NFL officiating is broken, according to coaches and executives. Inside a fractured system with no imminent fix

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Coaches and executives believe the NFL officiating system is broken. Can the league be trusted to fix it? (Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports)

The video from NFL officiating hit head coach and general manager inboxes on Tuesday.

For 106 seconds, a narrator explained league rules on reporting a change of position atop video clips from the controversial ending to the Detroit Lions-Dallas Cowboys game on Saturday night.

“It is the responsibility of the player to be sure that change in status is clearly communicated to the referee by both a physical signal with his hands up and down in front of his chest,” an automated voice said, “and to report to the referee his intention to report as an eligible receiver.”

At club facilities across the country, a collective eye roll ensued.

“It’s just so [cover-your-ass],” one NFC assistant coach told Yahoo Sports by phone. “Just silly.”

“It’s just gaslighting everybody in the NFL,” an executive from another NFC team said.

After Cowboys-Lions, NFL officiating sent this video to head coaches & GMs, per source to @YahooSports.

“It is the responsibility of the player to make sure that change in status is clearly communicated to the referee by both a physical signal..& (reporting) his intention.”

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 2, 2024

Exasperation stemmed less from the video’s interpretation of rules and more from the misdirection that club staffers believe characterizes the league’s approach to accountability in officiating.

“I would bet my bottom dollar the ref screwed up and was going through the motion,” one AFC general manager told Yahoo Sports. “It’s an inexcusable mistake for a game that had huge playoff implications in prime time. [But the league is] defensive of officiating for some reason.”

Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, addressed concerns Dec. 13 at league meetings in the Dallas area.

“During my time, you have half the teams that win in a week, they say the officiating was good,” Vincent said. “The other half that loses don’t like the officiating. That’s a reality in our game. We are not perfect.

“The concern is to make sure that we are getting better.”

NFC and AFC coaches and executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports for this story overwhelmingly said they believe NFL officiating is getting worse, not better. Black-and-white striped individuals on stadium fields are not the primary concern, they said. Rather, oversight from league headquarters in New York and team owner sentiment are the top impediments to change.

I feel like it’s such a cop out. … they don’t want 17 booth officials that they have to pay more money to. But it’s like: [An] owner literally spilled a drink and has to pay 300 grand. Assume all 31 owners spilled a drink on a fan. That would go a long way to getting qualified NFC assistant coach

There’s reason to believe this sentiment will not reverse any time soon.

“The hard part now is we probably have the best rules and game management [staff members] we’ve had in the league, from a team perspective,” one NFC assistant coach said. “The teams and the broadcasters know so much more than the actual officials.

“That’s what’s scary.”

How did the NFL get here?

Consistency or accuracy? Breaking down where NFL officiating has gone wrongThe NFL long ago accepted human error as part and parcel of an officiating system that hinges heavily on naked-eye assessments.

But acknowledging imperfection need not mean tolerating mistakes without a healthy impetus toward accountability and improvement. Team staffers wonder if that impetus sufficiently exists.

“If the game were played as it is today [and] if the views and technology were what is it today — would officiating be done the same way?” one AFC assistant coach texted on Wednesday. “Oh, so you’re saying the reason it’s done this way is because of the long tradition of it being done this way and institutional momentum against change?

“Wish the officiating had to play an equivalent of the [C]hiefs. Would adapt fast.”

The 2023 regular season ends Sunday, but recent data analyzing this season in the scope of the last five years showed officiating crews this season had improved on consistency (defined relative to the median crew’s calls) while declining on accuracy, a source with knowledge of league data confirmed to Yahoo Sports. Vincent, when asked last month whether issues spurred more from consistency or accuracy, said “our focus this particular offseason was on consistency.” He ended a detailed response similarly: “The crew-to-crew consistency is where our area of focus is.”

Officials are trying to implement a rulebook that one coach described as “Byzantine,” a problem further complicated by growing league trends implementing deception and gamesmanship. Put another way: Coaches are game-planning ways to skirt or at least manipulate rules. Officials are left trying to sort through that in moments like Saturday night, when Lions coach Dan Campbell creatively aimed to deceive Cowboys defenders by sending multiple players to an official while only one declared eligible, the Lions and officials instead devolving into miscommunication over which player that was.

Tension between team gamesmanship and officials’ rule enforcement abounds.

The 2023 season’s other top officiating controversy gives clubs little more solace. Sure, Chiefs receiver Kadarius Toney was indeed offsides when he drew a penalty that ultimately nullified an otherwise spectacular go-ahead touchdown with 1:12 to play in a Dec. 10 game.

Kadarius Toney’s infamous offside penalty (which was ruled correctly) is one of this NFL season’s flashpoint officiating moments. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

“Almost everybody, to my knowledge, is acknowledging that the officials were absolutely correct,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Dec. 13 at league meetings. “I find it ironic that I’m standing here answering a question about if the officials got it right and they’re being criticized.”

Team staffers find this less ironic and more indicative of a systemic problem. Sure, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid decrying the call as “a bit embarrassing” was overkill and quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ sideline and postgame outburst prompted him the next day to “regret acting like … not a great example for kids watching the game.” But while the officials ruled correctly, the question remained: Did Toney’s extra foot actually give him an advantage when he didn’t get the ball until 8 seconds later? The call was correct. But should it be in a league that aims to create the most entertaining and thus lucrative product?

“My issue is the two biggest controversial calls of the year right now are procedure and alignment calls that fans just don’t care about,” the NFC executive said. “I think fans struggle with why line-of-scrimmage, alignment calls should have any impact on their enjoyment of the game.”

And then there are the moments — there does not seem to be an NFL game devoid of them — where calls are downright incorrect, coaches and executives citing their own experiences with officials calling flags in definitions that varied from the rulebooks, flagging players with numbers that do not exist on their roster or even penalizing the wrong team. The Cowboys, for example, were flagged Saturday night for a tripping call with 2:05 left that set them back 22 yards on a drive in which they ultimately gained 19. Video suggests the tripping suspect was Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson rather than a Cowboy. The difference may have impacted whether the Lions got the ball back before game’s end.

Every coach and executive interviewed for this story could cite their own parallel moments from memory. None expressed confidence in imminent improvement.

The league office, too, is aware of constraints in enacting change.

“We are so under-resourced within officiating,” one league source told Yahoo Sports. “[Officiating is] always in the business plan, but it never gets approved.”

To create real change, NFL needs to conquer two major roadblocksSolutions to improve officiating accuracy and consistency do exist.

Should the NFL release more transparent officiating reports, like the NBA’s last two minute reports? Should the league hire full-time officials, keep referee mic feeds open to New York more often, invest in better replay and game oversight technology, and/or encourage officials to be less legalistic in matters that don’t impact the outcome of a play?

Nearly all of those solutions face the same two major obstacles: NFL intransigence and team owners’ unwillingness to invest more funding into officiating.

“I feel like it’s such a cop out,” the NFC assistant coach said. “It’s the same reason why we don’t have the same cameras in non-prime time games. They don’t wanna pay for all 30 stadiums to have pylon cams and first-down cameras. Now they don’t want 17 booth officials that they have to pay more money to.

“But it’s like: [An] owner literally spilled a drink and has to pay 300 grand. Assume all 31 owners spilled a drink on a fan. That would go a long way to getting qualified officials.

“They easily have the money.”

Instead, circular debates ensue over whether making officiating a full-time job would reduce the already-limited pool of qualified applicants or attract more applicants with a salary raise and benefits.

Sky judge and replay assist debates center around the likelihood technology reduces human error or further sows distrust when implemented from a department whose trust has eroded. Would replay expansion streamline operations to finalize decisions, or introduce new data that slows games?

Better investment in training, hiring and retaining officials is a priority among coaches and executives.

The NFL instead has recently seen an exodus of experienced league officials leaving for league networks. Former NFL VPs of officiating Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira each now work for Fox on game days, while longtime NFL referees Gene Steratore, Terry McAulay and John Parry now work for CBS, NBC and ESPN, respectively.

Would money lure any of them back, or at least previously have enticed them to stay?

The AFC assistant coach dreams of a system in which full-time officials spend more time on task studying and simulating the difficult, fast-paced environment they face on game days, perhaps even with regular attendance at team practices. The coach imagines a system where head officials, known colloquially in the league as “white hats,” train as sky judges with broad authority just before they advance to becoming the top on-field arbiter. Perhaps even – gasp – the NFL rulebook could be modernized to the game’s current trends.

More likely, league sources expect the NFL competition committee to continue to legislate tweaks where it can while NFL officials continue trying to succeed in a system that does not ideally set them up for success. They expect NFL progress to remain reactionary and limited until team owners begin to care otherwise, leaving the league office to fumble for educational videos that cover their you-know-what with little better recourse.

The consternation, it seems, is here to stay.

“We know how hard those players are playing, we know how hard the coaches are coaching, we know how much the fans put into it passionately,” Goodell said. “So we want to get it right every time. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll be able to hit that bar.

“But we’ll sure work our ass off to do it.”


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