Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: NFL Fears Blown Calls May Blow Its Popularity

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 19, 2018

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 17:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints talks to a referee between plays against the Carolina Panthers in the second quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 17, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The NFL has an officiating problem, and it's getting worse, the Rams have a Jared Goff problem, and Tom Brady has a problem with Father Time. All this and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.

     

1. A problem the league can't ignore anymore

NFL officiating is broken.

It isn't hard to find examples.

Take this past Sunday. Rams-Eagles. Fourth quarter. An Eagles pass-rusher clearly jumps into the neutral zone. It is clear as day.

The official said it didn't happen.

There were two problems with the official's call. First, he was clearly wrong. Second, everyone watching the game could see he was clearly wrong. Even analyst Cris Collinsworth said so.

This remains the NFL's biggest problem: It's not just that NFL officiating is bad, but that everyone can see with their own eyes it's bad. That decline in officiating (and the widespread belief it is bad) poses what some team officials fear is the greatest threat to the dominance of the NFL. More than CTE. More than the loss of younger fans.

Poor officiating is making an increasing number of games unwatchable and, those team officials worry, will eventually negatively impact television ratings.

"At some point," one NFC team official said, "we will pay a price for this level of incompetence."

I've heard (and written about) some of these issues before, but the complaining has intensified to unprecedented levels.

This season has been riddled with horrid calls and complaints about those calls from coaches and players. Week 5 was especially bad. The Giants, Eagles and Steelers all expressed irritation, even anger, over what they felt were blown calls. 

Complaints about officiating are nothing new, but the number seems to be growing.

Part of the problem appears to be the speed with which the game is now played, which makes it almost impossible to properly officiate, according to people around the league with whom I've spoken. Those same people also say privately they suspect game officials, more than ever before, see themselves as stars and inject themselves (and their personalities) into the games.

It's difficult to gauge the quality of officiating now versus 1960 or 1980 or even the 2000s. Much of what constitutes good officiating is in the eye of the beholder. And those eyes have multiplied with multiple replay angles available for every play. Then, off the field, there is the specter of social media, dissecting each and every play. Game officials didn't have to worry about criticism on Twitter in the 1980s.

The NFL knows officiating has become an issue. There are now 24 full-time officials, up from 21 last year.

"Working with the full-time game officials last season was extremely beneficial," said NFL senior vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron in a statement announcing the staffing increase. "Their presence greatly improved communication with the clubs. Our collective goal is to make a positive impact on NFL officiating overall, and this initiative was an important factor for us in that effort."

Hopefully it's a start, but given the results this season, there's a long way to go.

    

2. Crisis management

Gary McCullough/Associated Press

CBS analyst Amy Trask, in her former role as chief executive of the Raiders, was at the infamous January 2002 divisional playoff between her team and the Patriots, aka the "Tuck Rule" game. But if you think she was ready to trash where officiating has gone since, well, you don't understand the game the way Trask does.

"You're asking the girl who's head almost exploded the night of the 'Tuck Rule game' if she thinks officiating is the worst it has ever been?" Trask said. "All sarcasm aside, I don't draw comparisons between officiating at this moment in time with officiating in years past. There are a few reasons I don't do so, one of which is that the rule book continues to grow ever more complicated with the addition of both new rules and new instructions to officials about points of emphasis."

Trask also noted another issue many of us easily forget: "The ever-increasing size of many athletes who play the game, and the speed at which the game is played, is such that there will always be officiating errors. But there are both additional protocols and technological tools that can help reduce errors should the league wish to employ them."  

I've heard both from teams, and fans, about how they'd fix the problem. Three suggestions really caught my eye:

More full-time officials. It's not a complete fix, but having more officials studying the game full-time—the way players and coaches do—can't hurt. (And, as you'll note from our first item, the NFL is on board.)

 More accountability. Make officials more accountable by forcing them to have press conferences after games the way coaches and players do.

 More consequences. If a game official has multiple overturned challenges, in multiple games, demote that official.

   

3. What's wrong with Jared Goff?

The Rams have lost two of their last three games, and one doesn't have to look far to trace a line from the Rams' struggles of late to the struggles of quarterback Jared Goff. As ESPN's Sarah Spain noted on Twitter:

Several assistant coaches tell me there are two main reasons for Goff's troubles. One is simply the caliber of teams. In two of those three games, the Rams have played talented opponents. Chicago has the best defense in football, and the Eagles are the defending Super Bowl champions.

The other reason is more complex. They think what's happening to Goff is what happens to many stars, even the greatest ones of all time. The league adapts. It finds ways to slow threats, and the league has discovered weaknesses in Goff's game it can exploit.

Now the Rams have to do what previous great coaching staffs have done. They have to adapt to the adaptations. If they don't, their playoff run could be extremely short.

    

4. When all else fails, run

Things are not all doom and gloom in Los Angeles. They still have Todd Gurley, for one, and, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he joined some all-time greats in the Rams record book:

Few teams have proved capable of stopping Gurley, which should be something for the Rams to lean on as they try to figure out how to fix what's ailing Goff.

    

5. Brian Kelly catching the NFL's eye again

The NFL has long been fascinated with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Yet, at the same time, the league hasn't quite known what to make of him. Is he the coach who went 4-8 in 2016 or the one just named Associated Press Coach of the Year after a 12-0 season?

Kelly has been mentioned as an NFL candidate before, and with his team in the College Football Playoff, his name is coming up again as the NFL nears coaching transition season. I wouldn't be shocked if teams have already gauged his interest.

Teams still have their doubts about Kelly's ability to coach in the NFL, but with a date against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl on the horizon, Kelly is clearly changing some minds.

    

6. No one beats Father Time

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

It doesn't take an ability to build a warp drive to see that Tom Brady's skills, though still formidable at age 41, are deteriorating. While Brady appears superhuman, he isn't. Aging was bound to happen and show itself in his play, and it has.

Few described what Brady is going through better than ESPN's Charles Woodson during a recent broadcast after the Patriots' loss on Sunday to the Steelers.

"I just think the NFL is catching up to Tom Brady," Woodson said, according to Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith. "I think he's actually starting to feel all the hits, all the sacks of the NFL. It happens to every player. It happened to myself as a player … at some point in time it just catches up with you."

Woodson pointed out how that change manifested itself in the final play of the Steelers game.

"He had a chance to hit Cordarrelle Patterson in the back of the end zone if he just stepped into the pocket, but like I said, I think the hits are getting to him, and you see him trying to get the ball get out of his hand to avoid taking those hits."

Woodson's words shouldn't be taken so much as criticism of Brady but an assessment of where Brady is now in the back half of his illustrious career. It happens to all players (and human beings), particularly in the violent world of football.

    

7. Finishing kick

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

With two games left, I think the MVP race is down to two leading contenders: the Chargers' Philip Rivers and the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes.

Drew Brees is third on my list, followed by Khalil Mack.

Nothing is set, of course. Mahomes could account for 80 touchdowns in a single game. Brees could explode. Or maybe Andrew Luck will keep rolling. But for now, I'm going Rivers.

    

8. A good fit

Jason E. Miczek/Associated Press

When defensive back Eli Apple was with the Giants, he wasn't good. At all. In fact, he was terrible.

When the Saints traded for him, it was a curious move. But coach Sean Payton saw something in Apple, and he's been proved right. Apple has been a good fit with a defense that is physical and nasty, and he contributed an interception on Monday night against the Panthers.

How good is this Saints defense? It ranks tied for seventh in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed. And according to ESPN Stats & Info:

With an offense that already can score with any team in football, New Orleans' rejuvenated defense gives the Saints the kind of flexibility to win that can prove very useful in January.

    

9. What a mess

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 16: Jeff Wilson #41 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes for 16-yard against the Seattle Seahawks in overtime of their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 16, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Seattle coach Pete Carroll walked onto the Levi's Stadium turf Sunday, and what he walked on didn't make him happy.

"It wasn't great," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said of the field conditions on his ESPN radio show on Monday (via Gary Peterson of the Mercury News). "There were guys slipping all over the place, and you could see guys in pass protection, you could see guys on field-goal protection sticking their cleats in the ground, and it was moving. It's the same on both sides of the ball, though. They're subject to the same turf that we are, so there's no reason to complain about it. It just is what it is. It was a factor."

The league continues having problems with the condition of some of its playing fields. It's a dangerous one. These are some of the best athletes in the world, and this billion-dollar league is asking them to risk significant injury by trying to run on crappy fields at fast speeds.

Unfortunately, change will only come when a player gets seriously hurt. Then, and only then, will the league make the changes necessary and play all of its games in safe conditions.

     

10. When is random not really random anymore?

Eric Reid came to his locker after playing the Saints and found yet another note from the league about random drug testing. Reid says it was his seventh test in 11 weeks. While the first was mandatory upon his signing with the Panthers, it seems virtually impossible the next six were all random.

My colleague at B/R, the talented Mike Tanier (who is apparently a math genius as well as a writing one), crunched the numbers about the odds that any one player would be randomly selected so often, and they are pretty telling:

Per an agreement between the players' union and the league, a computer selects 10 test participants from each team to be tested each week. An independent administrator oversees the process.

Despite the randomness supposedly built into the system, I know from talking to Reid he believes the NFL is attempting to use the tests as harassment and a distraction in retaliation for the collusion case he is pursuing against the NFL for how the league treated him in light of his sideline protests.

He's right. Reid is having a marvelous season, and I believe (as do many of his teammates) the NFL is excessively testing him to distract him, send him a message—and that isn't right.

But knowing Reid, this won't bother him. In fact, he's produced some of the best safety play this year. He's been that good.

The real question is: Where is the union in all of this to help fight what seems to be a blatant attempt to intimidate Reid in plain sight?

             

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

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