Let’s get something out of the way right at the start.
The Detroit Lions lost to the Green Bay Packers on Monday night because they settled for five field goals and failed to extend their lead beyond the reach of officiating errors.
But that doesn’t make the blown calls that aided Green Bay’s 10-point rally any more palatable.
Stunningly, the NFL appears unequipped to deal with officiating mistakes in the social media era. Every week, it seems Twitter is full of gifs and memes pointing out the most recent injustice perpetrated by the men in stripes.
But the league office mostly has its head in the sand.
Bad calls are going to happen. They’re a part of any sport, and the NFL has expanded its rulebook to such ridiculous proportions it’s become exceedingly difficult to officiate the game in real time.
Any solution to the league’s officiating problem should start with a paring down of the rules. Make the game easier to call and you’ll get fewer mistakes. It’s not rocket science.
But the league also needs to own up to its current errors. Occasionally, a postmortem letter will be sent to a team admitting a call was wrong. Those missives only become public if the victimized team chooses to discuss it.
It’s a hollow apology at best.
More often, head of officiating Al Riveron will take to the airways and defend the bad calls. That just doubles down on the controversy.
The latest hullaballoo involves a pair of illegal use of hands penalties against Lions defensive end Trey Flowers. Both flags were thrown on third down. The first extended a Packers drive that become a touchdown, and the second allowed Green Bay to run out the clock while kicking a game-winning field goal in its 23-22 decision.
In a pool report after the game, referee Clete Blakeman said the hands-to-the-face flag is thrown when it’s deemed there’s prolonged contact to the head or neck area. Replays show Flowers’ hands were on the offensive lineman’s shoulders. So unless the definition of illegal contact is extending to the upper torso, both calls were wrong.
The question is what will the league do about it?
The fall owners meetings began Tuesday, and it will be interesting to see if any solution gets started there.
There has been a loud outcry for a “sky judge” similar to the system used in the NHL. Essentially, it would put an extra official in the press box with the power to buzz in and correct errors through instant replay.
These reviews would not be subject to a coach’s challenge, and they theoretically would be faster than the instant replay reviews currently employed.
No matter the specific solution, it’s an area that must be addressed.
Two of the NFL’s classiest alumni – former Lions running back Barry Sanders and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy – were among the dozens who weighed in on social media.
Sanders called the missed calls – which included a questionable personal foul and uncalled pass interference – “sickening,” while Dungy referred to the personal foul as “bogus.”
There’s a train of thought that suggests the controversy is good for the NFL. After all, on a night when the Washington Nationals moved one victory away from the World Series, the talk of the sports world was a regular season football game.
There might be some merit to that argument, but it’s equally true the officiating errors erode the public trust. Former Michigan star and current ESPN college football analyst Desmond Howard even used his Twitter account to suggest the officials had been paid off.
That’s obviously not a good look for the game.
At the very least, it’s time for the NFL to be open and honest about its mistakes. Admit an error has been made and explain the steps being taken to prevent a similar mistake in the future.
If the sky judge can be implemented relatively unobtrusively, that’s not a bad idea, either.
But there is no world in which games are called perfectly. Officiating errors always are going to be part of the equation, just as coaching and playing errors are.
Teams must do their best to play well enough to make the officials’ mistakes not matter.
And, when teams fail in that endeavor, the league must do its best to be clear and transparent about the errors that were made.