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Sports Authority

Coolican: It’s time to stop overly criticizing NFL officials

| Friday, November 8, 2019

Whenever someone’s favorite team loses, their first move is often to criticize the officials. I will freely admit, I have been guilty of this in the past, although I try to be more conscious of it. Officiating in every sport is a very difficult task. You have to know the very complicated rulebook cover-to-cover, be prepared to make extremely close calls, and expect verbal abuse from coaches, players and fans. However, football is one of — if not the hardest — sport to officiate. They also get more flak than referees of any other sport, and it has only gotten worse in 2019. Fans, many media members, coaches and the players have all taken to social media to voice their displeasure with officiating crews. 

It peaked at the end of last season, when the referees in the NFC championship missed what appeared to be a blatant pass interference call in the fourth quarter, which would have likely put the Saints in position to kick a game-winning field goal with no time left. But instead, the Rams would go on to win in overtime. In the offseason, the NFL tried to adjust these concerns, as the owners voted to allow pass interference to be reviewed by replay, but even that has been met with controversy, as many of these calls are very close and have led to complaints from coaches. The NFL has also have implemented rules to protect the safety of players, including expanding the rules for protecting quarterbacks and kickers. While many fans have bemoaned these “soft” new rules, anything the NFL can do to protect its players is a good thing. Football is leaving players with serious brain damage, as so many recent studies have shown. CTE is a serious problem, and the NFL is taking major steps towards addressing it. Fans and media members should take a hit from a 250-pound linebacker before they claim these rule changes are “soft.”

Admittedly, there have been some very poor calls that have changed the outcome of games. In the Lions-Packers matchup in Week 6, the Lions led nearly the entire game, but defensive linemen Trey Flowers was called twice for illegal hands to the face, a 15-yard penalty. Neither of those should have been called, as his hands were on the defender’s shoulder pads. Both calls ended up helping extend a Packers drive, in a game that ended up being a 23-22 Packers victory. Jaguars defensive end Calais Cambell was flagged for lowering his helmet on a play where he didn’t even make contact with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson last week. 

However, making some of these calls is very difficult. False starts are one of the most common penalties, but when it actually comes down to it, determining whether the offense or defense moved first is not easy, especially when most of these penalties involve tiny movements. Another example is spotting the football. On most plays, it is not too difficult, but on a short yardage situation, with all 22 players in the box, the referee has almost no angle to see whether the runner made the line to gain. Yet, they are still expected to make a call. Football referees have to routinely make calls that they have next to no angle on, and, as legendary coach Vince Lombardi said, “football is a game of inches.” There is always contact on the line and downfield on a pass play, and they have to determine whether or not there is enough for a penalty. 

In other sports, while officiating is still very challenging, it pales in comparison to how difficult it is to referee football. In most other sports, the positioning of the referees is designed for them to have the best angle on the play, as plays are very repetitive. In baseball, the umpires usually make the same calls play after play. Same goes for basketball, although there is a bit more variety. In football, the plays happen so quickly and they are often calls that could go either way. 

None of this is an excuse for the poor officiating, and the league should hold its officials accountable for blatant missed calls such as in the NFC championship game. This piece is instead meant to point out the fallacy of fans and media complaining about almost every flag and to emphasize that the new rule changes, while the officials are still adjusting, are a step in the right direction towards protecting the safety and long term health of the players.

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