Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: NFL's Inexperienced Refs in for Rough Season

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 24, 2016

Mike Pereira says the NFL's team of officials is in rebuilding mode.
Mike Pereira says the NFL's team of officials is in rebuilding mode.Courtesy Scott Hirano

The best rules analyst on television will be with Fox for a long time. Also, CTE and Hillary Clinton. No, that's not a phrase you read every day. 

1. Officiating guru Mike Pereira on new season

In the NFL, there really is only one person—just one—who can explain the complex, frustrating, impossible-to-decipher NFL rules book. His name is Mike Pereira. 

Few can thread an impossible needle the way Pereira does. He has the respect of players and coaches. Game officials like and listen to him. He translates NFL rules, which read like Klingon, into something that can be easily digested. Most of all, when he makes a prediction on a call, it's usually correct.

That last part is more difficult than you think. Look no further than what happened to one of the brightest people on the planet, Mike Carey, who got numerous calls wrong. No, it's far from easy.

This is why I've long believed that Pereira is arguably one of football's most valuable assets. Fox definitely believes it, which is why the network recently signed Pereira to a multi-year contract extension, a Fox spokesman told Bleacher Report.

Pereira will be with Fox for years to come. That's a good thing because in the coming years, Pereira will be needed more than ever before.

The reason why is that officiating will continue to be one of the great topics when it comes to the NFL. The reason is simple: We are starting to see a shift in officiating personnel, from an older force to a less experienced one.

In fact, the league faces a trifecta of issues in the coming years: player conduct, labor uncertainty and officiating. Whichever network has a grasp on that third subject will have a major advantage when it comes to fans understanding the game. For now, Fox has that advantage in Pereira.

What many fans don't know is that the NFL is in the middle of big changes to its officiating force.

"It's going to be a rebuilding year," said Pereira, speaking of this coming season. "The good news is that when the league emerges from it, the officiating will be better than ever, when the officials get acclimated. They have a good leader in Dean Blandino and they are bringing in some good officials."

And the bad news?

"In the short term," he said, "you're going to see some bumps."

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Head coach Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers talks with an official in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Sh
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This means that in the next few years, we will likely see more wrong calls and games determined by mistakes. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think I am. This will also be compounded by the fact that, as Pereira says, the NFL will likely add an eighth official.

Long-term? Good. Short-term? Buckle up. (Always wanted to say "buckle up.")

"It's still good," said Pereira, when asked about the quality of officiating. "I don't think it's as good as it was in some recent years, but it's still good. The problem with the officials now is that turnover."

When college refs enter the NFL, they find the speed of the game is remarkably faster. It simply takes time, maybe years, to adapt to that speed.

"It's not the Big Ten," he said. "The NFL is 22 players on the field with speed and skill. Not four or five."

How complex are the NFL's rules? Pereira remembers when he first saw the NFL's rulebook. "I thought, 'This is one of the most complex things I've ever read in my life.' Even today, when I read it, I discover something in it new to me."

So even to someone like Pereira, who knows the NFL rules as well as anyone, that damn rulebook can be confounding.

Pereira has done some impressive things recently. He started the Battlefields to Ballfields initiative, which helps veterans become game officials. He's also written a book called After Further Review that is due to be released in mid-September.

All great things and made possible by how he has turned something as complex as the NFL rulebook conversational. There's also been a learning process on the job. Pereira remembers once criticizing former Bears head coach Lovie Smith (now coaching at the University of Illinois) about his use of coaching challenges.

Smith then contacted Pereira. It was one of the rare times a coach called to complain. "The criticism I got back from him was fair," Pereira said. "He didn't see my role as criticizing a coach and he was right. I learned my lesson."

That's one of the things that makes Pereira good at his job—he adapts. Now, Pereira doesn't rip coaches or officials; he judges the correctness of calls.

So, yes, Fox has extended Pereira's contract. It's money well-spent because almost no one can do what Pereira does as well as he does it.

   

2. Josh Norman unfiltered?

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21:  NFL player Josh Norman attends the Roc Nation Summer Classic Charity Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on July 21, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Norman says the Washington franchise hasn't put restrictions on his speech the way Carolina did. He made this point in an interview with Kevin Van Valkenburg for ESPN The Magazine.

I think Norman is great for football, and I think he could be one of the best free-agent signings in years. I think he's that good.

Yet Norman's contention that he was somewhat restricted in what he could say in Carolina was called "pretty false" by a Panthers coaching source.

"Josh was never restricted by what he could say," the source explained. "The main thing that we did with Josh was try to keep his emotions in check on the field. But off of it? We allow our players to be themselves."

   

3. Roberto Aguayo and NFL pressure

TAMPA, FL - JULY 30: Kicker Roberto Aguayo #19 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers warms up before Training Camp at One Buc Place on July 30, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Tampa Bay rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo may turn out to be a Hall of Fame kicker. His misses in the preseason may just be nerves as he adjusts to the NFL game. He could end up still being great. So everyone calm the hell down.

But...

There's a reason why no team should ever trade up to the second round for a kicker. Or the third. Or maybe even the fourth.

It's not just that while kickers are valuable, they aren't that valuable. It's the pressure that such a move puts on the kicker.

The NFL makes cowards of many great men. It's what makes it so difficult to play in the league, and you never know how a human being will react under that kind of pressure.

Now, Aguayo has hired a "mental coach," according to Roy Cummings of 620 WDAE.

In many ways, all aspects of the draft are the unknown, but what the Bucs did was equivalent of traveling into Dominion space without shields or armor. It was completely and utterly foolhardy.

Again, Aguayo could be a brilliant kicker, but he could have been a brilliant kicker picked in the fourth round. 

   

4. CTE makes it into presidential race

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

When I first heard about this, I thought it was a joke. But it wasn't. It happened. It actually happened. On this planet Earth.

Last week on CNN, a co-founder of Women for Trump, Amy Kremer, implied that because Hillary Clinton suffered a concussion in 2012, she is therefore suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

"The NFL has had major lawsuits from players getting concussions years ago," Kremer said Sunday, per Yahoo's Dylan Stableford.

"Hold on," CNN's Poppy Harlow interjected. "Are you comparing Hillary Clinton's health and the state of her brain to an NFL player who has a serious concussion after multiple hits?"

Didn't know Clinton played linebacker before her presidential run.

As someone who has written extensively on CTE—including a book about it, basically—I was momentarily staggered. Mainly because that's not how CTE works.

Most non-NFL affiliated neurologists I've spoken to say CTE isn't generated from a single concussion. Or possibly even a series of them. They believe CTE is mainly caused by the every-down movements of football—blocking, tackling and repetitive hits.

Since the brain isn't anchored in the skull, the process of, say, an offensive lineman blocking a defensive lineman causes the brain to rattle about, creating a type of scar tissue. Again, the key part of this is repetitive hits, not a singular one.

So unless Clinton had a secret football career, she probably doesn't have CTE. 

   

5. More teams will lie about injuries

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 11:  Malcolm Mitchell #19 of the New England Patriots leaves the field with an injury in the first half during a preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium on August 11, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The NFL photon-torpedoed the "probable" designation on its injury reports. If anyone thought NFL teams lied their asses off about injuries before, wait until now.

There used to be "probable" (virtually certain to play), "questionable" (50-50) and "doubtful" (75 percent chance the player would not play).

Now there is just the new questionable designation: "It is uncertain as to whether the player will play in the game." And the doubtful designation: "It is unlikely the player will participate."

This is how teams will take advantage of this new language, as one assistant coach outlined to me: Any player that is less than 100 percent, the coach said, will be listed as questionable. Even if teams know for certain he will play and is basically healthy.

"That will be done to throw teams off," he said.

The questionable range is now so broad, it can include almost any injured player, and injuries can now be hidden more easily. And teams will do it. Count on it.

   

6. Don't be shocked if J.J. Watt is back for Week 1

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 27:  Defensive end J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans looks on during a NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 27, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

I think he will be. I also hear from Texans players they think the same, despite head coach Bill O'Brien recently telling ESPN's Ed Werder that he might miss the opening two weeks while he continues to recover from offseason back surgery.

These players say don't underestimate Watt, and I agree. One fact that I forgot about him: He's played 80 straight games. Eighty. For a defensive lineman, that's pretty damn impressive.

I think Watt will do everything to keep that streak going, and I think he does.

   

7. Scout: Time to say Geno Smith is a bust

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 29:  Geno Smith #7 of the New York Jets tries to get away from Karl Klug #97 of the Tennessee Titans and fumbles the football at LP Field on September 29, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee.  The Titans defeated the Jets 38-13.  (Photo
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

An NFC scout on Jets quarterback Geno Smith: "What's clear is that he's being thoroughly outplayed by Bryce Petty. Bryce is better, and that says more about Geno than Bryce. I think it's time to say that Geno is a bust. I hope I'm wrong, but I know other personnel people feel the same. Again, it's obvious."

   

8. Practice fights mean nothing, except...

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 20:  Defensive end Michael Bennett #72 (R) of the Seattle Seahawks sports a Darth Vader mask as he is greeted by linebacker Bruce Irvin #51 during introductions prior to the game against the Cleveland Browns at CenturyLink Field on
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett got into another practice brawl. One Seahawks player joked that Bennett should be called "Conor McBennett" after UFC star Conor McGregor.

Normally, these types of fights don't add up to much. This isn't 1960. In 21st-century football, there's no more bonding through practice fights.

However...

The Seahawks player thinks that what Bennett is doing is smart. He's setting the tone, the player says, to raise the intensity of an already intense team.

I think this Seahawks regime has a good two or three more Super Bowls in them, but so do the Carolina Panthers. And the Panthers have just as much fight in them as the Seahawks.

So trying to push the Seahawks to an even higher level than they've always been is smart. Even if it means using the old okey doke of practice fights to do it.

   

9. How did NFL get another assault case wrong?

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 10:  Kicker Josh Brown #3 of the New York Giants looks on from the sideline during a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on August 10, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Giants defeated the Steelers 18
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

We'll get into what the NFL got wrong in the case of Giants kicker Josh Brown, whose ex-wife told police he had assaulted her more than 20 times, according to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News, including when she was pregnant. But first...

You have to go back to when Ray Rice was given an initial two-game suspension, which only changed after that ugly elevator video became public. The NFL then decided to suspend Rice indefinitely.

That embarrassing moment led to the NFL creating not just a new personal conduct policy, the core of which being a six-game suspension for a first offense, but also to it creating what is essentially a domestic violence special-investigations unit.

This is key: The idea was that the unit had its own investigators and would reach its conclusions regardless of court outcomes. In other words, the NFL would basically make its own findings.

Now comes the Brown case. He's arrested. The NFL says its attempts to investigate the alleged assault were thwarted by Molly Brown and the police.

But that doesn't make sense. Remember the power the NFL gave itself. It would use this new unit to make a determination on its own and there would be an automatic six-game suspension if they found enough evidence.

So if there's enough evidence for a one-game suspension, why not six? It's just not logical.

It will be pointed out that there's a police report saying Brown's ex-wife struck him, according to Christian Reid of the New York Daily News. The problem still remains. If the NFL found enough probable cause to suspend Brown for one game, that goes against its much-promoted promise to punish players at least six games for domestic violence.

Not to mention if all it takes is for one of the key people to not cooperate for the NFL to throw up its hands, then having the special unit is pointless.

I think the NFL now genuinely tries to get these cases right. That's different from the past when the league genuinely didn't care.

The NFL does care. That's true. Which makes this screwup all the more worrisome.

   

10. Owner: 'Roger Goodell more than safe'

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a press conference prior to Super Bowl 50 at the Moscone Center West on February 5, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

I wanted to check in with an owner who in the past has been critical of Roger Goodell to see if he believed that Goodell was in any sort of trouble with owners after the incident with Brown. The answer I got: No.

"He's more than safe," the owner said. He wouldn't say much more.

So, there's that.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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