Apart from the fact that referee Gene Steratore’s effort to make an inherently imprecise effort seem much more precise made it all seem even less precise to determine whether the Cowboys had successfully secured a first down is a more fundamental question: Are officials allowed to use a foreign object to determine whether a first down has been earned?
Jim Daopoulos, a former NFL official and former supervisor of officials, says that, while there’s no specific rule in place, referees have been told over the years that they are “never allowed to use anything other than their eyes to make that decision.”
After the game, Steratore said that he used a folded up piece of paper not to make the call but as confirmation that the call was correct. Regardless, he shouldn’t have done it, according to Daopoulos.
The bigger question is whether the NFL will do anything to improve the process of determining whether a team has gained 10 yards in four plays or fewer. The 10-yard chain gang is a vestige of the ’20s (or whoever the NFL began using the 10-yard measuring stick), and it’s time to find a more reliable way to determine the line to gain.
Technologies exist for enhancing the function. But the league has stubbornly refused to embrace them.
Instead, the NFL should tear down the entire officiating function and rebuild it, using as many modern technologies as possible to improve the overall process of doing everything that officials currently do as efficiently and accurately as they can. Until that happens, incidents like last night’s embarrassment to the league will continue to happen.