Is the NFL Really Being Honest About Officiating?

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Is the NFL Really Being Honest About Officiating?
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NFL officials don't make mistakes—at least, that's what the NFL used to try to convince us.

No matter how brutal the blunder, how egregious the error, how clearly it cost the affected team, the best fans could hope for was an internal memo leaked to the press, as happened in 2002 after a gaffe-filled Minnesota Vikings game, per Sports Illustrated.

What a difference a decade makes.

Dean Blandino, the NFL's new vice president of officiating, went on a media blitz this week after a rash of official errors plagued Week 1.

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Blandino went on NFL Network's NFL Total Access show to say San Diego Chargers defensive tackle Cam Thomas had been wrongly flagged for a personal foul during a Texans field-goal attempt. This gave the Texans a new set of downs in the red zone, leading to a touchdown. The Texans won by three points.

Blandino also notified media outlets like the Associated Press (through an NFL spokesperson) that not only did Bill Leavy and his crew wrongly decide two dead-ball fouls offset in the the San Francisco 49ers/Green Bay Packers game, but Leavy never should have assessed one of the two penalties.

Even one of the NFL's most closely guarded secrets, its official-grading system, got into the news: ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the league downgraded Leavy for his poor work in Week 1.

That's three game-changing referee incidents admitted publicly—and not just publicly, but using the media as a megaphone. Besides his weekly slot on Total AccessBlandino has added an analyst gig with NBC Sports' Sunday Night Football:

Blandino has also guested on popular radio shows and podcasts, like The Dan Patrick Show and The Rich Eisen Podcast.

What do we call this brave new approach to handling the mistakes of NFL officials?

In a word, "glasnost."

 

Openness

Those of us old enough to remember the Soviet Union remember the policies of glasnost, usually translated as "openness," instituted by then-president Mikhail Gorbachev.

To reduce corruption and inefficiency, decision-making power wasn't just held by the innermost circles of the Communist party, and the press was given more freedom to record and report the activity of the government and its committees.

The idea was to give the people more faith and confidence in the government.

Instead, it shed light on a whole host of problems the government denied existed—hastening the end of the Soviet regime.

For decades, the NFL closed ranks around its officials and dismissed any talk of their possible error or corruption. Today, though, there's simply too much access to high-quality video and analysis to pretend fans can't see mistakes when they happen.

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When Blandino was hired, his first interview emphasized “striving for consistency” and “being transparent."

But who is Dean Blandino? How did he gain total control of NFL officiating and simultaneously become the face and voice of the NFL in media discussion of officials or rules?

 

From Intern to Calling the Shots

Blandino, unlike his predecessors, has never officiated a down of competitive football in his life.

Blandino, who was unavailable to comment on this piece, told Referee magazine he attended Hofstra University not to become an official, but to get into sports television.

"I wanted to get involved in sports," Blandino told Jeffrey Stern, senior editor of Referee. "I was very interested in television production and possibly being on camera... I never thought about officiating as a career."

Blandino, a passionate sports fan, applied to the major sports offices in the New York area and landed as an intern with the NFL in their officiating department in 1994.

Hired during the NFL's break from instant replay, Blandino worked on training materials, clipping out officials' assessment and training videos, gathering the NFL's internal statistics on officials and even editing the official NFL rulebook.

When the NFL re-instituted replay, guess who the officiating department trusted to evaluate bids, equipment, proposals and procedures? Of course, the young guy with the TV production background: Blandino.

Former VP of Officiating Jerry Seeman, who hired Blandino in 1994, told Stern, "When we presented the plan to the Competition Committee, [Blandino] helped put it together and explained a lot about it. Dean had done a lot of the legwork."

Blandino not only became an instrumental force in the NFL's re-adoption of replay, but an in-game replay official—able to overrule referees with decades of experience, despite having none himself. He worked two conference championship games and two Super Bowls, XXXIV and XXXV.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Per NFL.com, he oversaw the NFL's replay program from 2003 to 2009, hiring and training officials, designing their training materials and acting as liaison to the 32 NFL teams. He also pushed for, and oversaw, the implementation of high-definition replay equipment in 2007.

Then, in 2009, something strange happened. Blandino told Referee the NFL offered employees with five or more years' experience an enhanced severance package—basically, early retirement. Blandino, who'd spent all of his young professional career working for the NFL, took the deal and resigned.

"I saw it as my opportunity to leave the league and start my own company," Blandino told Referee. That he did, founding Under the Hood, a replay-official consultancy business that served, amongst others, the NCAA, its major conferences and even the briefly extant United Football League.

He never really left the NFL, though; as part of his departure agreement, he was kept on as a consultant.

 

The Face of the Program

The last time the NFL hired a new VP of Officiating, it was to replace Mike Pereira, now a rules and officiating analyst with Fox Sports.

Pereira had regularly appeared on NFL Network broadcasts to explain controversial calls in the popular "Official Review" segment of NFL Total Access. When Pereira left to become an analyst, that created a vacuum.

I asked Ben Austro, editor of FootballZebras.com, what Blandino's push into the media meant for the NFL and its officiating program.

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"Mike Pereira set the bar for openness and transparency, and, for whatever reason, the NFL did not continue that under the next officiating vice president, Carl Johnson," Austro told me. "Mike then became the de facto spokesman for all things officiating."

There's that word again: "openness."

The league struggled to find a replacement for Pereira, according to Sports Illustrated's Peter King. Johnson's background and approach are the opposite of Blandino's: Johnson is a veteran official, wise in the old-school ways of protecting officials and their reputations. He demonstrated little interest in defending, explaining or criticizing the work of his colleagues in the media.

Until Johnson gave up the role to become the NFL's first full-time official and Blandino was hired, Pereira and the media had free reign to analyze the work of the officials without a league voice in the discussion.

"I think the NFL is trying to regain control of the officiating discussion by having Dean more visible," Austro told me. "The league involuntarily abdicated that position."

In a way, then, Blandino's push to get the league's message out in the media is like another old tactic of the Soviet Union: propaganda.

By having Blandino proactively pointing out problems with officiating every single week, there's little room for Pereira (or columnists like myself) to take the league to task. By openly and honestly critiquing the officials through its own media channels, the NFL can silence independent critique.

"The NFL will probably measure the media winds each week to see when it would suit the league's interests to insert Dean into the media cycle," Austro told me. "You'll probably see more ebb and flow with his appearances from week to week. But it is certain that Dean will increase his presence in the discussion to levels far beyond any of his predecessors."

Is Blandino really implementing glasnost, or is he just telling everyone what the league wants them to hear?

Blandino has made no public comment on one of the most controversial officiating issues of Week 1: Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson having a touchdown disallowed via the so-called Calvin Johnson Rule, while New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz had a functionally identical touchdown allowed.

Pereira reviewed the two plays, and on Twitter he did not agree with the on-field or replay officials:

Pereira agreed that those both looked like catches, but that by rule they should both have been incomplete.

Again, Blandino has been conspicuously quiet.

 

The Next Pereira?

The NFL struggled to find the next Pereira in the search that resulted in Johnson's hiring. With Blandino, the league appears to have found its man.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

"Dean has an excellent presentation ability," said Austro. "He is well studied in the NFL rulebook, and he has a great deal of respect from the officials. He was a natural choice."

Has the league truly found the next Pereira—as in, the next VP of Officiating to abandon the post?

Remember, Blandino's aspiration was never to be an official, but to be in sports TV as on-air talent. His weekly segments on NFL Total Access and Sunday Night Football have already made him a national media figure in his first season on the job.

What if Blandino finds a permanent TV home, therefore once again leaving NFL struggling to find someone who can both administrate its crucial officiating program and serve as its face and voice in the national discussion?

Maybe the NFL needs to stop looking for someone who can wear both hats.

 

Perestroika

The NFL should look into one of Gorbachev's other initiatives: "perestroika," or restructuring.

Rather than have a VP of Officiating acting as the league's own media watchdog, have one focused on improving transparency and consistency throughout the officiating program. Incorporate glasnost from the bottom up: Make officials available to the media after games, and publish the internal officiating statistics and grades.

The NFL should make all officials full-timers like Johnson, so they can focus on doing their job as well as possible and competently take public responsibility when they (inevitably) make mistakes. It will be hard on officials, but better for everyone involved.

Take a cue from Major League Baseball: When umpire Jim Joyce tearfully admitted he robbed Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game with a missed call, he was received with a standing ovation by Tigers fans the next day.

Fans understand good, hardworking human beings who make and admit their mistakes. They don't understand being told NFL officials are collectively correct an improbable 97.78 percent of the time, as the league told Judy Battista of The New York Times in 2008.

Like Gorbachev's Soviet Union, the risks of glasnost and perestroika are great. As with that collapsed empire, though, the risks of keeping ranks closed are greater.

The NFL's integrity, and continued existence, hinges on fans believing NFL rules and officials are clear, consistent and incorruptible.

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