A storm has been brewing between NFL executives and its fans, players and coaches over the past few seasons. The full fury of "Hurricane Officiating" is nearly upon us.
From the Calvin Johnson Rule to the lockout of the NFL officials to a spate of mistakes and controversies that's kept new vice president of officiating Dean Blandino hopping, football fans feel like they don't understand the game they've spent their whole lives watching.
The more of a disconnect fans perceive between what players do and what officials rule, the more doubt is cast on the integrity of the game. If fans don't trust the rules and outcome of the games, they won't watch.
Is it really the officials' fault?
Sports Illustrated's Peter King recently spent a week embedded with the officiating crew of referee Gene Steratore. The result was a brilliant three-part series at his site, The MMQB, which made clear how incredibly difficult their jobs are, how strenuously they're graded and how competent they are.
If fans, players, coaches and media are up in arms every week about the inconsistent officiating, but a multistage grading process involving live evaluation, film review, third-party certification and formal appeals uncovers just a handful of mistakes for each official over the course of year, what's the problem?
The rules themselves.
Over the years, the NFL Rulebook and Case Book has become so riddled with special call-outs, exceptions, exemptions and interpretations that making sense of it all at high speed is almost impossible.
For the good of the game, it's time to make the rules clearer—and officials' jobs easier.
The Law of the Land
Behold: The 2013 Official Playing Rules of the National Football League.
It's a 114-page tome, specifying everything from the thickness of the lines on the field to commissioner-crafted penalties for "Extraordinarily Unfair Acts." Just as in criminal law, the text of the rules and interpreted precedent apply; "Accepted Rulings" are meant to explain how the rules should be applied in real-world circumstances.
Just like real-world law, it doesn't take long before simple ideas and words become hard to understand.
Take Rule 3, Section 2, Article 5, Note 2 (3-2-5): "Any ball intentionally muffed forward is a bat and may be a foul." What? The ball becomes a bat if it gets muffed, but only if it's muffed forward? How do you muff a ball, and how can the ball become a foul if it's already a bat?
The rulebook wasn't written for fans, though. Terms like "muff," "bat" and "foul" have specific definitions within the text, and the rules would be meaningless without concrete terms like those.
Without nitpicking the nitty-gritty of the wording, here's how the NFL could make a lot of the rulebook's muddiest sections crystal clear.
Possession, Catches and Touchdowns
A Google search for "NFL 'I don't know what a catch is'" returns 700,000 results. Legions of fans, commenters, message-board posters and even media pros are lamenting that they no longer know a catch—or a possession, or a touchdown—when they see one.
Let's look at Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7 (3-2-7), the definition of possession:
Item 1: Player in Possession. A player is in possession when he is inbounds and has a firm grip and control of the ball with his hands or arms.
Item 2: Possession of Loose Ball. To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and maintain control of the ball long enough to perform any act common to the game. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground, there is no possession. This rule applies in the field of play and in the end zone.
This is all pretty clear: A player has to have a firm grip on the ball and both feet (or a non-hand body part) completely on the ground. Then, he has to maintain control long enough to "perform any act common to the game."
If the rule were actually enforced like this, there wouldn't be any confusion.
There are three notes afterward that are supposed to reinforce these two rules, but they actually start chipping away at them. For example, the notes say that if a player makes a catch while going to the ground and the ball pops out when he hits the ground, he never really had possession.
Two different standards of possession mean two different standards for catches: One for players going to the ground, and one for players remaining upright. Also, despite the rule text saying not to, officials still enforce these standards differently at the sidelines, in the middle of the field and in the end zone.
Even more confusingly, In Rule 8, Section 1, Articles 3 and 4 (8-1-3 and 8-1-4), the rule book defines a catch all over again, with largely similar (but not identical) text.
Back in Week 8, there were two questionable catches in two different games that highlighted this. A back-of-the-end-zone touchdown catch by Detroit Lions tight end Joe Fauria, and a middle-of-the-field reception by Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Bryant caught the ball, took several steps, fell to the ground and touched both a knee and an elbow to the ground before landing on the ball—after which, the ball squirted out. Fauria dragged both toes inbounds, caught the ball and possessed it all the way through landing—but whether both toes flicked the ground after firmly gripping the ball was unclear.
The Bryant catch was ruled an incompletion, despite doing much more to establish possession than Fauria. On the NFL Network, NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino explained why the league supported the Bryant call, citing the three elements of a catch (via NFL.com): "Control, two feet, and have the ball long enough to perform an act common to the game."
"This rule is really to simplify things," Blandino said. "Forget about how many steps [Bryant] takes on the way to the ground," he said. "If he's going to the ground, he has to hold on to the ball when he hits the ground."
This is why broadcasters now spend replay reviews repeatedly peering at frame-by-frame close-ups of such catches, trying to see if the ball moved even the tiniest bit when the receiver landed. Oddly, one of the notes of 3-2-7 says "slight movement of the ball will not be considered loss of possession," but that doesn't stop broadcasters—or sometimes, referees—from proclaiming otherwise.
The Fauria catch was ruled a touchdown at full speed and, surprisingly, upheld on review. According to the text of 3-2-7, though, Fauria was supposed to have both feet "completely on the ground."
Is flicking the tips of your toes against the grass at exactly the same instant the ball hits your hands the same thing as having two feet "completely on the ground"? He certainly didn't have enough inbounds control for long enough to have stopped, turned, taken a knee or performed any other act common to the game. Yet, six points went on the scoreboard.
Here's how to fix this: Use Blandino's standard everywhere on the field.
Whether in the field of play, at the sideline or in the end zone, receivers, interceptors and fumble-recoverers to-be should have a firm grip and control of the football, two feet (or a non-hand body part) inbounds, and control should be maintained long enough to perform an act common to the game (and if applicable, all the way through contact with the ground).
This standard also needs to be used for runners who leave their feet or go to the ground trying to score a touchdown. If Bryant's catch was an incompletion, then leaping, sticking the ball out barely across the plane and immediately losing the ball is a fumble.
Yes, this change would eliminate exciting toe-drag catches at the boundaries. Yes, this would effectively shrink the field for offenses. But if every exciting toe-drag catch is to be followed by two commercial breaks, an inscrutable replay review with an apparent coin-flip decision, and 627,000 tweets and message-board posts about how nobody knows what a catch is anymore, are they really that exciting?
Offsides, Encroachment, Neutral-Zone Infraction, Etc.
These defensive dead-ball fouls used to be (relatively) easy to understand.
If a defender enters the neutral zone before the ball is snapped and touches an offensive player, that's encroachment, and the play is whistled dead (7-4-3).
If a defender enters the neutral zone or crosses the line of scrimmage and doesn't touch anybody but can't get back before the ball is snapped, that's offsides (7-4-5). Play continues, so the offense has a "free play" since the team can accept the penalty if the play doesn't work.
Over the years, there have been a few exceptions and judgement calls added to this, most notably the ability of the officials to whistle a play dead if a defender has a clear shot at the quarterback. This has taken away "free plays" for some teams in crucial spots in an inconsistent and unfair way.
Since the penalty for all of these fouls is five yards, why not just simplify it?
If a defender enters the neutral zone or crosses the line of scrimmage prior to the snap, he is offside. Loss of five yards, enforced prior to the snap.
Four hundred and seven words regulating shoes? Really?
Pass interference is an old bugaboo of fans, players and officials alike.
From the no-holds-barred days of old to the introduction of the so-called Mel Blount Rule in 1978 to the mass confusion over the rules in the 1990s to the so-called Ty Law Rule in 2004, enforcement of downfield contact rules has always been a sticky matter. This is odd, because the rule (8-5-1) is quite clear:
Article 1: It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible receiver’s opportunity to catch the ball. Pass interference can only occur when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether the pass is legal or illegal, or whether it crosses the line.
Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched. Offensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is snapped until the ball is touched.
Articles 2, 3 and 4 (8-1-2, 8-1-3, 8-1-4) list in exhaustive detail all the allowed and prohibited techniques for the offense and defense. It really couldn't be clearer.
What that "Mel Blount Rule" did was establish a five-yard zone from the line of scrimmage, within which defenders can still jam and chuck receivers like Blount did with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s (8-4-1). The "Ty Law Rule" was really just a re-emphasis on calling those penalties after a long, backsliding trend of "letting them play" downfield.
A decade later, it seems like officials are again letting contact slide outside of the five-yard box, and pass interference calls, in both directions, again seem subjective and arbitrary.
Part of this is due to the rise in popularity of the back-shoulder throw. Just like when a kick returner reverses field and his blockers are suddenly all blocking the wrong way when the quarterback throws to the back shoulder of a receiver, a defensive back in great position suddenly has to cross back through the receiver to make the play.
How can we make these calls easier for the officials? Well, there are a couple of options.
Let's go back to Peter King's MMQB officiating piece. In the second installment, he explains how the officials trade off responsibility for watching each individual receiver before, during and after the snap.
It's way too long and complicated to quote here, but it's clear that today's three-, four- and five-receiver sets (complete with plenty of exotic formations and pre-snap motion) make it extraordinarily hard for the crew to find and stay on the appropriate receiver to make sure all downfield contact is appropriately policed.
The real solution here isn't a rule change, it's adding another official in the defensive secondary. There are some logistical hurdles to overcome in implementing that (like re-opening collective bargaining talks between the NFL and NFLRA just a year after a work stoppage), though.
Instead, make defensive pass interference a 15-yard penalty instead of a spot foul. If modern offenses are pushing the ability of NFL crews to consistently call downfield contact, let's lessen the impact of the foul—and lessen the incentive for offenses to try to draw a flag.
Here's another tricky one. Back in 2012, I wrote about what I called the holding crisis; wildly different rates of holding calls between crews were resulting in vastly different games. In some games, it seemed like every big gain got brought back. In others, teams held almost indiscriminately, as then-Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Dwight Freeney found out:
Here's the text of the rule:
Article 3: Illegal Block by Offensive Player. It is a foul if an offensive blocker:
Use his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit. It is a foul regardless of whether the blocker’s hands are inside or outside the frame of the defender’s body. Material restrictions include but are not limited to:
I. grabbing or tackling an opponent;
II. hooking, jerking, twisting, or turning him; or
III. pulling him to the ground.
Penalty: For holding by the offense: Loss of 10 yards.
In reality, holding seems to be a "feel" call, where officials call blatant holds, a post-warning repeat offender or (as discussed in King's piece) a guy the officials have seen getting away with holds in their pregame film study. As Steratore's crew discussed, sly inside-arm hooking is the most commonly missed technique, especially on outside edge-rushers.
Following the precedent of our pass-interference solution, with relatively clear standards on disallowed techniques and no way to add another pair of eyes to watch, we should reduce the penalty to five yards. The tradeoff might be more holding on first down, when the penalty only makes 1st-and-10 1st-and-15, but this change would also prevent a ticky-tack call from turning a makeable 3rd-and-5 into an imposing 3rd-and-15.
Fewer Shades of Gray
These changes might not make every judgment call in the book an open-and-shut, black-and-white decision. With just a few bright lines drawn on some of the haziest rules in the book—and the penalties reduced on two that can't get much clearer—it should make officials' jobs much easier.
With more clearly defined rules that are easier to enforce on the fly, there should be less need for replay review. And those reviews should be shorter and more decisive.
Best of all, fans, players and coaches will all know exactly where the lines are and less frequently blame incompetence or corruption when an official's hanky hits the turf—or a game-winning touchdown gets wiped off the board.