NFL Officiating in Decline

Falcons coach Mike Smith talks with a Line Judge Sunday.
Falcons coach Mike Smith talks with a Line Judge Sunday. /
Falcons coach Mike Smith talks with a Line Judge.
Falcons coach Mike Smith talks with a Line Judge. /

Every year there are blown calls. It’s an inevitability that affects every sport. Lord knows baseball is no stranger to the blown call. But the NFL has traditionally been above the fray to some extent. Instant replay and the number of officials have helped to prevent too many controversial calls from completely affecting the outcomes of games and every off-season the NFL revamps its rules to try to prevent any future problems.

This season, however, has not been one of the league’s best. Starting with a very strange week one play involving Calvin Johnson, the Bears and a catch that was obviously made to everyone but the head official once he went under the hood, this season has had more than its fair of shaky officiating.

The Calvin Johnson play was particularly grievous. Johnson went up in the end-zone and came down with a spectacular catch. He got both hands on it, maintained possession through the ground and everything appeared to be fine. Until, that is, the NFL reviewed the play. This is where the NFL errs from time to time, rather than go with the common sense ruling, they resort to a rigid interpretation of the rule book. In Johnson’s case, despite making the catch and maintaining control, when he went to get up off the ground he put his weight on the football and it rolled out from under him. Because of the way the rules were worded, that was enough to rule it an incompletion. I’m pretty sure they’re still miffed about that up in Detroit.

In Miami a couple of weeks ago the NFL arguably made a worse call. On a 3rd and goal play Ben Roethlisberger attempted a sneak and fumbled the ball over the goal-line. The Dolphins jumped on top of it and recovered. Unfortunately, the officials ruled the play a touchdown and had to go to replay to fix it. They did get half of the call right, Big Ben didn’t score he fumbled it into the end-zone. What they botched miserably was the recovery. Despite seeing not one, but two Dolphins jump on the ball and having a Dolphin hand the ball back at the end of the play, they ruled there was not enough conclusive evidence to award Miami the ball and instead gave the ball to the Steelers at the half yard-line.

That right there was hands down the most blown call I have ever seen in an NFL game, ever. Once again the NFL had to go with a rigid interpretation of the rules and awarded the ball to the Steelers on a technicality, not on the basis of common sense.

Now let’s look at yesterday’s Bucs game which was amongst the worst officiated games of the season. Let’s start with the Bucs on-side kick. Possession of the ball was initially awarded to the Buccaneers after Connor Barth jumped on the ball at the Bucs own 40 yard-line. So when the replay flag was thrown that meant it would take indisputable visual proof in order to hand the ball back to the Falcons.

I tried to find video of the play, it’s not on or anywhere else. But I do have the game saved on the DVR and will try and figure out how to vid-cap it for the sake of my point. There was no definitive view that provided conclusive evidence Connor Barth touched the ball early. The camera angles were obscured by players and officials and there was no way to definitively say he did indeed touch it early.

In that particular situation, with the ball having been awarded to Tampa prior to the replay and no conclusive way to show that the ball touched Barth, the officials should have gone with the rigid “inconclusive evidence” defense and kept the ball on Tampa’s side. That’s not how it went down though.

The Steelers are still claiming they recovered this ball...
The Steelers are still claiming they recovered this ball... /

Did Barth touch the ball early in reality? Possibly, it was bang-bang. But there wasn’t definitive proof one way or another and the officials still awarded the ball to Atlanta. Now I want to know how the hell the group of morons down in Miami couldn’t definitively tell that Ike Alama-Francis recovered that fumble for the Dolphins (when he is clearly falling on it first and comes out of the pile with it) yet on a less-conclusive play you have enough evidence to overturn a call and award possession to the other team. How does that work, exactly?

That wasn’t even the only bad call. The Bucs final drive was affected by two poor officiating decisions. First of all the Bucs should have received the ball at the Falcons six after a pass interference call on an attempt to Arrelious Benn. Replay clearly showed the penalty took place around the five, instead the officials gave the ball to Tampa on the 11. The Bucs gained nine more yards before getting stopped at the two. I’m not making excuses but you do the math.

Unfortunately though, the spotting of the ball after penalties is non-reviewable. So the NFL could have fixed the problem and just didn’t because once again the rigid interpretation of the rules (that same rigid interpretation the officials didn’t apply earlier in the game) dictates that even though the call could affect the outcome of the game, the NFL isn’t going to take the time to get it right.

Then came the cherry on top. On 3rd and three the Bucs radios went out and the Buccaneers had to burn their last time-out to get the play call in. Now it seems like common sense would dictate that mechanical failure is a bad reason to lose a time out. Let me ask you something, do you lose a time-out if the play-clock stops working or is incorrect? No! Why should you lose one when you can’t get the play in because the radio cuts out. Mechanical failure shouldn’t impact the outcome of a game.

Mike Pereira, the former head of NFL officiating is now doing spot-commentary on controversial calls for Fox. This year, with all it’s horrendous officiating, has sure kept him busy. But I’d go out on a limb and say the NFL misses him now more than ever. The officiating has really declined since he retired last year.