The object of a referee in any sport is to make sure a game is played fairly, safely and within the rules. That's it.
Sports can exist without referees. Players have been calling their own fouls on the playground for years. But things are different in organized sports. There are stakes—a reason to win other than simple schoolyard pride—and the higher the stakes, the better the chance someone might break the rules in order to win.
The bigger the stage, the more important the referees become.
A few weeks ago in a recreation soccer game between a bunch of six-year-olds, the referee—a monetarily compensated high school student—didn't call an obvious handball.
"You've got to call that," I politely pointed out, in hopes the next call would be properly made. The referee blew the whistle, stopped play and awarded our team the ball.
Damn it if the NFL couldn't work that way too.
Bill Belichick was basically making this exact point when he suggested that coaches should be able to challenge everything, including missed calls on penalties. Sometimes we see things the referees don't. Sometimes the referees make mistakes, and providing more ways to fix them is a good thing for the game. Any game.
“When you have two challenges, I don’t see anything wrong with the concept of ‘you can challenge any two plays that you want,’” Belichick said. “I understand that judgment calls are judgment calls, but to say that an important play can’t be reviewed, I don’t think that’s really in the spirit of trying to get everything right and making sure the most important plays are officiated properly.”
The issue in any televised sport is that viewers can instantly see when officials get a call wrong. We have the benefit of replay, making a call that looks right in real time seem incredibly egregious when slowed down to 12 frames per second.
While this happens in every sport, the issue is exacerbated in the NFL with so many people watching every game. Meanwhile, increased viewership has led to an incredible amount of money put into the telecasts by the networks. More money means more technology, which means more cameras and higher quality replays.
There is nothing we, as a viewing public, don't see.
While technology has made watching sports at home as good—read: better than—as going to the stadium, it's been hell on the referees.
We are in an age where people sitting at home actually have a better sense of what's going on than those standing on the field. It's not just referees, either. Coaching staffs all have their challenge guy up in a booth watching the television broadcast to see if a call should be reviewed.
It's a terrible system if the teams and referees need to rely on media partners covering the game to determine the outcome. But that's the way things work, and unless the NFL does something drastic with the replay and challenge system, things will stay the same for a while.
That's precisely why Belichick's suggestion makes a lot of sense. The goal is to get the calls right, so why limit the scope of what can and can't be challenged? If there is a clear hold on a run that went for a first down, why can't a coach challenge that?
If a player is flagged for pass interference when he made no contact with a receiver until after the ball was touched, that should be a reviewable situation. If a team thinks it's been given a new set of downs but it's actually fourth down…wait…that one might be a little tougher to handle.
But penalties are not. Again, from Belichick's presser:
It’s kind of confusing for me as to which plays are, and which plays aren’t challengeable. I’m sure it’s confusing to the fans to know what they all are. There are multiple pages explaining what you can and can’t challenge. Then you have the officials come over to you in a controversial type of play and say, ‘Well, you can challenge this, or you can’t challenge it' which is helpful.
The most confusing part of the rule is that some parts of a play are challengeable but others aren't. And on top of that, some plays are reviewed automatically, but only if the call on the field is the right one…even if it's wrong.
That sounded needlessly confusing. More simply put, the NFL recently added replay rules to help coaches, giving automatic reviews to all turnovers and scoring plays.
The issue with that inclusion, however, is what it ultimately excluded.
The review system does not account for plays that are turnovers or scores but not called that way on the field. If an official thinks a ball was intercepted, the play will automatically go to review, but if a ball was intercepted and called incomplete on the field, the coach has to waste a challenge to fix the call.
It's incredibly confusing, but that's not even Belichick's issue. He seems OK with having to blow a challenge opportunity if it means getting a call right. He just wants the opportunity.
As long as the NFL doesn't add to the number of challenges for each team, there is no viable reason why it shouldn't increase the number of challengeable plays. Even judgment calls like pass interference or holding should be able to be argued, inasmuch as the part of the play that can be reviewed is confined to whether a penalty was not called but should have been or—in the case of interference—the timing of contact in relation to contact of the ball was improperly penalized.
When you think about it, every flag thrown in the NFL is a judgment call. For some reason coaches are allowed to challenge if a player touched the sideline with his pinkie before crossing the goal line but they aren't allowed to review if a defender's pinkie hit a receiver's arm before (or after) an attempt on the ball.
The rule is arbitrary at best, and the ability to review those bang-bang penalties would make the goal of getting every call right much improved.
But I'll do one better than Belichick. The NFL should completely do away with the silly game within a game of forcing coaches to throw a red flag when they feel a call was missed. Why does a league this sophisticated need to rely on coaches diming out the referees in order to guarantee a call is right?
Why not let someone in the league office make all the challenges?
Take the entire challenge process out of the coaches' hands and take the review process out of the hands of those in the stadium buzzing down from upstairs or going under some silly sideline hood to see if a call was right. If those of us watching television can see the play better than those on the field or in the press box, why not let someone watching the game on TV make the call?
The NFL should assign an official in a room in New York with access to every single raw video angle from the network so he or she can buzz the referee in the stadium if a play needs to be reviewed. The replays can then be handled by the league, not by the coaches or the officials on the field.
I'm confident the league will go to that system at some point. Until then, however, Belichick's suggestion seems prudent. Get the calls right. Let coaches challenge whatever they want, so long as they aren't given more challenges during the game that will slow the event down. If a coach gets two or three challenges per game, let him use the opportunities however he pleases.
After all, just because a play gets reviewed doesn't mean it's going to get overturned.