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The NFL just can’t seem to work out its officiating issues

Coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots had their issues with the officiating during Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs. (Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
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The NFL had a showcase game late Sunday afternoon in Foxborough, Mass., with a rematch of last season’s AFC championship game as the New England Patriots hosted the Kansas City Chiefs.

But what ended up being showcased wasn’t the skill of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes or the Patriots’ struggle to extend their reign for a bit longer. No, what was on display yet again was the NFL’s officiating issues.

The Patriots were plagued by two officiating gaffes in their 23-16 loss to the Chiefs. A return of a fumble recovery by cornerback Stephon Gilmore, potentially for a touchdown, was cut short and negated when the on-field officials mistakenly whistled the play dead. A subsequent touchdown by rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry was nullified when the officials erroneously called Harry out of bounds at the 3-yard line.

NFL will consider changes to instant-replay system for pass interference

The Patriots ended up with a field goal during a sequence in which Gilmore might have scored a touchdown and Harry definitely scored a touchdown. Those four additional points would have come in handy in the game’s late stages, at which point they might have been able to kick a tying field goal instead of watching quarterback Tom Brady throw a fourth-down incompletion into the end zone with just more than a minute remaining.

“In games, that’s going to come up,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said at a postgame news conference. “Calls you think should go your way don’t go your way. You’ve just got to play through it.”

Coach Bill Belichick showed his frustration on the sideline during the game. On the Gilmore play, the officials ruled Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce down by contact on a run after a catch. They whistled the play dead when, in fact, Kelce lost the football before he was down. Belichick challenged and the Patriots were awarded possession via an instant replay reversal. But they could only be awarded possession at the point of Gilmore’s recovery. If the play had continued, Gilmore could have made a significant return.

By the time of the officiating blunder on which Harry was ruled out of bounds — when, in fact, the rookie wideout’s foot remained in bounds before he dove and reached the end zone — Belichick was out of replay challenges.

“It’s the National Football League,” Belichick said at his postgame news conference. “Just got to continue to compete, control what you can control.”

For Tom Brady’s Patriots, the questions keep stacking up, and answers aren’t easy to find

Few fans of other NFL teams are going to have much sympathy for the Patriots, they of the six Super Bowl titles with Belichick as their coach and Brady as their quarterback. But the NFL just can’t seem to get its officiating problems fixed.

Those problems have been in the spotlight since the missed pass interference call in last season’s NFC championship game in New Orleans that sent the Los Angeles Rams rather than the Saints to the Super Bowl. That blunder led owners, at the behest of coaches, to approve a measure in March making interference calls and non-calls reviewable this season by instant replay.

That has not gone all that well, as everyone now knows. Coaches have been frustrated by the reluctance of Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, to overturn interference-related calls on replay, even when it has seemed obvious that mistakes were made. That has led the league to accept that the new replay system has not worked as teams intended, and a variety of possible changes to the rule will be considered before owners take a renewal vote in March.

So it was against that backdrop that Riveron overturned an interference non-call late in Sunday’s Jets-Dolphins game. That led to a game-winning field goal for the Jets and left Dolphins Coach Brian Flores fuming. He made his objections known to the officials before leaving the field, although he had little to say publicly about the episode.

“We lost the game,” Flores told reporters afterward, according to ESPN. “I was upset we lost the game. I’m not going to answer any questions about the officiating.”

In a pool report, Riveron said: “We got a couple of replays which show us that it’s clear and obvious that the defender grabs the receiver by his shoulder, turns him prior to the ball getting there, and significantly hinders him before the ball arrives. Therefore, by rule, that’s defensive pass interference.”

NFL owners are scheduled to meet this week in Dallas. There is much for them to ponder, with labor negotiations with the NFL Players Association at a critical stage. Commissioner Roger Goodell has not spoken to the media since the league’s failed attempt to arrange a workout for free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The NFL’s investigation of out-of-work wide receiver Antonio Brown remains ongoing.

No matter what the NFL does, its officiating headaches just won’t go away

And yet, Goodell and the owners will have to talk about officiating, just as they had to talk about officiating when they gathered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in mid-October for their last quarterly meeting. It is a problem that simply won’t disappear.

Yes, expectations for officiating are unreasonably high, given how plays now are scrutinized frame by frame on HD screens. The game, in person, is fast. But at a certain point, the officials on the field simply have to get the calls right. Kelce wasn’t down. Harry wasn’t out of bounds. The officials on the field are put there for a reason: to get those calls correct. The answer isn’t always more replay.

During the pass interference deliberations, coaches pushed for the addition of a “sky judge” to each officiating crew. There would be a video official at each game, stationed in front of a monitor in the press box and authorized to overturn obviously wrong calls.

The calls for such an arrangement might be renewed now. But the problem is, that means the NFL must find 17 more qualified officials. The ranks of the experienced and qualified on-field officials already have been thinned by the retirements of some prominent referees (the referee is the head of each crew of officials) in recent years.

For the NFL, there is no easy or obvious answer. But until some solutions are found, the consternation will continue.

“It’s all part of the human element of the game, you know,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said Sunday in Foxborough. “Whether you agree with it or don’t agree with it, it all works its way out.”

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