The NFL, still smarting from last year’s pass interference replay-review debacle, has no desire to tempt fate again with another device aimed at fixing the mistakes of on-field officials — especially since this year’s primary option would be far more expensive.
The withdrawal of the proposals that would have created a “Sky Judge” (the league apparently has tried to refrain from using that specific term) becomes the politically delicate way of letting the league off the hook, at least for 2020. As one league source explained it to PFT on Wednesday, before the proposals were withdrawn, there were fears that embracing a new plan for avoiding a repeat of the Rams-Saints NFC Championship blunder would have created unintended consequences that the league wasn’t equipped to handle, since that’s precisely what happened in 2019 with replay review.
At the core of the reluctance to embrace an eighth member of the officiating crew who would bridge the gap between the things the seven officials see on the field and everything that the rest of us see at home is the question of whether the expense is justified. Recent concerns about the “pipeline” of potential Sky Judges quite possibly represents code for “we don’t want to pay what it would cost to hire 17 people with the skills, abilities, and experience to do the job.”
If the league were intent on doing whatever it takes to staff the Sky Judge job properly, the league would make significant financial offers to, for starters, every former official who now works in the media. The league would then hire other retired officials to sit in a booth, watch the TV camera angles, and talk to the referees as to any and all potential situations in which there may have been a disconnect between the things perceived in real time with the naked eye by middle-aged officials trying not to get trampled by the gladiators and the images broadcast into every home in crystal-clear, slow-motion, ultra-HD.
And so the league is poised to revert to the same rules and procedures that were in place when officials missed a blatant incident of interference that helped keep the Saints from securing a berth in Super Bowl LIII. If 2020 unfolds without major incident, there will be a temptation to keep kicking the can until the next egregious mistake happens.
The league should resist that urge. As legalized gambling spreads (and that spread will likely be accelerated as states try to balance budgets post-pandemic), the financial consequences of bad calls to average Americans will intensify. Eventually, there will be a mistake big enough to attract the attention of politicians and/or prosecutors and/or anyone else who would benefit from pointing a finger at the league and claiming gross incompetence, or worse.
That’s why the league needs to invest some of the millions (if not billions) it will earn via legalized gambling into efforts like Sky Judge, with the goal of creating the impression that the NFL is doing everything it can to get every call right as often as possible, and in turn minimzing if not eliminating any and all suspicions that, somewhere and somehow, the fix may be in. If the league isn’t ready to do it the right way in 2020, it needs to commit to spending the time and money necessary to doing it the right way in 2021, even if the coming season unfolds without a major officiating controversy.