I don't think I need to remind most Detroit Lions fans that NFL refereeing can have a pretty big impact on the game. This past weekend, the Dallas Cowboys were the latest team to get served this harsh lesson. Officiating has dominated headlines this postseason, and despite all of the attention it brings to football in general, the NFL cannot be happy with the general perception of the state of refereeing.
Here's the problem: there's no easy solution to just make officiating better. The NFL already implements a complicated grading system that at least gives officials some much-needed feedback. But those calling for suspensions and firings of officials are barking up the wrong tree. The last thing the NFL needs is a high turnover of refs, resulting in a doomsday scenario in which replacement referees are the norm.
One reasonable solution is to make referees full-time employees. It's something that the NFL pushed for during the lockout in 2012. However, officials want no part of it. Famously muscled referee Ed Hochuli claims refs are "as full-time as the coaches or the players or anybody could be." And while that may be a bit hyperbolic, it's not completely inaccurate. A year ago, Peter King detailed the week of an NFL official, and it sounds exhausting:
In a typical week at his Toledo home, he’ll spend about three hours Monday watching the previous day’s NFL game; concentrate Tuesday on the plays he either erred on or was questioned about; look Wednesday and Thursday at training tapes and video of both of the upcoming NFL teams he has that weekend; work out several times (the NFL monitors its officials’ in-season weight); talk with the NFL’s field-judge adviser, an extra officiating resource who reviews the positioning and mechanics of each field judge (each position has such an adviser); and take a weekly 15-question test.
With a grueling schedule for each NFL referee, it's hard to see how making officials full-time will really change their in-game performance.
Trying to improve refereeing may just be too hard of a task to complete. With the pace of the game and the subjectivity of certain calls, human error is always going to be a part of the game. However, there is a way to improve the NFL's relationship with their officials without improving their performance: limit their impact. The NFL may not be able to lessen the errors made by referees, but they can certainly alter how they affect the game. With that, I present three changes to officiating that will improve the game by limiting their impact.
1. Change defensive pass interference back to a 15-yard penalty
Mike Pereira once called pass interference "one of the most difficult calls for an official to make in real time." So why does the NFL make the enforcement of this penalty one of the most impactful things a referee can do? The current system makes this penalty a spot foul, meaning it can result in anywhere between 0 and 99 yards and an automatic first down. This obviously has a huge impact on the game.
But a quick change back to a 15-yard penalty could lessen the impact of this highly subjective call. Take, for example, this penalty called in Sunday's Cowboys/Green Bay Packers game:
Green Bay was called for pass interference on this play. It was a highly questionable call because it looks like the players' feet accidentally got tangled and the ball doesn't look remotely catchable. Regardless, the call was made and the spot foul put the ball on the 1-yard line. The Cowboys punched it in the next play. If the 15-yard enforcement was in place, Dallas would have received the ball half the distance to the goal at the 8.5-yard line. The difference between first-and-goal at the 1 and first-and-goal at the 8.5-yard line is huge.
While this rule change wouldn't solve the problem of poor refereeing, it would lessen their impact on the game, which is something almost everyone wants.
2. Eliminate "automatic first downs" for 5-yard penalties on the defense
This year, the NFL cracked down on three very specific rules: illegal hands to the face, illegal contact and defensive holding. There was a huge spike in all three of these calls this year. All of these penalties happen to be 5 yards, but they are also accompanied by a crucial automatic first down for the offense.
Simply eliminating this extra stipulation would be a quick, easy solution to limit the impact of these (again, subjective) calls, while still allowing the league to "crack down" on these infractions. Just think of all of the third-and-15s that wouldn't be unfairly converted because a lineman out of the play let his hand accidentally slip up into the facemask of a player for a fraction of a second.
3. Make SOME penalties reviewable
There are already a few calls that are reviewable, including (but not limited to) too many men on the field and whether a ball was tipped to nullify a pass interference call. However, the scope of reviewable penalties should certainly be extended.
To be clear, I am not advocating very subjective calls like holding and pass interference to be reviewed. In the above example, you'd be hard-pressed to find a large majority of people who believe one way or the other if that was pass interference. With holding, it is even cloudier. Making those plays reviewable would only create more frustration and slow the game down considerably.
However, there are a few calls that are fairly black and white that are bafflingly non-reviewable. At the top of the list is the new "defenseless receiver" rule. Contact to the head is not allowed while a receiver is in a defenseless position. It's hard to fault the referees for not being able to see at game speed whether a receiver is contacted in the head, but that task is infinitely easier when given the benefit of several slow-motion replays. Considering that play can cost a defense 15 yards and a first down, improving the enforcement of it could be paramount. College football already does this, and most people are happy with the results.
You could also add offside and running/roughing the kicker to the list, as both calls are easily determined with the aid of replay.
While the NFL should certainly strive to improve the performance of referees, it isn't the easiest solution to the league's growing officiating problems. With a quick alteration of the rulebook, the NFL can limit the impact the officials have on the game and make a lot of fans and players much happier.