Two decades in officiating have taught Dean Blandino to expect and accept criticism, a staple baked into the profession. Now the NFL’s vice president of officiating, Blandino understands the implicit pact referees make, that even perfection likely will enrage half the participants. He still has not seen anything like the siege NFL officials find themselves under this season.
“I’m not really too worried about getting fined: I thought those refs” stunk, San Francisco offensive lineman Alex Boone declared after the 49ers lost this Sunday to the Cardinals. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski tweeted his agreement with a reporter who opined officials had targeted Gronkowski for pass interference calls. Screenshots and Vines of missed calls circulate on social media every Monday morning, talking points as much as highlight catches and breakaway runs. Recently, a former NFL head coach called Blandino to tell him, “Hang in there.”
“It’s just indicative of how much interest there is in the NFL, and ultimately that’s a good thing,” Blandino said Wednesday in a phone interview. “I think a lot of it has to do with a couple mistakes in some high-profile games, and we certainly own those and we want to correct those. I think that has led to more intense scrutiny than ever before.”
The rash of crucial missteps has prompted a search for both root issues and potential solutions. At the NFL owners meetings Wednesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell asked the league’s competition committee to examine ways officiating can be improved, including clarifying rules, training methods and how crews are assembled.
“Our officials do an extraordinary job,” Goodell said. “What we see now is that through technology we see things we could never see before, but what it does is it validates the quality of our officiating. We all recognize that officials are going to make mistakes. What we need to do is try to avoid those mistakes as much as possible, train them differently, improve the quality of the officiating and use technology to help them whenever a mistake does occur.”
Despite the high-profile failings, Blandino said the overall performance of officials has remained steady compared to the prior 10 or 15 years. The NFL reviews every play of every game, and through Week 11, Blandino said, officials had committed 4.5 mistakes per game over the course of roughly 160 plays.
The most frequently identified culprit is a sudden experience drain. Over the past two seasons, the NFL added 23 new officials, and 18.5 percent of officials are in either their first or second season. Blandino said the league needed to improve a largely static roster of officials. In 2013, only one NFL official had one or two years of experience. In 2012, there were two. It now has an officiating corps that’s in better physical condition but lacks experience.
The NFL pulls new officials from the college ranks and places them in an “advanced development program,” Blandino said. Officials participate in offseason practices, training sessions with older officials and preseason games. The league lost a valuable training asset when NFL Europe folded in 2007, and it has discussed partnering with the Canadian Football League to train officials, Blandino said.
It might not be enough. Longtime official Mike Carey, now the NFL rules expert for CBS, compared the difference between officiating in college and the NFL to the difference between officiating Pop Warner and college games.
“As soon as you come up from Division I, the rule book is far more intricate,” Carey said. “The speed of the game is almost logarithmically faster. It is that dramatically different. You’re used to seeing it on TV. Live at full speed, it is frightening how fast everybody is and how big the collisions are. It takes two or three year to get used to it, and another two or three to be good at it. It’s hard to cover that inexperience.”
“If you think a guy’s a pretty good college official, and that means he’s going to come in and be a good NFL official, it’s not a realistic expectation,” said former VP of officials Mike Pereira, now an analyst for Fox Sports. “This game is faster, and it’s more complex. There’s a reason they don’t let a guy work a Super Bowl until he’s had at least five full seasons. Does that mean officiating will start to improve as this new group gets older? Maybe. There are some good officials in this wave. And there are some guys that are struggling.”
Blandino defended the league’s ability to get new officials up to speed. The league’s grading process, he said, shows little difference between the 23 new officials and the rest of the corps.
“When you look at their accuracy percentage, it’s not much different than the officials at other levels of experience,” Blandino said. “There is a transition when somebody goes to the professional ranks from the college ranks. It’s the same for a player. I’m sure it’s the same for a coach, and it’s the same for an official.”
During his career, Carey said, the NFL placed rookie officials on crews headed by referees with good reputations. This season, almost every crew has one or two officials with limited NFL experience.
“You have inexperienced people getting taught by inexperienced teachers,” Carey said. “That’s a recipe for slow progress.”
The NFL is considering a significant change to how it employs a portion of their officials. NFL officials are all part-time, either retirees or professionals in other fields. Ed Hochuli is an attorney, Pete Morelli is a high school principal and Walt Anderson manages a dairy processor. The NFL schedule leaves open enough time for officials to work full-time jobs, but full-time jobs prevent extensive training.
The NFL for years has discussed making some officials full-time, and even hired two full-time officials two years ago before hitting “roadblocks” with the NFL Referees Association, Blandino said. The league remains interested in making at least one member of all 17 crews a full-time employee.
The expansion of replay and the ever-changing rulebook, combined with the ever-quickening speed of the game, threatens to overwhelm officials, regardless of experience.
“There’s a ton of points of emphasis,” said Ben Austro, who runs the website FootballZebras.com and wrote the book, “So You Think You Know Football?” “Usually it’s two or three a year. I’ve lost count of how many they’ve put in the last two years. You’re focused on these points of emphases because the competition committee has said, ‘We want this called tightly.’ Does that get you off something else?”
In the offseason, the NFL attempted to clarify the definition of a catch, one of the most controversial judgment calls a referee can make. “The language pertaining to a catch was clarified to provide a better understanding of the rule,” the NFL’s statement began. That clarified explanation of a catch – one of the most elemental acts on the field – came in at 158 words.
Technological advances in replay have complicated the simplest play. Whereas once replay covered only whether a receiver had established possession with two feet down inbounds, slow-motion and zoom-in capabilities raised questions about the timing – when did the receiver attain possession? — forcing officials to make subjective calls.
In the late 1990s, Pereira worked with then-NFL executive George Young on the implementation of replay. Young stored paperwork in manila folders with the contents labeled on the tab, a system befitting his old-school outlook. On his replay review folder, Young wrote, in big letters, “The Monster Grows.”
“We brought replay in as an aid to the officials,” Pereira said. “The one thing we insisted upon was they be empowered to officiate the game. If there was a challenge, he would look at video, and it was his decision. Now, you’ve got New York on a communication system. All this communication makes me question whether or not officials are becoming too reliant on others to do their job. I think this whole striving for perfection has led to an overall reliance on other people to do their jobs. I’m not so sure we’ve helped.”
New technology also has enhanced external scrutiny. Context-free screenshots and Vines get shared via social media, and within minutes, a controversial call that would have been overlooked even five years ago spreads like fire. The inevitable downside of officiating has grown more intense, just as the game has grown more difficult to officiate.
“Sometimes, the game can be complicated, and sometimes the rules can be complicated,” Blandino said. “But we really want our officials to focus on the basics, the fundamentals – what is a foul, what isn’t a foul, be in good position, have good mechanics, that type of thing. We’re just focusing on the basic fundamentals. If you’re excellent in those, you’re going to be in the right position to make the right call.”