Why full-time officials won’t solve the NFL’s ref problems
In the wake of the officiating mistakes in the Seattle-Buffalo game Monday night, teams and coaches and fans and the media are looking for answers. How can officials be better? What can be done to ensure that two egregious calls—the Richard Sherman slam into the kicker that wasn’t flagged for unnecessary roughness; and the ensuing umpire-standing-over-the-ball till there were just four seconds left on the game clock, leading to a crucial delay-of-game that contributed to a missed field goal—never happen again?
The NFL seriously has considered making the 17 referees, the chiefs of its officiating crews, full-time officials. Deliberations about it are ongoing, but approval by the officials’ union is needed, and that was a fight that went unsolved in the last negotiations in 2012. The NFL also has discussed adding an eighth official to its seven-member crews, with the placement of the official still up for debate; some want the official in the secondary, as another set of eyes watching the hand fighting between receivers and defenders.
What about making the league’s roster of 135 officials full-time league employees? Arizona coach Bruce Arians passionately advances the idea, and it has other advocates too. I’m not one of them. It isn’t that I hate the idea of full-time officials; if they were full time, I don’t think it would hurt the game. But I don’t think it’s a certainty that officiating would improve. I do think looking to full-time officials as something that would vastly improve officiating is a faulty assumption.
• You’d lose some quality officials if you asked them to choose between the officiating job and their other jobs. A veteran official with 20 years experience can make as much as $215,000 a year. A young official in year one or two would make approximately $78,000. Would Walt Coleman remain an NFL ref if asked to turn away from running his dairy farm in Arkansas? What about successful lawyer Ed Hochuli? Or Gene Steratore, who has a lucrative side job reffing NCAA basketball games? Further, if you told a young official on the verge of getting tenure in his main job as a teacher or school administrator he had to choose between that and his $78,000 NFL job, how many of the young officials would you lose? Former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira estimated to me Tuesday that maybe 25 of the 135 officials would leave the NFL. That’s a lot of turnover. Add in the normal turnover of four to six officials in a season, and adding 17 more officials if the league went to an eighth official on every crew … that’s potentially up to 45 to 50 new officials, about three rookies per crew. Imagine the adjustment if the 17 crews have to work in three new members. For at least a season, it could be a nightmare.
• What would these full-timers do? It makes some sense for the 17 crew chiefs to be full time. After being embedded with the Steratore crew for a story for The MMQB in 2013, the extra work—breaking down tape of the game just done and the game his crew was about to do, discussing tweaks and mistakes in the game just done with other crew members, preparing a game plan for the upcoming game—he was expected to do each week probably added up to a 40-hour work week. Beyond that, there are no other NFL or NFL developmental league games to work. It’s a stretch to think working in-season NFL practices would simulate real games because teams are largely pad-less and often at half-speed. Would watching more tape help officials make better calls on bang-bang plays? Possibly, but I doubt it. “I can’t fathom what a side judge would do all week to get better and make better calls on Sunday,” Pereira said. “Read the rule book? Watch a lot more tape?”
• The union has some legitimate concerns, which I’d have if I were an official. During the last negotiations between the league and officials, the Pro Football Referees Association rightfully wanted some assurances about job security if it was going to sign off on full-time officials. If an official was going to leave his employment career behind to join the NFL, surely he should have some guarantees that he’d have secure employment in the NFL for X number of years; otherwise, why leave a job with security? Essentially, the NFL won’t guarantee VP of Officiating Dean Blandino’s employment for the long-term future, so the league wouldn’t give guaranteed contracts to some of its officials. Thus the stalemate. Not sure how it gets fixed, or if it can.
Bottom line: I don’t think there’s a very good chance for full-time officials soon; the contract between officials and the league runs through 2019.
“If the league decided to make officials full time,” Pereira says, “it’d be nothing more than a PR move to me.”
Last week, I asked Blandino on “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King” about full-time officials. He said: “I don’t know if full-time officials make us—I can’t quantify it—3 percent better, 5 percent better …”
“Or at all better,” I interjected.
“Or at all better,” he said. “I do think there’s merit to the idea. It’s something we should continue to explore. I think our referees would be a good starting point … to look at.”
Says Pereira, “If the league decided to do it, it’d be nothing more than a PR move to me.”
Strong stance from Pereira. I wondered why. “If they went full-time,” he said, “what effect would it have? Basketball officials work basketball all the time; they get criticized all the time. Baseball umpires, same thing. We have maybe 19 games a year for our officials. Look at the accuracy rate. It’s pretty damn incredible. There’s maybe 155 plays a game, with 10 significant decisions to be made on every one. And what’s the accuracy—maybe 96 percent? There’s going to be mistakes. I think the officiating right now, overall, is excellent. I don’t want all these new officials that would come in all at once. What it comes down to for me is whether full-time officials would really improve officiating, and I don’t think it would.”
I can’t say it wouldn’t. But I’m more on the side of: Be careful what you wish for. Imagine 40 or 50 new officials flooding the league in one year, or two years. That would have a bigger net negative on the quality of officiating than the positive of officials working longer every week, and in the off-season, at their craft.