It comes as little surprise that Super Bowl 57 was mired in an officiating controversy. No matter what commissioner Roger Goodell says, officiating continues to be inconsistent and incredibly impactful on the game of football. At this point, it almost seems inevitable that at least one call or non-call will be hotly debated when the clock strikes zero, but for it to happen on the biggest stage and essentially end the game is a particularly disastrous outcomes for the NFL—and the Philadelphia Eagles.
If you didn’t see it, the controversy surrounds a third-and-8 play for the Kansas City Chiefs. With the game tied and inside the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Patrick Mahomes tried to loft a deep pass for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run under, but the ball was overthrown and fell incomplete. With just 1:54 left, the Chiefs would have to settle for a 32-yard field goal and give the ball back to the Eagles with plenty of time—and one timeout—to either tie or win the game.
That never happened because a very late flag came in. A defensive holding on the Eagles gave the Chiefs a fresh set of downs. With only one timeout for the Eagles, the Chiefs were able to run most of the remaining clock out and kick the game-winning field goal with just eight seconds remaining. Game over.
Obviously very little restriction on this, and the uncalled DPI in the 1Q was a little more restrictive. Arm does come around, and we agree w/Mike Pereira that we don't have the angle the official had for a potential jersey tug. Given what I see, this would be one to pass on pic.twitter.com/VPvCXMrSz7— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) February 13, 2023
The merits of the call have been hotly debated, but that is not where the focus should be. By the book, it was definitely a penalty. You could certainly argue that it was mild enough to ignore at that critical of a point in the game, but that raises ethical concerns on whether you really want the game to be officiated differently in big moment. And when Eagles cornerback James Bradberry—the player who committed the foul—essentially owns up to infraction, that pretty much ends the debate.
James Bradberry: I pulled on his jersey. They called it. I was hoping they would let it ride. pic.twitter.com/JwCi4laT56— JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) February 13, 2023
The lesser-talked-about problem with this play is that it comes with an automatic first down. Automatic first downs may be the dumbest rule in the NFL rulebook because it gives officiating way too much power. A fresh set of downs is far more valuable than the 5 yards, and there’s little rationale to it.
There are a ton of defensive penalties that come with an automatic first down, and the designation almost feels random: any personal foul penalty, defensive holding, illegal contact, pass interference, illegal hands to the face, tripping. If you want to keep automatic first downs on personal foul penalties, I won’t push back there.
Meanwhile, when the offense gets penalized, there is not the same focus on altering the downs. There are essentially only two penalties that come with a loss of down—the opposite of an automatic first down: intentional grounding and illegal forward pass. Offensive holding, pass interference, or any personal foul doesn’t have the same impact on the offense that it does on the defense. It makes no sense.
The biggest problem isn’t equivalence, though. We know the NFL wants more offense and higher-scoring games. That’s never going to change—even if it should.
The problem is that we are simply giving officials way too much power on very subjective penalties. The biggest complaints about officiating come on pass interference, roughing the passer, and defensive holding—all extremely subjective penalties that carry the automatic first down designation.
While the primary goal should always be accuracy of calls, we are never going to achieve perfection. With all the subjectivity in the rulebook, our best shot at limiting the officials’ impact on the game is to make their penalties literally have less impactful, and this is a great place to start. Should an away-from-the-play, illegal hands to the face call give the offense a fresh set of downs on a third-and-20 screen pass that goes for 5 yards? How could anyone possibly say yes to this?
Let’s go back to the Super Bowl. It’s third-and-8. The debatable infraction happens, but if it didn’t come with the automatic first down, the Eagles would still have a chance at winning the game. The call is still very impactful—third-and-8 is hugely different than third-and-3—but you are making sure the officials didn’t have the final say in this outcome.
Now, are there potential unintended consequences here? Yeah, probably. Many who are averse to this rule change fear that defenders will just intentionally hold receivers on third-and-longs knowing that even if they don’t get away with it, it won’t be a huge deal. Even if that is true—which is highly speculative, in my opinion—it’s worth the trade off. This game is already filled with intentional penalties (why do you think offensive linemen hold?), and no one seems to really mind.
And if you’re worried about some end-of-game scenario where teams would use this loophole to bleed clock without major consequences, add a new penalty to eliminate “intentional fouls,” like they did when the Ravens found a loophole by holding on a punt at the end of the game.
Let’s take a little bit of power out of the officials’ hands and try to get these damn ref controversies under control.