As the NFL works its way through the second quarter of the season there many storylines playing out and getting attention. One that’s common most years is the officiating. Though outside of the emphasis Roughing the Passer penalties there haven’t been as many highly publicized controversial or bad calls this year, yet, if we were to ask any fan it’s guaranteed most will have something to complain about. Obviously a lot of the problems people have with referees have less to do with bad whistles and more with fans looking for an excuse for why their team lost. However it’s also well known that often (and often in big moments of important games) blown calls occur, and far too often they’re the difference between a win or a loss. Now we get it. Refs are humans, working hard to do their best at a difficult and thankless job, so we’re not going to bash them in this article. We just have a few suggestions on ways the league can improve and better ensure that the games are determined by the athletes on the field.
The first problem we see is fairly evident. Every generation of player is bigger, stronger, and faster than the last. Combine that with advancements in exercise and training science, nutrition, and medical and equipment technology, the speed of the game is ever accelerating, while the ability of the referees remains largely the same. Officials may work out to keep in shape but the widening gap in their athleticism and that of the guys in the NFL makes it impossible for them to keep up. Ed Hochuli is more of the exception than the rule. Age is a factor as well. The average age of an NFL player is around 27 years old. Most refs are pushing 51. There’s a reason nobody even close to 50 is playing in the league, so how can we expect somebody that age or older to be able to regulate a game played by men that they are no match for physically? There is actually a simple and readily available solution to this problem. Every season there are dozens of young men who fall just short in the physical ability, talent, or skill departments to make it in the NFL. These men however are still vastly superior athletes to the current referees today. These guys would be perfect candidates to officiate games. There’s a deep pool to choose from and they are so much better suited for the demands of the job. Not only are they comparable athletes but through their recent training for the sport they’ve developed the necessary reflexes, eye coordination, and awareness to excel at making close calls on split-second plays. They’ve also been participating since they were children so they are already well versed in the rules, and any knowledge deficits would be minor so it wouldn’t take much to get them educated on all the regulations. …so now you’ve got a younger, fitter referee, better suited physically to perform the rigors of the profession, while still remaining just as knowledgeable as the ones used now. The league could institute a training and recruitment program and bring in these guys to be groomed as future officials. The NFL has been criticized for using part-time refs so this method would also solve that problem as the program would allow them to build a corps of officials who’d trained for it as a full-time career. This would vastly improve the overall quality of NFL refs and thus the officiating of the games.
The next suggestion is not so much a new idea as it is an expansion of something already in place. We won’t go into the debates on Replay, how it’s used, if it takes too long, if it gets things right etc.. Instead we’re going to recommend a way to increase its scope and the usage of video to catch certain missed penalties. Now before you roll your eyes and sigh about making the games even longer, just hear us out. If executed right our plan would not add any significant holdup. Most football penalties are easy enough to identify and call in real-time. However one that is constantly missed and debated is pass interference. More often than not after a pass play the replay shows the player (on either side of the ball) is illegally impeded with and a flag should have been thrown. These replays are usually shown within about five seconds of the play which is well under the 25 seconds between snaps. Why not then have the same official that calls for reviews inside two minutes of every half be allowed to call a penalty if P.I. is spotted. The league could limit the time to make the call to within the five second or so window already used to show the replays on TV. If no obvious foul can be identified within that time it’d be determined to not have the “indisputable evidence” required to throw the flag. Similar to how challenged calls are overturned or not. This would be the sole responsibility of the booth official (the coaches would not be able to challenge either before or after) and the review would take place behind the scenes and really would only be necessary on closely contested passes. The play would be assessed as soon as it was over so there’d be plenty of time to make a quick determination. This would eliminate bad calls on crucial plays without slowing down the game in a major way. It may even speed it up. Think about it. Most calls are briefly discussed before being made official anyway, so by relying more on video the conversation would be much shorter as the refs would have the input of a tool with a much better view to help decide what penalty, if any, had taken place. If done correctly this could theoretically be used to quickly and effectively make a determination on most judgment calls. If the technology is available why not use it?
Speaking of technology; it may not be quite where we need it to be for our last suggestion. Though really, the only current obstacle would be size and weight. Other commonly debated calls in football are goal line crossings and First Down spots. It is just simply impossible sometimes to tell where a ball is positioned under a pile of men. However there may be nothing more important than the spot where a ball is placed. Something this crucial shouldn’t be at the mercy of human error. A way to solve this would be to place sensors in the pylons and First Down chains and either some kind of chip in or barcode on the ball that would allow data to be collected on where and when a ball crossed a certain point. Then it would be easy to tell if a player had achieved a First Down or scored a touchdown. Again the chip or barcode would have to be weightless so as to not affect the throwing or carrying of the football so that could potentially make this unviable in the present. Yet it’s not far-fetched that with a little research and investment this could prove to be a valuable tool in getting a critical call correct.
The game will never be perfect. Players, coaches, and officials will all make mistakes. However, if there is a way to improve the game why not try it? Human error may be inevitable, but at the end of the day fans want the game to be decided by humans they paid to see play the game, not the zebras who are there to regulate it.