On Sunday Night Football, NFL referee Jeff Triplette and his crew thoroughly botched two of the most basic aspects of football officiating: spotting the ball, and marking what down it is.
During a critical late-game drive, as Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon broke down, the officials visibly differed on whether Washington faced 1st-and-10 or 3rd-and-short.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, believing it to be first down, dialed up an aggressive pass play rather than try to convert the short-distance third down. When the pass fell incomplete, Triplette announced it was now fourth down. When Washington failed to convert, its hopes of winning the game—and its mathematical chances to make the playoffs—were snuffed out.
Football watchers across the nation, including ESPN personality Dan Le Batard, reacted like this:
The error was so laughable, so egregious, that fans everywhere spent that late night (and the following morning) talking about the threat poorly performing officials pose to the league's integrity—and whether new technology could reduce blatant human error.
Just hours before, following its broadcast of the Denver Broncos' thrilling 35-28 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, CBS aired its news magazine show 60 Minutes.
On it, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed the company is developing a fleet of automated octocopter delivery drones, ready to criss-cross the sky by the thousands in just a few years.
ESPN's Colin Cowherd summed up the reaction of many who saw the segment:
What makes sports fans terrified of robots bringing them Blu-Ray discs and tube socks but pound the table for robot officials? Where does their faith in technology come from, considering the NFL's long and awkward relationship with instant replay?
Can new technology solve the officiating crisis—and can the NFL restore fans' faith in the men and women in stripes?
The Tyranny of the Majority (Shareholder)
Americans consider life, liberty and pursuit of happiness "unalienable rights." Of unmanned robot drones literally tracking us down inside our homes, we demand two things: transparency and accountability.
Amazon doesn't need to tell us anything about how the drones will be built or programmed. That lack of transparency is scary. Worse yet, we have no idea how Amazon will be held accountable if the drones malfunction, crash or secretly record us.
The NFL, the world's richest sports league, is no different. Though it's an untaxed nonprofit, the NFL is careful not to reveal anything it doesn't have to.
The incredibly thorough system by which officials are evaluated, graded and chosen for top assignments is one of the NFL's best-kept secrets. For many years, the league stood behind its referees unconditionally; we barely even knew such a grading system existed.
Last week, I interviewed former NFL referee Jerry Frump about the specifics of the NFL's official evaluation and grading system. He revealed several things that are not widely known—like the presence of a live officiating evaluator at every NFL game and the use of an independent third party to compile and report officials' grades.
Yet other than eligibility to work playoff games and the Super Bowl, we have no idea how officials are rewarded for good performance, or punished for poor performance.
If the football-watching public knew just how thorough this system is, and how officials were faring in it from week to week, they'd have a lot more faith in the NFL's officiating.
Transparency, Accountability, Happiness
The NFL isn't a serious part of our life, nor our constitutionally protected liberties, but it's a big part of our pursuit of happiness.
If Americans are going to continue to flood the NFL's coffers with nine- and 10-digit revenues, we're going to need to know that the games are being played fairly and our investments of money, time and emotion aren't being swindled out of us.
Here's what the NFL can do to restore faith in the officials:
- Invest in new officiating technology, like making the virtual first-down stripe visible on the field, as a good first step. Examine every aspect of the officials' duties, and replace what can be replaced with automatic processes. This removes as much human error as possible. There is precedent, too: though the line judge keeps manual time on the field, the stadium scoreboard's clock is the official game time.
- Publish the entire grading process in detail. Explain exactly how thorough and exacting the process is, so that NFL fans everywhere can see just how minutely every officials' every move is scrutinized on every play.
- Make the referee, if not all officials, report for mandatory media availability after every NFL game, just as coaches and players do. This would give officials a chance to explain their logic, complicating factors, the many complex rules in play, etc. This would not only humanize the officials, it would give fans a much better understanding of how incredibly difficult their jobs are.
- Publish the officials' complete grades on a weekly basis, including upgrades and downgrades, so fans can learn the NFL's standards for some of the newly complex rules of the game—such as what a "catch" even means these days.
- Make plain why officials earn the grades they do and what those grades mean for their assignments, pay, etc. We know the roles, responsibilities and pay grades of everyone else on the sideline, coaches and players alike. Why not make it clear who the top officials are and how they've been rewarded for their performance?
Information Wants to Be Free
For years, the NFL was terrified of releasing All-22 film because, as the Wall Street Journal's Reed Albergotti wrote, it might make fans and media second-guess head coaches.
One wonders how the NFL thought fans and media spent weekdays all these years.
In 2012, though, they opened up the film vault with NFL Game Rewind. Not only did the national media not eat itself, but football fans and analysts have learned much more about how the game works.
In 2013, new VP of Officiating Dean Blandino has spent a lot of time behind microphones in front of cameras explaining controversial calls—even admitting when officials have made mistakes. At the beginning of the season, I likened this bold new officiating approach to the old Soviet policy of "glasnost," or openness.
About 12 hours after the Sunday Night Football gaffe, Blandino released a statement via NFL Network reporter Albert Breer:
The ball was correctly spotted shy of the Washington 46, bringing up third down. Referee Jeff Triplette signaled third down but the head linesman – with Washington in a “hurry-up” situation – incorrectly motioned for the chain crew to advance the chains, which caused the down boxes to read first down. Following a Washington incomplete pass, the chains were moved back and the down boxes correctly reset to fourth down. In this situation where there is obvious confusion as to the status of the down, play should have been stopped prior to third down and the correct down communicated to both clubs.
This is far more transparency than NFL fans ever used to get. The problem is, even though the league is being more transparent about its officials being less than perfect, it's still not being completely transparent. Surely there were more acknowledged mistakes, or "downgrades," in Week 13's slate of games, but we'll never hear about them.
The five-step plan I propose would take this new open policy much further, turning the NFL's approach to officiating on its head.
Yet, just like the NFL's allowance of All-22 film has greatly advanced the understanding of fans, media and analysts across the nation, allowing us to see behind the black-and-white striped curtain would greatly strengthen our collective faith in the game.