A veteran referee turns a routine touchback into a touchdown and reverses his decision only after two alternate officials storm the field to talk him out of it. A questionable interpretation of a new rule stalls a fourth-quarter drive. Centralized replay fails to review a winning touchdown for pass interference. A helmet-to-helmet hit on a starting quarterback goes unaddressed.
Officiating madness during the NFL’s wild-card playoff weekend reinforced the league’s urgent need to “look at everything” involved in what has been a trying season, as executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent promised he would do last month. League sources expect a significant offseason reckoning that will impact the department’s leadership as well as on-field personnel. At the same time, owners must decide whether to scrap or adjust pass interference review, a process that has dinged the league’s credibility with its confounding application.
“It’s pretty simple,” said ESPN officiating analyst John Parry, who retired last spring after 19 seasons as an NFL official. “The league needs to commit resources and money to this. It needs to commit to the resurrection of the officiating department, the staff, the training and the recruiting. There has to be a commitment of people and money to improve it at every level.”
Seven games remain in the 2019 postseason, during which the NFL will cross its fingers and hope that officials will avoid major incident while under intense public scrutiny. In the meantime, deliberations are underway on the key offseason issues it must address. Let’s preview them, with commentary from Parry and information I’ve compiled in recent weeks.
Al Riveron is completing his third season as the league’s senior vice president of officiating and, similar to a coach or general manager of a disappointing team, has been subject to rumors about his future. According to sources, some in the league office have advocated a campaign to lure back Riveron’s predecessor, Dean Blandino, who works as a Fox Sports officiating analyst as well as a consultant to the NCAA and the XFL.
The current expectation is that Riveron will have a place in the NFL next season but amid a restructured leadership team around and likely above him. The league has already committed to hiring a vice president of training and recruitment, as part of a new collective bargaining agreement it reached with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) last fall, and has focused on referee Walt Anderson as a top candidate for that role if he decides to leave the field after this season.
That would give the NFL three executive-level officiating jobs, which also includes the vice president of replay role held by Russell Yurk. There have been discussions about other positions as well, but the primary decision Vincent and commissioner Roger Goodell must make is whether — and whom — to add above Riveron in the organizational chart.
NFL chief football administrative officer Dawn Aponte, a longtime league and team executive with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins who returned to the league office in 2017, has been involved in some supervisory duties within the officiating department. She could be a central part of any reorganization. Blandino, meanwhile, is an independent contractor for the XFL and thus isn’t barred from outside work. But he was heavily involved in the XFL’s public rollout of its rulebook this week and said, “It’s exciting for me to be able to work with the XFL.”
No matter who has ultimate authority, Parry said, the department has grown too large for one person to manage it. He estimated there are at least 400 people working through one chain of command, including not only on-field officials but also chain crews, clock operators, replay officials and more.
“I would think that most corporations, if they had at least 400 people to be managed, would probably have, what, between eight and 20 managers?” Parry said. “The NFL has Al. So it gets what it gets. That’s one guy trying to manage a huge department.”
Best guess of what’s next: Riveron stays with the NFL but either cedes or shares full authority over the officiating department in 2020.
Better training and more accuracy
Parry experienced this season from a new perspective, watching every game on television as well as broadcasting ESPN’s Monday Night Football. There is little doubt, he said, that “there has been a decrease in the skill level of officiating.” His sense, based on two decades in the league, is that the number of preventable missed calls has spiked, many based on mechanical mistakes that can be traced in part to the league’s minimal training program.
“To me, the big game-changing errors have increased,” Parry said. “And I see that from watching every game on Sunday. I’ve used the term that officials at times to me seem paralyzed in making a decision, making a judgment. And inside there it starts with mechanics, being in the right position to make the right call.”
Last Saturday, for example, referee Tony Corrente’s botched kickoff ruling started when he was out of position. He wound up in front of Houston Texans returner DeAndre Carter instead of behind him, where the referee is typically stationed. “So he sort of gave the return man an invitation to catch the kick and toss him the ball,” Parry said.
Carter did just that, without taking the official step of kneeling for a touchback. Corrente stepped aside, let the ball drop to the ground and awarded the Buffalo Bills a touchdown after one of their players fell on it. Most referees consider a tossed ball to be a signal that the returner has given himself up. But even if Carter didn’t intend to give himself up, his toss should have been ruled an illegal forward pass and a safety rather than a touchdown. Corrente not only suffered a lapse of judgment but he also applied the wrong rule.
“I’m watching that and wondering, ‘What was [Corrente] thinking? How did he get to that?'” Parry said. “His head was spinning.”
Another mechanical mistake led to an incorrect ruling at the end of a Week 15 game between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers. The official who initially determined Falcons receiver Julio Jones down at the 1-yard line, rather than in the end zone, couldn’t see the ball and should not have made the ruling, Parry said. The decision should have come from an official from the other side of the field, but that official never entered the video screen.
It was clear from the other side of the field that the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line, leaving it to Riveron to reverse the call. The ensuing touchdown won the game for the Falcons. “They needed replay to fix it,” Parry said, “and it really was not that difficult of a call.”
Those examples help illustrate a conundrum of the NFL’s officiating makeup, consisting of what Parry calls “both ends of the spectrum.” There has been an influx of younger officials who often have less than 10 years of experience at any level, the result of a shrinking nationwide pool of candidates. “And then on the back end,” Parry said, “you have a group of officials who have 20-plus years in experience. They’ve aged and their ability to process has slowed.”
The NFL’s new CBA with the NFLRA offered extra severance in 2020 for any official with at least 20 years of experience. A handful of officials have taken that option and plan to retire after the season. As many as 20 would be eligible for the same benefit after the 2020 season if they notify the NFL by this March. As a result, the NFL is bracing for approximately 20% of its officiating staff to depart over the next 14 months.
Young or old, NFL officials are supported by minimal training or continuing education. They receive occasional video instruction from two league trainers, but the NFLRA made the issue a central point of its recent CBA negotiation. In addition to a training executive, the NFLRA pushed the league hard to hire a swath of recently retired officials to beef up training practices.
“That’s what we were really interested in and still are,” NFLRA executive director Scott Green explained. “We said, ‘Let’s get somebody in there who is focused on working with young officials. We were and are hoping that this will be a fairly robust program. Everybody agreed it was needed, and we would certainly like to see that kicked off and underway sooner rather than later.”
The CBA also provided for a reinstitution of the league’s full-time program, through which the NFL hired about 20% of its officials to expand their duties in the offseason following the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The league put it on hold last summer. And Green said he has received no indication of its imminent return.
Best guess of what’s next: The NFL begins re-building its training program but finds few answers in recruiting, which is impacted by forces mostly beyond its control.
PI review … review
The NFL reviewed 97 calls this season for possible offensive or defensive pass interference, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It overturned 23, a top-line ratio that many observers would have accepted when the program was first initiated. It was reasonable to expect some growing pains and controversy, but the league’s inability to establish and then maintain a standard for reversal cast doubt on the credibility of the exercise.
That uncertainty was especially visible on coaches challenges. The league overturned only 13 of the 80 pass interference-related plays that coaches challenged. (Booth reviews resulted in reversals on 10 of 17 instances.)
The confusion began during the offseason, when Riveron made a series of presentations that suggested he would take a literal and aggressive approach to reviewing and overturning calls. But he took a sharp turn after reversing five calls in the first two weeks of the season (0.15 per game). In Weeks 3-10, he reversed only four calls (0.03 per game). Then another sharp turn occurred, leading to 14 reversals in Weeks 11-17 (0.13 per game).
Those clear twists in the reversal standard would have made sense if they had led to a consistent place. Instead, the NFL’s opening playoff weekend further clouded the picture. Riveron refused even to launch a formal review of Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph’s game-winning touchdown last Sunday over the New Orleans Saints. Replays showed Rudolph’s right arm push Saints defender P.J. Williams hard enough to make Williams’ head snap backward.
Riveron said in a pool report that “none of that contact rises to the level of a foul.” But Parry was joined by two former referees (Terry McAulay and Gene Steratore) and one former NFL officiating chief (Mike Pereira) in thinking it was a foul. Pereira said on his Last Call show that declining to initiate a review was consistent with the league’s replay standard. The NFL, after all, added only one OPI call via replay after Week 2. But was it a “replay standard” or simply a way for Riveron to avoid reviewing and/or overturning significant plays?
Parry, for one, noted that there was a relatively obvious indicator that could be used to see the difference between standard contact and pass interference: Williams’ head snapping back at the force of Rudolph’s push.
“The standard ended up being impossibly high,” Parry said. “They needed to define the standard better with indicators to know when it would be reversed or not. In this case, if [Rudolph] just has his arm extended, it’s not pass interference. But when you see how the defender reacts, that’s a yes. The elbow is bent and the arm is then extended to create the separation. That’s pass interference.
“There was clear and obvious evidence in the first replay we saw that the receiver gained an advantage,” Parry added. “The game should have been stopped for a review and offensive pass interference called. Here they were, in the city that saw the play that caused the rule to be created [a no-call in the Saints’ 2018 NFC Championship Game loss to the Los Angeles Rams]. They were watching a play for which the rule was created, and they didn’t do [a review].”
The question facing the league’s competition committee, and ultimately its owners, is whether this year’s failure is the result of an impossible task or flawed execution. There are important decision-makers aligned on each side, and it’s quite possible that replay review of pass interference could return in 2020 under a different system or different operators.
Saints coach Sean Payton, a member of the competition committee, has proposed using a small group of people in the NFL command center to reach replay decisions. In November, retired CFL officiating chief Glen Johnson said it took nearly two full seasons to align the CFL’s pass interference replay standard with reality.
Best guess of what’s next: There will be a way to fix obvious pass interference mistakes in 2020, but the entire process could be different than in 2019 or could even be ceded to a sky judge.
Reason for hope
The 2019 season has illustrated an unfortunate fact of life for NFL officials: Months of controversy and outrage can be traced to a handful of plays. Parry estimated that total to be about 50 obvious, glaring and big-time misses, a sliver of the 32,640 total offensive snaps taken this season. As the league contemplates and then executes an officiating reorganization, Parry hopes it will keep in mind the relative accuracy it already enjoys.
“No one is saying those are acceptable calls,” Parry said. “They’re big-time misses and there is no excuse. They’re terrible. But sometimes it’s important to have a little perspective. If there are 50 of those over the course of the season, that means there are [more than 32,000] plays where the calls were correct.
“Do I think officiating is at the level it should be? No. Does it need to improve? Yes. But at the end of the day, that’s a pretty good number of plays where they got it right. I think it would help everyone to know and understand that.”
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