“I’m concerned,” former NFL referee John Parry said Tuesday. “I’m not sure what it is, but I know this: Fans don’t want excuses. They don’t want rationalization. They don’t want to hear how fast the game is and how tough the job is. Al and the officiating department need to dig down, and they all need to come together and get it right.”
The league and its competition committee moved swiftly during the 2018 season and in the offseason to address officiating issues. When there was an outcry early last season about a flurry of roughing-the-passer penalties, the competition committee clarified how it wanted the rule applied. The issue faded as the season progressed. And after a missed pass interference call in the NFC title game in January helped send the Los Angeles Rams, rather than the Saints, to the Super Bowl, owners voted in March to make interference reviewable.
But controversy has returned this season. Like Parry, fellow former NFL referee Terry McAulay said it’s up to the officiating department, overseen by Riveron, to provide guidance to officials to improve consistency and reduce mistakes.
“Why are there errors? It appears to me that many officials are working using their own personal perspective of what is or is not a foul for pass interference, holding, roughing the passer, etc., which has led to inconsistencies from game to game,” McAulay, now a rules analyst for NBC, wrote via email. “They seem to lack clearly identifiable standards for these very subjective fouls.”
The league’s focus during the offseason was devising a mechanism, through replay, that would avoid a repeat of the Saints-Rams fiasco. But that work was narrowly focused on pass interference. And this season’s issues have not been related to one particular rule.
“For me, it goes back to the play in January, and then we spent eight months talking about instant replay,” said Parry, the referee for last season’s Super Bowl and now a rules analyst for ESPN. “Instant replay, to me, is a Band-Aid. It can’t be the fix for officiating.”
The problems have been coming fast and furious, and the Saints have been victimized twice. They beat the Houston Texans in their season opener, but the league acknowledged that a procedural mistake cost them 15 seconds during their final first-half drive when a 10-second clock runoff was done improperly.
In their defeat Sunday by the Rams in Los Angeles, the Saints lost a touchdown when an official blew the whistle in the middle of a fumble recovery return by defensive lineman Cameron Jordan. Instead of allowing the play to be completed and then using replay to determine whether Rams quarterback Jared Goff had lost a fumble or thrown an incomplete pass, the official blew the whistle, meaning replay could award the Saints possession of the ball but not a touchdown.
Coach Sean Payton said it was “an awful call.” Jordan likened the official to a Foot Locker employee. After the Week 1 clock mishap, quarterback Drew Brees said “that can’t happen.”
The Saints aren’t alone in their frustration. The Broncos were upset about a roughing-the-passer call on Bradley Chubb for a seemingly legal hit on Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky that helped the Bears to a last-second victory Sunday.
There are various reasons for the issues. For one, NFL rules have become ever more complicated. Parry said the timing issue in the Saints-Texans game is addressed in four different places in the rule book, and the wording is slightly different each time. Also, the officials have become less experienced. The NFL promoted seven officials to referee, the head of the on-field crew, over the past two seasons after multiple departures of veterans. Not only are those new referees less experienced, they’re surrounded by less experienced crews.
“It does take time for any new referee to adapt to a whole new level of pressure, scrutiny and responsibility,” McAulay said. “Each of them are very good officials and, I would say, are probably better than I was my first couple of years, but there is still a significant learning curve.”
Then there is replay for pass interference. Much is being entrusted to Riveron. The NFL knew there would be growing pains and potential glitches when it instituted a rule that made a judgment call subject to replay for the first time. Tony Dungy, the former Super Bowl-winning coach, took it a step further: He said on NBC’s studio show Sunday night that the new system has been, as he had feared, “a disaster.”
Owners ratified the new system on a one-year basis, so it will be up for reconsideration after this season.
“I tried to go in with an open mind and say the glass is half full,” Parry said. “I’m not there now. Do I think the glass is empty? No. Do I think it’s a disaster? No. There is room to regroup. [But] we can’t go 15 more weeks like this.”
McAulay said he had “been on record from Day 1 as adamantly opposed” to the new replay rule.
“It is the most subjective call in football,” he said. “I noted it would be extremely difficult to be consistent with decisions, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen so far.”