanded the reviewable penalties to include offensive and defensive pass interference on a trial basis for the 2019 season, but they scrapped it before the 2020 season began.

Pass interference, holding, and illegal hits on defenseless players are all still not subject to reviews and are only called by a referee on the field. If the referee doesn’t see it, it doesn’t get called.

Is there a better way?

I would argue that illegal hits should absolutely be reviewable. The NFL is a fast game and with players flying around, any hard hit can look like an illegal hit to the head when you first see it. So many flags have been thrown on hard hits where the defensive player used his shoulder and not his helmet, or hit a receiver in the upper chest and not in the head, and those penalties have the power to change the outcome of a game and even a season.

The Alliance of American Football, a now-defunct professional football league, experimented with a “sky judge,” an extra official with a birds-eye view of the entire field. The sky judge called penalties that were missed by referees or sometimes overruled penalties that were called when they shouldn’t have been.

Since the AAF only existed for a single season, it’s hard to determine whether the sky judge was really any more accurate or efficient than just having referees on the field, but it’s something the NFL could look into.

It’s clear they’re willing to attempt officiating rule changes, and implementing an extra referee with a closer look could improve the game. It could also slow things down or possibly call penalties on every play. When would the sky judge decide to let a penalty slip through for the sake of pacing, and when would they stop play to call a penalty that was missed on the field?

Or maybe the NFL could try something like this:

  • Holding, pass interference, roughing the passer, and all illegal hits are reviewable.
  • There is an eye in the sky, but it cannot stop play unless a missed penalty is egregious (see the above video).
  • Coaches have three challenges per half (two extra challenges a game).
  • Challenging a call, such as where the ball is spotted on the field works the same as it does right now (if the challenging coach wins, they get their timeout back. If they lose, they lose the timeout. They also get an extra challenge if they win both challenges).
  • Additionally, a coach can challenge one of the above new penalties with their extra challenge flag (and only that extra challenge flag). If they win, they keep their timeout, but if they lose there is a 15-yard penalty for the failed challenge.
  • Only the one extra challenge per half can go toward the newly reviewable penalties.

There are obvious downsides to this plan, as there would be to any plan, the biggest being overall time added to a game, and even if a holding penalty is reviewed because a coach and his staff truly believe their defensive player was held (or their lineman wasn’t holding), doesn’t necessarily mean the call will go their way. We’ve seen a receiver catch a pass we all thought was a catch and the pass was ruled incomplete even after a review. In the end, it’s all going to come down to human error.

The NFL is an imperfect game and taking the human element out of officiating could make the games too long, like calling a holding penalty on every single play, or it could encourage players to flop in hopes of getting an extra 15 yards. It may come down to having to accept the game as it is right now, knowing that you could be on the receiving end of a terrible call that changes an entire season. It’s not fair, but life never is.

Maybe the best thing is to accept things the way they are and do nothing.

What do you think the NFL should do, if anything?