Officiating has had its fair share of controversy this season for perceived inconsistency by the common fan and a noticeable increase in penalties. The officials on the field have taken much of the blame, some of it earned, but a sense of dysfunction in the system is beginning to permeate though the league. And one former referee has revealed on the record that the problem runs deep this year.
Former referee Bernie Kukar was an official for 21 seasons and worked 20 postseason games, including 4 conference championships and Super Bowls XXXIII and XXXVI. He was a guest with Mike Max on WCCO in Minneapolis to share his thoughts on the current state of officiating, and Kukar opened the metaphorical floodgates. It is a must-listen for anyone interested in the state of officiating this year.
Kukar has been in touch with current officials, and spoke with one of his former crewmates about some of the frustrations among veteran officials. Kukar shared some of the discord he heard in the conversation, “He was ranting and raving and he said, ‘These people up in New York don’t know what the heck they’re doing! They got this so screwed up, everybody’s confused. They don’t know what to call, what not to call.’ ”
Kukar continued, “He said the stuff coming out of the league office now, the people up there are laying it on so thick, that the officials are totally confused. So they’re calling anything now … because [a crew] got drilled the week before they’re calling anything that looks like a foul. In my opinion, what’s happened is New York — I don’t know if it’s coming from the commissioner or if it’s coming from the Competition Committee or if it’s coming from the coaches or where — but they’ve taken common sense out of the game relating to officiating.”
The comments from Kukar reveal the bubbling undercurrent of discontent in the officiating staff which we had reported early in the season:
Sources close to Football Zebras are saying that there is internal disagreement among officiating supervisors about just how strictly they should be interpreting the offensive holding penalties. Some supervisors think there should be tighter interpretation while others think they need to stick to the point of emphasis on backside holding penalties.
Through the first two weeks of the season the average game had 5.6 offensive holding calls. Average. After the ensuing Thursday night game between the Titans and Jaguars saw 10 offensive holds, senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron held a conference call with its officials to recalibrate how it was calling offensive holding. In the remaining Week 3 games, the average was cut nearly in half.
These types of discussions really belong in the offseason, moving into the officiating clinics, and solidified in the preseason, with any necessary follow-up early in the regular season. Instead, it comes across as crisis management by Riveron, too little, too late.
What Kukar is describing also has a practical effect of officials chasing after grades and abandoning their officiating instincts. When Dean Blandino was head of officiating, he moved his playoff assignment procedure off of a strict grading system, and placed more emphasis on development and other intangible qualities. Now, the pendulum appears to be returning towards a grade-centric mentality.
“If you get too many downgrades in this business, you’re not going to get a playoff game,” Kukar said in the WCCO interview. “Or if you get too many consecutive years, you’re not going to have a job anymore.”
Rather than officiating the play, officials are essentially trying to avoid being dinged for noncalls. Trying to avoid markdowns is unsustainable and pits an official’s own interests against the better interests of the game. This has been whispered about behind the scenes, and Kukar has essentially kicked the door open on the reality of the situation. (One has to wonder if such candor is going to be shut down by league forces, and if the current officials are being admonished for airing dirty laundry with former colleagues.)
Kukar also cited the rapid ascension of officials into the NFL as a cause for concern. “They’re bringing in guys that probably shouldn’t be there yet,” he says. “I’m not saying at some point in time they’re not going to be good officials but they’re bringing them in too early. They don’t have enough college experience. That’s where part of the problem is.”
This was echoed by Jim Tunney, an official for 31 years and a trainer after that. Tunney is known as “the dean of referees” but he is not known to criticize officiating very often to the general public. “The league has a lot of new referees and officials, yet they’ve cut back on supervisors,” Tunney said in an interview with Woody Paige of The Gazette. “It takes five years in the league to totally understand the rules, the positioning, and the nuances. Younger officials need more one-on-ones with supervisors and better training.”
The new collective bargaining agreement calls for the NFL to appoint a vice-president of officiating development. This might seem unnecessary for veteran officials, but even then, an official has to keep an open mind and be coachable, lest bad habits overtake a good official. But on the other hand, the CBA also contains a severance incentive that could result in draining the staff of veteran officials.
We are rapidly approaching the midpoint of the NFL’s centennial season, and it might be too late to salvage the image that officiating was the story of that landmark season, and not the celebration.