Get it right.
That’s the goal of officiating in every sport, at every level. For the NFL, which has seen its popularity skyrocket over the past 20 years, getting it right has never been more important.
So why are NFL officials getting so many calls wrong?
To answer that question, and to improve the product, the NFL needs to be willing to consider revolutionary changes, beyond putting cameras in the pylons or using lasers to determine first downs. The league needs to consider completely revamping its officiating function.
That doesn’t mean hiring officials on a full-time basis. While doing so would create the impression that the league is doing everything in its power to reduce the mistake rate to Blutarski’s (or at least Flounder’s) GPA, the use of human beings will continue to entail the reality of human error.
Along with human nature.
Peter King of TheMMQB.com recently finagled total access to referee Gene Steratore and members of his crew for a full week. Among the eye-opening (but not shocking) revelations? Officials obsess over their grades like a teenage girl obsesses over her Twitter followers.
It makes sense, given that the NFL determines postseason assignments (including the coveted Super Bowl gig) based on the number of mistakes an official makes during the course of a season. Still, the notion of grading officials for hair-splitting decisions made in a real-time crucible occupied by young, large, strong, and fast men wearing full football-equipment potentially puts too much pressure on them to make the right decision.
The league’s new V.P. of officiating gets it, even if he doesn’t yet have the juice to fully change it.
“One of the things I’m loving about Dean Blandino is his attitude of, ‘Guys, let’s stop officiating for the grades. Don’t worry if it’s a coin-flip play and you were downgraded,’” Steratore tells King. “‘Let’s dissect it, and let’s learn from it.’”
Then why not ditch the grading process entirely? That could be Blandino’s eventual goal.
That said, the NFL needs a system for spotting the guys who are simply getting too many calls wrong. In those situations, where a guy is getting too close to having too many mistakes, the pressure of a grading system can’t make the situation much worse. For those good officials who become consumed — especially late in the season — with fear that another mistake will mean the difference between working a playoff game or working the Super Bowl, the higher stakes could fuel a flub.
That’s just one aspect of the system the league needs to change. With players constantly getting bigger, faster, and stronger, it could be time to remove middle-aged-and-older men from the vortex of metal, plastic, and muscle, and to handle the bulk of the officiating function from the booth, with binoculars and the many network camera angles helping to spot the fouls and to determine when and where a guy stepped out of bounds and at all times to get it right the first time, even if it takes a little time to get it done.
Currently, every fan watching the game at home enjoys a perspective that is at least as good if not even better than anything the officials can see in real time. Cameras blanket the gridiron, and the league could, with some creativity and determination, devise a system that would allow the game to be officiated even better from above than it is being officiated from field level.
For a league that constantly strives to improve, lingering flaws in the officiating function become more and more glaring. At some point, the NFL needs to realize that the current system is as good as it can possibly be, and in turn to start looking for a better system.