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2015 Officiating Controversy

Officiating change for postseason isn’t a change at all [Updated]

There are three items embedded in the commissioner’s comments that seem to triangulate where the league’s bearings are heading with officiating down the stretch of this season.



Anderson crew (Kansas City Chiefs)

Update 5:45 p.m.: The league announced, within a few hours of this post being published, the revised policy on an enhanced use of the wireless communications system for the 2015-16 postseason. As with any modification between rules meetings, it expires at the conclusion of the season, subject to a vote at the owners’ meeting next March. The policy reads as follows:

​ ​For the 2015 Postseason, consultation may occur between the Referee and the VP of Officiating or his designee located in the league’s officiating headquarters in New York regarding the correct application of playing rules. In addition to the VP of Officiating’s current role in Instant Replay, this consultation will only include the appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, the proper administration of the game clock, the correct down, or any other administrative matter not currently reviewable.  This will not include the ability to call or change a foul, or otherwise become involved in on-field judgment calls that are not subject to the current Instant Replay system.

The original post is below.

Analysis by Ben Austro

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell raised the possibility of changes to the officiating procedures in time for the postseason in an interview with Bob Papa and Shannon Sharpe on Sirius/XM radio. 

As it relates to the officiating overall, I think our officials do an incredible job, but what I think is a challenge now — and I said this to the ownership when we met last week — the technology is so extraordinary and we’re seeing things that we never saw before. We have to understand that and recognize that you all as broadcasters or the fans in general get to see things and we have to make sure that our officials have access to that kind of technology in a way that is not overly disruptive to our game, that they can get the same type of input when they’re making decisions and avoid critical errors.

We’re never going to be perfect on this. You know that. We’ve had over 30,000 plays already this season. The facts are that the officials have done an absolutely, extraordinary job, but they’re going to make mistakes. We need to have that technology there and access to that to help them avoid those critical errors that can be decisive in a game. We’re looking at that even in the context of this year’s postseason. We’re looking at that in how we can do that on a more regular basis. The changes that we’ve made with having our head of officiating, Dean Blandino, involved in the decisions here at this office brings more consistency, which as you know is a critical factor.

There are three items embedded in the commissioner’s comments that seem to triangulate where the league’s bearings are heading with officiating down the stretch of  this season: (1) officials having access to technology, (2) avoiding critical errors in the postseason, and (3) the assertion of consistency with Blandino in the replay process.

It looks like the league will go on record that the crews will be given off-the-field assistance, if needed, through the officials’ wireless headset system. Such a change could only be applied to postseason games, because of slight competitive inequities that could result. In isolated cases, the league rationalized making changes to rules or officiating mechanics at the start of the postseason, as each team is essentially reset to 0-0.

This was noted this season, when impossible-to-detect, yet unreviewable, elements have been corrected by the crew having a conference. In one case, a crew was able to determine if an onside kick touched the turf right off the tee by conferencing with each other. Another game had the clock corrected after a replay review because it was announced that the back judge noted the correct timing. (Replay cannot adjust the clock unless the call on the field changes; involving the back judge was an end-around to fixing the clock.) I’m all in favor of getting the administrative minutia corrected, but the linguistic shell game would certainly not pass a test by Penn & Teller.

While providing additional in-game assistance for the playoffs does give the impression of “doing something” — a raw piece of meat flung to pacify the rabid outrage over officiating from fan, player, and coach — such a change would not actually be a change at all. Football Zebras detailed some instances in past seasons where the replay official and/or the game supervisor radioed down to the field to close some administrative gaps, particularly with refining the enforcement of spot fouls. From what we can tell, this has not been the case with determining whether or not fouls occurred or for decisions that could be rendered through the normal replay process.

The help that has been offered from the press box in past postseasons was done with the intention of mitigating issues in one of the 11 most critical games of the year. The change that the league appears to be leaning toward for 2015-16 playoffs is bringing Blandino in to the officials’ earpieces if need be. If that course alteration is announced, even that would not be new.

Blandino or senior supervisor Al Riveron reportedly have limited access to the headsets. When the wireless system and the replay consultation rule were both implemented in 2014, Blandino or Riveron at league headquarters were able to begin the conversation as the referee headed to the sideline monitor to gather relevant details of the on-field call; previously, the referee had to have this conversation with the replay official through headphones at the replay equipment before going under the hood.

Blandino has asserted that the senior staff in the Art McNally Officiating Command Center cannot initiate communication with the field in a non-replay situation. Football Zebras has learned that the command center has, in fact, jumped into the wireless communication system when a game delay is observed. Unfortunately, on occasion, the command center has exacerbated the delay, because they had to be fully apprised of the situation in order to properly advise on the situation. The intervention created more confusion in situations that the crews were already handling at the field level. Obviously, during the playoffs, there is only one game on at a time, barring an overlap with overtime, so Blandino or Riveron would not be parachuting into the discussion without full knowledge of the situation.

While this procedure can fix correctable administrative items, it has failed the consistency test in the past. When a clock-operator error was not detected by the side judge (who has primary clock-monitoring duties), he was not given help from the numerous outside observers. Instead, the clock error remained, and the league suspended the side judge for a week. In this situation, there was no excuse for anyone to be silent. The command center either deliberately chose not to intervene or they missed the error themselves. Since it was a Monday Night Football game, there should not be an issue of diverted attention, as it was the only game in progress.

As with any proposed quick fix, the first question must always be whether it can be applied consistently.

Image: Kansas City Chiefs photo

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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