(Photo: Charles LeClaire, Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)
No news is good news.
That surely needs to be the working mantra for the men and woman in stripes as the second half of the NFL season rolls on, given the controversy, confusion and assorted blunders that cast so much shade on the first few weeks of this campaign.
Outside of the “replacement ref” fiasco a few years ago, have the so-called zebras ever been the subject of so much attention?
“Certainly, in the time I’ve been in my position, it’s the most that I’ve seen,” Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, a member of the league’s competition committee, told USA TODAY Sports. “I think with social media, everything is more amplified now.”
Yeah, there’s been much to tweet about:
• Steelers coach Mike Tomlin (bless him) was fined $25,000 for criticizing the quality of officiating as he strongly urged the NFL to do better.
• An official, down judge Hugo Cruz, was fired during the season after blowing an obvious false start as the last straw in an apparent series of mishaps. This bucked the usual action of quiet action.
• NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called for an emergency conference call to get a handle on the roughing-the-passer emphasis that has dumbfounded sack artists and others.. Since then, such calls have decreased … and Clay Matthews, the Packers’ top pass-rusher, hasn’t been flagged again for roughing.
• Dolphins defensive end William Hayes suffered a season-ending torn ACL while trying avoid putting too much body weight on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Chiefs rookie linebacker Breeland Speaks, on the other hand, maintained that he released his grasp on Tom Brady because he feared drawing a penalty (like what in the name of “Mean Joe” Greene?).
• There’s been a lot of mail flowing to players from 345 Park Avenue in the form of “warning letters” stemming from the new “helmet” rule. While the flood of penalties called in the preseason for using the head to initiate contact has trickled to a drip with just eight penalties league-wide through the first seven weeks (in addition to seven fines), the NFL fired off 69 letters that warned players to cease and desist. Upon further review, the officiating department also determined that 21 would-be penalties were missed through Week 7.
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It has been some year of transition in the league, with officials, players and fans caught in the cross hairs of efforts to legislate a safer brand of football – especially for quarterbacks.
With the integrity of the game at stake, this has had the look of serious crisis for the NFL.
“Crisis would be a bit strong,” said Dean Blandino, the rules analyst for Fox Sports who previously served as the NFL’s director of officiating. “In my time, we were always putting out little fires. That’s just part of it.”
Although Tomlin’s remarks resonated within the league office as the type of constructive criticism that many other coaches in the league probably would also offer, Blandino defends the general quality of officiating and maintains that “officiating doesn’t significantly improve or get worse from year to year.” Still, he allows that some of the struggles are related to the new landscape.
“In the officiating world, there’s always going to be negativity surrounding it,” Blandino told USA TODAY Sports. “There are 40,000 plays a year and we only tend to talk about 10 or 15 per year. In the big picture, it’s not that much. But it does tend to stand out.”
No, the officials aren’t perfect. Human error, like it or not, is part of the game. Quarterbacks sometimes miss open receivers. Cornerbacks grab jerseys. Officials miss calls. But the consternation is increased when we’re treated to head-scratching calls – or non-calls.
The “helmet rule” is supposed to work both ways. It sure didn’t, for instance, when Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt rumbled down the sideline and lowered his head on a Broncos defender. Of the warning letters the NFL has sent, 17 went to offensive players. Let’s guess that Hunt received one.
Still, there’s been too much guesswork. Even Aaron Rodgers – who suffered a fractured collarbone last season when Vikings linebacker used his body weight to drill the quarterback into the turf – has wondered.
“I’m a traditionalist,” the Packers quarterback told reporters earlier this season. “I’ve watched the game and lived the game for a long time and some of the rules I think help, but some of the rules maybe are going in the wrong direction.”
Two NFL owners, while also citing the transition phase with the two key rules, told USA TODAY Sports that they would not rule out the possibility of some effect linked to turnover in the officiating ranks. There are four new referees heading the 17 crews this season, the second year since Al Riveron was promoted to replace Blandino. In addition to the referees promoted from within, the league has ushered in 15 new game officials the past two years.
“In general, you’d rather not have that much turnover,” Steelers owner Art Rooney II told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s fair to say. We’ve had probably more than we would like. So, it’s going to take a while for some of the new people to adjust.”
Rooney sounds a lot like, well, his coach and so many others around the league in expressing the end game.
“You want consistency, where everybody knows what to expect,” Rooney said. “Those are the things we’ve got to work through.”
You can’t blame the NFL for trying, given the criticism stemming from an increased awareness of the long-term effects of concussions and head injuries. Sure, the league needed to fix the catch rule, but the vast majority of tweaks in recent years have been related to safety.
That effort was underscored this week during a summit at NFL headquarters, with key league and team officials converging with similar influencers from the NCAA level, drawn together to look at ways to align player protection rules.
Now let’s hope that they’ve worked the kinks out and can lighten up on the confusion as the NFL rolls down the stretch. The last thing we’d want to see is a key game – or say, a playoff spot – enveloped by the controversy of an officiating call.
In that regard, no news would be good news for the NFL.