The NFL’s announcement that it will hire up to 24 full-time officials is a good PR move. It gives the league a chance to show fans that it’s trying to improve the quality of the officiating.
But don’t be fooled. Even making all the officials full-time wouldn’t make much difference.
The other major sports have full-time officials — and their officials make mistakes all the time. Remember, they’re human beings. Coaches and players make mistakes all the time. To think officials aren’t going to make mistakes is downright foolish.
NFL officials tend to get more scrutiny than officials in other sports because the regular season lasts just 16 games and teams play only once a week, so fans and the media can spend several days talking about a blown call.
Baseball teams usually play the next day — and the next … and the next — so the debate about a blown call doesn’t last as long.
It’s interesting, though, what technology has shown about how umpires call balls and strikes. According to FiveThirtyEight, the cameras show that when the batter has two strikes on him, umpires tend to call a ball on a close pitch than strike three. When the batter has three balls, the umpires are likely to call a strike on a pitch than ball four.
And umpires tend to favor the home team on close calls. That is the home field advantage.
And let’s face it. Calling an NFL game is probably the most difficult officiating task in sports. You have 22 extremely agile men (even the linemen) moving at warp speed, and they have to make split-second decisions. And then there are the judgment calls. What exactly is pass interference?
Coaches also should drill their players on not spending time complaining about officials. It’s distracting. The mindset should be that bad calls are going to happen, but they’re like bad weather or injuries. If a team can’t overcome them, they’re not good enough to win.
If Roger Goodell and the NFL owners truly wanted to improve officiating, they should rewrite the officiating rulebook. The current one is so confusing that it looks like it were written by former IRS agents. The infamous “tuck” rule is a good example.
It should also limit instant-replay decisions to 30 seconds. If a play can’t be overturned with one look, let the game continue. If they need several looks, it shouldn’t be changed and just slows down the game.
The hiring of 24 officials is just the first step in going to all full-time officials by the NFL. The first question now when an official blows a call is whether he is full-time or part-time. It puts the part-timers even more under the microscope than they are now.
But short of streamlining the rule book, don’t expect much to change.
Officials will continue to make mistakes, the controversies will continue and games will be interrupted by instant-replay debate.
The only difference now is that the full-time hires mean the NFL can claim it’s trying to fix a problem that in reality is just part of the game.
It’s all show and no substance.