Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Can the NFL's Broken Officiating Be Fixed?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2018

GREEN BAY, WI - DECEMBER 24:  Referee Jeff Triplette #42 calls a penalty in the third quarter during the game between the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on December 24, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

NFL officiating reaches a crisis point, the NFL is losing the ratings game and a perfect solution for the Browns' QB conundrum.

   

1. The Triplette Effect

A number of front office members across the NFL were horrified by what they saw during Saturday's Chiefs-Titans playoff game. 

One told B/R it was perhaps the second- or third-worst-officiated game he'd ever seen, and he's been in the league for decades. Another called the officiating an embarrassment.

Indeed, it was awful. Referee Jeff Triplette has long had a rep for being the game's worst official, and he earned every bit of that title Saturday. Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith chronicled each Triplette error, a remarkable list considering its staggering length:

— Triplette blew the play dead immediately when Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson hit Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, ruling forward progress had stopped and the play was over. Replays appeared to show that Mariota had fumbled.

— On Mariota's touchdown pass to himself, Triplette wrongly announced that Mariota was an eligible receiver because he was in the shotgun formation. In reality, the ball had been touched by a defensive player, which means every player on the field was an eligible receiver.

— After one penalty, there was a long delay while the officials conferred repeatedly, trying to figure out the right place to spot the ball.

— On a Titans first down, the ball was spotted about three yards short of where it should have been, forcing the Titans to challenge.

— Triplette announced that one Titans penalty was on No. 11. The Titans didn't have a No. 11 on the field because the player with that number is Alex Tanney, a backup quarterback who is on injured reserve and wasn't suited up for the game.

— In the final minutes, Derrick Henry got tackled, was clearly down and one official blew a whistle. But after Henry went down, the ball was stripped from Henry, and Johnson picked it up and ran to the end zone. The other officials allowed the play to keep going even though one had blown it dead. Replay eventually got it right, but once one official had blown it dead, it should have been over there.

It was so bad that former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira obliterated Triplette and his crew:

After the game, NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala reported Triplette was planning on retiring.

Saturday wasn't an outlier; the officiating has been awful all year. It may not be the worst we've ever seen, but if it isn't, it's damn close.

In the playoffs alone, there have been a host of inexcusable errors.

There were missed spots. There were missed calls, especially on head shots. Plays that should have been reviewed but weren't. Basic stuff. Officials in the Panthers-Saints game forgot about a 10-second runoff after an intentional grounding ruling. And that doesn't even get into Ed Hochuli's 400-hour long explanations of penalties ("A gravitational wave near the accretion disk of a collapsed star has caused a fluctuation in the dilithium matrix, therefore, holding, defense, five-yard penalty, first down.")  

No, this wasn't the worse year for officiating. But it's up there.

The question is: How do you fix it?

    

2. Stopping the Officiating Bleeding

Mark Tenally/Associated Press

In talking to people around the league, there is no shortage of ideas as to how to address the officiating crisis. Some of the solutions are draconian, but these sources also say drastic measures are needed.

1. The officials need to get younger. The game sometimes looks too fast for them. According to some in football, that inability to keep up with plays is the biggest reason so many calls get missed. Players are moving faster than ever, and if you can't see what is happening, you can't make the right calls.

2. Improve the technology. Stop using chains to measure first downs. And whatever you do, don't use pieces of paper. There are far more efficient systems.

3. Make every official a full-time employee. It's a small step, but the more game officials study their craft, the better they get at it. And if you're moonlighting as a ref while clocking in 40 hours at another job, it's hard to find the time. Make that time available by making the NFL their full-time gigs.

4. Make officials more accountable. Everyone after a game has to explain themselvescoaches, players, even some owners like Jerry Jones or Bob Kraft will answer questions after a game. Officials don't. If there's a controversial call, the referee gives a statement to a pool reporter. That isn't enough. Game officials need to hold press conferences. They're not made of porcelain. They can take the pressure.

5. Cut the rule book in half. Doing this would prevent the paralysis by analysis that happens when officiating crews are forced to freeze a game while they interpret far too many rules.

6. Add an extra official. Coaches and others previously have suggested adding an eighth official, but Carolina head coach Ron Rivera was as vocal on the subject as almost any coach ever has been in the wake of his team's loss to the Saints on Sunday.

"I think they need help," Rivera said Monday, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "First of all, there's a lot of vagueness to the rules. There's a lot of gray area. We put a lot on them and ask them to do a lot. Things happen in a split-second. They're trying to make decisions during real time.

"I think they do need to add an extra referee, and they need to put that guy right behind the linebackers. They've got to pad him up. It's just my opinion. But these guys are trying to do something that's very difficult. It's an emotional game. I get emotional about it, and I know they try to do the best they can."

It's time to make changes to the way the NFL is officiated, or we'll all keep talking about how awful it is.

    

3. Gruden's Return Has Its Skeptics

ALAMEDA, CA - JANUARY 09:  Oakland Raiders new head coach Jon Gruden looks on during a news conference at Oakland Raiders headquarters on January 9, 2018 in Alameda, California. Jon Gruden has returned to the Oakland Raiders after leaving the team in 2001
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

To say that coaches across the NFL were stunned by Jon Gruden's 10-year, $100-million contract with the Raiders is putting it mildly. 

"This is either a brilliant move," one NFC assistant coach said, "or the dumbest thing any team has ever done."

Few people in football think Gruden is worth that type of money to coach again. Many expect this to implode the Raiders.

The thinking goes that Gruden will burn out the organization. He wears heavily on people, especially quarterbacks, and players eventually tune him out.

To be fair, he likely has adapted his coaching style, and it's possible he'll be a calmer coach. It's a remote possibility, but it's still a possibility.

The Raiders should hope so.

    

4. Matt Ryan Would Be One Hell of a Darts Player

I'm not as big a fan of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as some are. Yet this stat from NFL senior director of football communications Randall Liu is impressive.

The Falcons beat the Rams in the Wild Card Round because Atlanta's defense bottled up a potent Rams offense. If Ryan maintains his throwing accuracy and that defense keeps playing well, the Falcons can beat any team.

    

5. Derrick Henry Is a Bad, Bad Man

KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 6:  Running back Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans runs up field for a touchdown during the second half of the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on January 6, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo b
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

As Tennessee running back Derrick Henry got cranking late in the Titans' wild-card win over Kansas City, it became clear that some Chiefs players did not want to tackle him.

I don't blame them.

On his 35-yard touchdown run, Henry reached a speed of 20.31 mph, according to Liu. The NFL communications guru also noted that Henry is 247 pounds.

So in addition to being fast, he's also a physically stunning presence.

Good luck tackling him, Patriots.

    

6. Giants Making a Resolution to Help Eli Apple

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Eli Apple's recent China Syndrome-like meltdown on Twitter caused teammate Odell Beckham to ask Apple to step away from his phone.

Beckham isn't the only one offering advice. Several Giants team sources say some teammates, as well as friends of Apple, have been reaching out to the second-year cornerback, who spent the season feuding with teammates, ticking off coaches and, most recently, arguing with critics on Twitter. I'm told they believe they've had some success in getting him to examine where he is in both his career and his life.

Hopefully that's true. There's still a good chance he can repair the damage to his career.

     

7. Ratings Numbers Aren't Adding Up

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints and Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers greet after the NFC Wild Card playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 7, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bac
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

This past weekend's wild-card games were largely fun and well-played. The Bills-Jaguars game wasn't sexy, but most of the other games were.

That's why the latest ratings drop has to make the NFL even more nervous.

According to Richard Morgan of the New York Post, ratings for the four playoff games over the weekend dropped by an average of 13 percent from last year. The numbers from the Saints-Panthers game fell 21 percent. That's shocking for a game that featured two star quarterbacks in Cam Newton and Drew Brees.

If good games and star players can't stop the league's ratings decline, what will?

    

8. Don't Even Ask; He's Not Coming Back

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 08:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates beating the Georgia Bulldogs in overtime to win the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 8, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alabam
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I'm told both Nick Saban and his representatives made it clear before the national title game that he wasn't returning to the NFL regardless of whether Alabama won or lost. I suspect nothing has changed after Alabama's overtime victory handed him his sixth national championship.

Expect Saban to be back in Tuscaloosa this fall.

     

9. A Perfect Marriage of QB and Team

Allow me to spout some common sense that requires no attribution or high IQ (if it did, I'd be sunk) or sources or anything else to figure out: The Chiefs might trade quarterback Alex Smith, and the Browns would be one of the teams interested.

Smith carries a $20.6 million salary-cap hit next season, according to Spotrac. Kansas City may decide Smith warrants that number. Head coach Andy Reid could instead choose to roll with 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes.

To the Browns, Smith would likely serve as a two- or three-year stopgap while they figure out their long-term quarterback plan. He'd automatically be the best quarterback the Browns have had since they returned almost 20 years ago.

Put Smith with Josh Gordon, and that'd be a powerful duo. Smith could change the Browns' entire culture almost overnight.

And with three second-round draft picks this year, Cleveland has plenty of capital to deal for Smith.

It's almost perfect. It might even be Browns-proof.

    

10. Pay Up

As you've already indulged me once, please allow some righteous griping.

The first NFL draft was in 1936. That means we've had eight-plus decades of the NFL prospering from free college labor.

When you think about it, that's a staggering grift.

The "student-athlete" model took hold, and many are now convinced that college football players should be grateful for a scholarship while everyone around the players makes billions.

ESPN.com's Darren Rovell chronicled the bonuses Alabama's coaches received for winning the national title. The money is just stunning: hundreds of thousands in bonuses on top of the millions some on that staff are already making.

The players got nice T-shirts.

The NFL's part in all of this remains fascinating. It gets a labor force that arrives mostly trained, physically fit, mentally tough and ready to play. When I joined the Army, the government spent a lot of money to train me how to be a soldier.

While the money coaches, schools and NFL franchises are making from this arrangement is far different than when this began in the '30s, the cost to the league and colleges has remained the same—nothing.

God bless America.

   

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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