Detroit Lions tight end Joe Fauria, racing toward the back corner of the Ford Field end zone, looked up and saw the ball dropping to a point just out of his reach. He leapt into the air, pointed his toes for all his worth, clamped the ball to his chest and held on tight.
Fauria's feet kicked up a haze of rubber field infill, but his toes didn't drag for long; at full speed, it looked like his toes were back in the air before possession was established.
Side judge Greg Meyer signaled touchdown.
Just a few hours later and 600 miles away at MetLife Stadium, Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant hauled in a Tony Romo seam pass. Bryant secured the ball to his gut, took a few steps with New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara on his back, fell, then hit his left knee and right hand on the ground before landing on top of the ball. After Bryant slid along the ground, the ball popped out.
Fauria's catch was reviewed by referee Clete Blakeman. Even with multiple angles, slow motion, HD cameras and displays, Blakeman could not see incontrovertible proof that Fauria failed to drag both toes.
The barest hint of a whisper of a catch—that replay was unable to confirm or disprove—would stand as a touchdown.
Bryant's apparent catch, after the officials conferred, was ruled incomplete. Though Bryant came up emphatically signaling that he caught it, replay official Mike Wimmer thought the play wasn't worthy of review (with under two minutes, the officials decide which plays get reviewed); Bryant clearly didn't complete the process.
This is today's NFL, where officials are on-field judges interpreting volumes of rule text, case law and legal precedent as fast as athletes like Bryant can run. The results can confuse and infuriate hardcore football fans who grew up knowing the rules of the game by heart.
Publicly, the NFL acknowledges only the most extreme officiating mistakes and tends to offer carefully worded explanations of controversial calls.
Which of these two crews made a mistake? Did either crew make a mistake? If so, the public will never know.
How, then, can NFL officials ever be held accountable for mistakes they've made?
Making the Grade
We know NFL officials are evaluated by the league. Those who earn the highest grades are selected to work the Super Bowl, per NFL.com, and other top crews work the other postseason contests.
I wanted to know more, however, so I reached out to former NFL official Jerry Frump, who refereed three regular-season games during the NFL's 2012 lockout of the NFL Referees Association.
"The NFL has a very sophisticated evaluation system," Frump told me. "Every single play is graded."
Every week, Frump told me, every official's performance on every play is reviewed by league staff members with on-field officiating experience. Further, Frump said, there's "a live evaluation being done by somebody on-site," and the report from the observer is taken into account along with the film study grades.
"Just like the players shoot for the postseason," Frump told me, "everybody is looking for ways to improve themselves, because the grading system determines who goes and works the postseason games."
With so much riding on these grades, there's plenty of oversight and review built into the process. "If a particular call's going to be downgraded, it doesn't just happen with one person," Frump said. "There's a review process which involves a number of NFL supervisors looking at the same play together. There has to be a strong consensus before an official is downgraded."
Yet another layer of control is built into the evaluations. "Those grades are rolled into a report that is maintained by an independent third party contracted by the NFL," Frump said, ensuring the grades are fairly compiled and reported.
If the evaluations are maintained by a third party, though, how do the officials know how well they've done after every week? "There's going to be a grading report that goes back to each official and the crew chief," Frump told me. "You're going to get downgrades. Those are the ones that are most obvious, the ones where there should have been a call and you didn't make a call."
The grading report's not all bad news, though: "You're also going to get graded on the correct calls that you've made," Frump said. "Some of them, you can get an upgrade on if you've made a really good call, or if you maybe picked up something that the primary official missed on a play."
The evaluation process still isn't over, though, as each official gets to watch his own tape, with report in hand, to connect his performance to where he was graded well or poorly. If an official believes he was graded unfairly, Frump said "there's actually a formal appeal process that you can go through."
Frump, being a replacement official, said his evaluation was done a little differently. "They probably didn't enter into the replacement officials," he said, "believing that they were going to have to conduct this grading with utilizing us for the postseason."
Nevertheless, the replacement officials were still evaluated on each play and were sent film cut-ups of their good and bad calls (along with explanations for both). All of the crews, Frump said, were also sent league-wide examples from each week showing some of the best calls along with plays where replacement officials "stubbed their toe."
Grading on a Curve?
For the 2013 season, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told USA Today's Jarrett Bell that the league had revamped the evaluation system. "We've tried to get the word 'grading' out of our vocabulary," Blandino told Bell.
"We felt that officials historically—not just in the NFL, but in any evaluation or grading system—sometimes tend to get so caught up in the grades, they lose sight of what we want them to say: 'This is an incorrect call, and here's what you can do better,' rather than, 'I got a downgrade. Now I'm just worried about fighting that downgrade.'"
According to Bell, Blandino now assesses all aspects of each official's performance and groups them into three tiers, with the highest tier being eligible for the playoffs.
However, the changes to the system described by Frump can't be too radical.
Blandino went on NFL Network to explain the controversial non-call that ended Week 11's Monday Night Football matchup between the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers. At the end of the segment, host Amber Theoharis asked Blandino if the crew would "receive a poor grade—what you call being 'downgraded'—for this play?"
"No," Blandino responded. "When we look at judgment calls like this, and we feel that the officials followed proper mechanics, we do not downgrade the officials for this type of situation."
Theoharis followed up, asking Blandino, "So, this particular play will not affect their postseason assignments as an officiating crew, correct?" Blandino again confirmed: "This play will not affect their postseason assignments."
It seems as though avoiding downgrades is still a key element of the process. "I don't have any firsthand experience with some of the recent changes Mr. Blandino's made," Frump said, "but I have the greatest respect for him as an observer. I'm sure that whatever he's doing is going to improve the quality and improve the grading system."
The truth is, fans have complained about officials and officiating at every level of the game for the last hundred years. The system of evaluating NFL officials' work couldn't be more thorough, balanced or exacting.
We'll never know whether Blandino and the other officiating supervisors took issue with either Fauria's touchdown or Bryant's incompletion—but we can rest assured that if they did, the officials who blew the calls were held accountable.
Ty Schalter is a Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.
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