Now is the Time to Reform NFL Refereeing
Hanlon’s razor states, “Never Attribute to Malice That Which Can be Adequately Explained By Stupidity” It is quite amazing that NFL refereeing, even with all the modern advances in technology, still gives people the impression that NFL games are a rigged endeavor. After the Super Bowl, which is hyped as a fair battle between the best two teams the NFL has to offer, many come away with the feeling that the fix was in. I am no such believer in this type of conspiracy or as Hanlon puts it, malice. Personally, I would attribute this issue to stupidity, or better yet, incompetence.
How is it that referees continually affect the outcome of games by making or missing calls that are objectively visible to anybody with eyes and a TV? Many calls during football games can be corrected with the simple aid of instant replay, which for some reason, referees aren’t allowed to use-except in certain circumstances — and never for penalty correction. Is it not time to utilize the advances in technology, such as instant replay, which has existed since 1976, to fix this issue? Referees have only one chance to make the correct call, while millions at home can watch and instantly know whether a call is correct or not. After watching the ending of the Super Bowl, can you blame those people who believe the NFL is rigged? For the refs to hardly call any penalties all game, and then, all of a sudden throw a flag at the most opportune time for a team that, fortunately enough, is playing a “neutral site” game in their hometown stadium? And that team goes on to win the biggest game of them all? Doesn’t exactly sound like fake moon landings or flat earths. As I said, its hard to blame the conspiracy-types for this kind of reasoning.
Watching the Super Bowl the other night makes me wonder what is the objective of refereeing? Isn’t it to make the game fair for all participants? Because if it is, it underperforms severely, and at the worst possible times. It is one thing to miss a call early in game when the outcome is in doubt and the team affected by the call has plenty opportunity to right the ship. For instance, in the photo below, you can clearly see, from your couch at home, that Aaron Donald is offsides:
It is undeniable. This play was a 4th and 1 on the Bengal’s very first drive of the game, of which they did not convert. Had the offsides been called, as it should have been, it would have resulted in a first down and provided the Bengals an opportunity to score the first points of the game and to secure the early momentum. Instead, Joe Burrow’s pass to Jamar Chase was broken up and the Rams took over at midfield. With this great field position, the Rams would instead score the first touchdown of the game, when Matthew Stafford tossed a beautiful jump ball to Odell Beckham Jr., rivaled only by an even more beautiful catch. It is quite clear that the missed offsides penalty provided a much easier path for the Rams to score on that stingy Bengals defense, which had been stout throughout the postseason, and in hindsight, for the remainder of the game. Who knows what would have happened if the call was made and the Bengals were allowed to continue that drive, as was their right. Maybe it ended in a punt on the next set of downs, pushing the ball deep into Rams territory, making it much more difficult for the Rams to score so early in the game. Missing a call like this early in the game is one issue since the outcome of the game is unclear, and the team affected by it has ample time to recover. However, missing a call late in the game is a whole other issue entirely.
Being a Saints fan and suffering the blowback of, in my opinion, that absolute worst no-call in refereeing history in the 2019 NFC Championship, when Rams’ defensive back Nickeel Robey-Coleman nearly decapitated Tommylee Lewis of the Saints near the goal-line while a pass intended for Lewis was in the air. Defensive pass interference was not called, which would have given the Saints a first down a few yards out of the endzone. Had the call been made, the Saints would have, undoubtedly, reached the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history. With the first down, the Saints could have run the clock down to under 20 seconds, kick a field goal, and leave almost no time for their opponent to set up a game tying field goal. However, the Saints were forced to kick the field goal with 1:41 remaining in the fourth quarter. This provided the Rams ample time to drive down the field and kick the game tying field goal, sending the game into overtime
The Rams would ultimately win the game with a 57-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein. This single missed-call urged the NFL to implemented what turned out to be the most useless rule change ever which gave coaches the ability to challenge pass interference penalties. In hindsight, this rule was only implemented to appease the Saints fanbase, however it was too little too late as the damage was done. The Saints have yet to make it back to the NFC Championship. This rule was so useless, it had only been implemented for one season as its futility was quite evident and was scrapped as a result. The NFL was on the right track in implementing a rule that would allow penalties to be reviewed. However, it failed miserably to make the impact fans had hoped, and thus, the league reverted back to 1960s style refereeing. You know the style that still plagues NFL games and the Super Bowl, where referees have but one chance to make the correct call on penalties. The NFL can and should do better.
Since that fateful day, I have repeatedly asked myself, as a I watch hundreds of football games a year, the same question I posed earlier, what is the objective for NFL refereeing? And I, not taking a single class or training on the rules of the game or how to referee, having only studied through relentless viewership of the game I love, have whittled down what the true of objective of refereeing should be: To make as many correct calls as possible and limit the number of incorrect calls. As I watch football religiously, it’s become quite clear that basic technology, which has existed for decades, is not being utilized towards this objective. I find myself asking again and again, “Why not?”.
I find myself wondering how many times I have sat on my couch, in my living room, not being in control of the replays, did I make the correct call on a particular play, while the referees got it wrong? Multiple times a game, so it seems, I witness a flag thrown for a potential false start or offsides penalty, only for the referees to huddle-up, in an attempt to make the correct call, only for them to get it wrong. And during these referee conferences, I have to watch but a single replay to discern who is the transgressor. And in the time it takes for the referees to make the call I could, if I simply had their phone numbers, call them from my living room, and inform them what the correct call should be. Heck, I could even do this while I sit in the same stadium by just watching the replay screen! That’s how simple some of these calls are to make. But far too often, the referees break the huddle and undoubtedly make the incorrect call. How is this possible? I speak directly to you, Roger Goodell. How is it possible that casual fans can sit in their homes, multiple beers in with a solid buzz, and make the correct calls but referees cant! It is infuriating! If you have the means to make correct calls on penalties, which we clearly do, there is no reason not to.
As an avid Saints fan, the no-call in the 2019 NFC Championship stings to this day. That no-call almost certainly changed the outcome of the game. However, the other night in the biggest football game of the year, the referees again affected the likely outcome of the game. Even if it’s impossible to predict what the rightful outcome would be, us fans should be blessed with the true result, whatever it may be.
The truest unforgivable moment of this game, and the reason that something must done, came on 3rd and goal on the Bengal’s 8-yard line. The Rams were looking to score the go-ahead touchdown as the game was nearing its end. As Stafford dropped back, he looked to exploit a matchup he liked when Cooper Kupp was being covered by a linebacker. Stafford threw the ball to the left side of Kupp’s body, and Bengal’s linebacker Logan Wilson made a fantastic play by batting the ball down before Kupp could secure the grab, only to be called for holding prior to the deflection. Usually in the Super Bowl, referees let the teams play, so to speak, and generally hold on to their flags. And in Super Bowl 56, they did just that for most of the night, however, they choose the worst possible moment to change that mindset. And because of that change in mindset, the Rams were blessed with a 1st down instead of having to face a tough 4th and goal from the 8-yard line. Oh lord would I have loved to see that play! This is how the game should have preceded, but unfortunately, it did not. We were all deprived of it and whatever the result would have been.
Looking at that 3rd down replay, in my opinion, it was fantastic play by Wilson. In a regular season game, I would quickly get over the flag being throw. I understand that these types of call are subjective and could go either way. But in the Super Bowl, with the game on the line and the referees holding back for the majority of the game, for the flag to be thrown at that moment in the game is outrageous. Reflecting on that call, it seems as though the referees wanted to avoid the circumstances that followed the 2019 NFC Championship game when a blatant no-call allowed a team that shouldn’t have won to win. However, in an instant of indecisiveness, they did exactly what they could not in that NFC Championship, and threw the flag once again to the benefit of Los Angeles, with no recourse to reverse the call. The only difference between the two games? One was clearly a penalty, and the other one wasn’t. They got it wrong both times. I am shaking my head in disappointment. This gave the Rams a 1st and goal from the 4-yard line and new life as they had at least four more plays to take the lead.
The missteps of the referees on that night continued on the very next play, when Kupp hauled in a touchdown catch that looked to seal the game, only for a holding penalty to be called on a Ram’s offensive lineman. This should have pushed the rams back to the 14-yard line and made it a tough 1st and goal situation for the Rams facing a Bengals defense that had only allowed a single field goal in the second half. However, this was not the case as referees again threw a flag on the Bengals, this time for unnecessary roughness on Vonn Bell. Bell, trying to prevent his team from losing the lead, was doing all he could to prevent the touchdown when he attempted to either knock Kupp out of bounds or the ball loose. Roughness that was unnecessary? I beg to differ. It was extremely necessary. Extraordinarily necessary! Unnecessary roughness on the would-be go-ahead touchdown in the Super Bowl with less than 2 minutes left in the game? Its comical to suggest something so stupid. This is football after all. Sometimes you have to knock the hell out of players to make game-winning plays. The referees disagree, and I digress. This flag created offsetting penalties and allowed the Rams to keep the ball at the 4-yard line.
However, holding and unnecessary roughness are subjective penalties and were just to put some context around the truly most unforgiving blunder that happened that night. Nones of these plays should have happened at all. On that third down play, where Wilson was charged with the holding penalty on Kupp, the entirety of the Ram’s Offensive line, minus the center, had moved prior to the ball being snapped. Clear as day to anybody with eyes. A flag for false start should have been thrown and the play should have been stopped. The holding call, being subjective, was forgivable. The false start, which is objective, is not forgivable. In the photo below, it is clear as can be that the entire offensive line moved before the ball was snapped. Both tackles and both guards have already moved their feet backwards and the ball clearly hasn’t been snapped. This should have nullified the play, the penalty on Wilson, and pushed the Rams back five yards to make it 3rd and goal from the 13-yard line, and a tough spot to be in. Obviously, this doesn’t mean the Bengals would necessarily stop the Rams from scoring, but it gives them a great opportunity to do so. And in all honestly, even if the Rams did score in this alternate situation, it would have been the true outcome of the game, the one the fans deserve. Now we will never know. Instead of what should’ve happened, the false start penalty was missed, holding was called on Wilson and unnecessary roughness was called on Bell. From here, the Rams had little difficulty as they ended up having seven chances from goal-to-go to score. We are only left with the distressing question that Saints fans are all too familiar with, “What if?”.
And before it seems as though I’m just a Saints fan hating on the Rams (believe me I am), the poor refereeing wasn’t strictly in the Rams favor. On the very first play of the second half, Burrow dropped back and threw a bomb to Tee Higgins that resulted in a touchdown. It looked in real time as though Jalen Ramsey got tangled up with Higgins and lost his footing, but one clear replay showed Higgins committed not only offensive pass interference, but a facemask penalty as well as he quite literally threw Ramsey to the ground. This is yet another example of how broken NFL refereeing is. Higgins clearly commits a penalty that wasn’t called and the result: touchdown. On the contrary, Wilson makes a great pass break-up and the result of that crucial play: first and goal for the Rams. Again, this play never should have happened because of a false start. NFL fans are being deprived of the true outcomes of games and the referees far too often are the culprits. This is undoubtedly a negative consequence of refereeing and should be avoided at all costs. Us fans don’t just deserve better, we demand better.
It’s very frustrating to not only watch this happen on a weekly basis during the season, but in the Super Bowl of all games. Is it not time to give referees the tools to make the proper calls and get it correct as much as possible? How is it that coaches can’t challenge objective penalties like offsides and false starts? Again, I speak directly to Roger Goodell: why don’t you actually try improving the product on the field in terms of refereeing when it’s so obviously poor and so obviously improvable? The only changes we ever get either diminishes the excitement of football (like penalizing big hits and taunting) or are rules changes that were rendered useless (like the ability to review pass interference calls).
So, I make this an audition for myself for a new position in the NFL Organization that seeks to improve the quality of refereeing on a yearly basis. My goal for refereeing would be what was stated earlier: To make as many correct calls as possible and limit the number of incorrect calls. It’s ridiculous that people can argue whether this is the present objective or not. Hire me and I’ll easily improve the game of football. I will do so by making it fairer and less disheartening for those that devote so much passion to their beloved teams, only for their hearts to be ripped out by incompetent refereeing.
This issue has been on my mind ever since that 2019 NFC Championship Game. I have never written a single article on anything in my life unless I was compelled by a school assignment. I have always wanted to air out my frustration but never had the motivation until now. This isn’t about the outcome of the Super Bowl, this is about the incompetence, year in and year out, of referees ruining the game I love. And, in all honesty, it isn’t entirely the referee’s fault. They aren’t being provided with the tools to succeed and are refereeing with one hand tied behind their back, so to speak. I could easily improve the quality of the game, as I believe many football fans could, with a few simple changes. Heck, tell the referees to call me when they huddle up and I’ll inform them of the correct call. Even this ridiculous change would improve the game, and that’s really sad because it’s actually true.
I am passionate football fan with a background in engineering. One thing I have learned is that in order to determine whether a newly built system meets your design goals, you must be able to quantify the results in some way and compare those results to the goals set at the beginning of the project. This is what I intend to do. In this new role, I would implement a system that tracks the number of incorrect calls and aims to lessen them while also reducing the number of missed calls. With the advances of technology, this would be quite simple. No longer will fans have to sit on their couches screaming profanities at a TV screen because referees can’t do their jobs properly. No longer would fans have to hope their teams can not only beat their opponents, but also the referees. And on the contrary, as any honest fan should admit, no longer should we feel guilty that our team won only because it was gifted by the referees. These issues go both ways, and it is ruining the quality of the game.
In football, there are objective calls that are easily cleared up by replay, and subjective calls that aren’t so much. The subjective calls or no-calls are, for the most part, forgivable. Referees can’t be perfect as nobody is, but they can certainly be better with the help of technology. Higgins clearly should have been penalized on his touchdown play while Wilson shouldn’t have been, and with the help of instant replay, all of America knew this immediately.
However, objective penalties being missed are unforgivable. The missed offsides penalty on Donald early in the game may not have affected the outcome, but the missed false start penalty at the end of the game arguably did. And these issues don’t just happen in the Super Bowl. They happen in nearly every single NFL game throughout the season.
Now is this time to use instant replay technology to improve refereeing. I won’t go into further detail on how exactly it can be used, but I have many ideas that would dramatically fix most of the problems with refereeing and they are all quite simple. I am awaiting your response, Mr. Goodell. Do you want the game to be improved or not? Lastly, I leave you with this thought:
If I can make the correct call sitting at home, the referees, the only people whose opinion matters on the subject, should be able to do so as well.