Thicker rulebook and better-trained officials contribute to rise
If it feels like penalty calls are up this season in the NFL, it’s because they are.
Nearly 12%, year over year.
According to numbers provided by the league, through Week 5 last year a total of 1,288 infractions in 78 games were flagged by on-field officials, against both teams combined, including declined and offsetting fouls. That’s an average of 16.51 per game.
Through Week 5 this season, the total has shot up to 1,458 — 170 more — for an average of 18.69 per game.
When you pull back and take note of all the historic changes to the rulebook, and to officiating, it’s actually a wonder more flags aren’t thrown.
It’s simple deductive reasoning. There are more infractions than ever to call, and more better-trained officials than ever to identify them. Plus, there’s better video technology than ever to back up officials should they miss something pertinent — now in real time thanks to fibre-optic video technology.
Better nets catch more fish. But never all fish. Still.
Probably most fans and teams would be fine with that if it were just the other team’s fish getting caught. Fans and teams lose their minds when an outcome-changing call doesn’t go their way, and the only thing that makes them as angry is when an outcome-changing non-call doesn’t go their way.
In both cases, the thought’s the same: “Damn refs!”
Generally speaking, we all just want NFL officials to be right more often. As the league does, and as officials themselves do.
Here’s the crux, though.
In all the league’s earnest attempts to achieve such improvement, has it inadvertently taken the game to an even worse place? Where much better officials call more penalties while remaining hopelessly unable to properly and wholly enforce the rulebook’s growing number of complicated fouls?
Indeed, might American football have become just an inherently impossible game to officiate, period?
We asked Dean Blandino this week to weigh in on all this. His insights are fascinating, on a number of topics.
Blandino worked integral jobs in the NFL’s officiating department for two decades, culminating in a four-season run as the league’s vice-president of officiating from 2013-16. He’s now an on-air rules analyst during NFL and college games for Fox Sports.
“There’s no question we’ve seen more fouls per game this season than in recent memory,” Blandino said in a phone interview this week. “Certainly people are noticing. Certainly it impacts the game.”
Before delving into all the reasons with Blandino, understand that forehead-punching frustrations with officiating are as old as the game itself.
* * *
Perhaps you’ve heard of Grantland Rice, the famous early 20th-century sports columnist. Rice’s signature overuse of flowery prose and poetry helped to make household names out of everyone from Knute Rockne to Bobby Jones.
Shortly following Rice’s death in 1954, syndicated excerpts from his memoirs, The Tumult and the Shouting, ran in newspapers across North America. The last of these was his ode to football.
Unlike the famous lead of his game story on Notre Dame’s smashing victory over Army in 1924 — “Outlined against a blue-grey October sky the Four Horsemen rode again …” — Rice posthumously concluded his decades-long career with a spare criticism of football.
Specifically, on the sport’s inherent on-field lawlessness.
“Football is one of the great games of all times,” Rice wrote, “since it involves courage, mental and physical condition, spirit and the terrific body contact which tends to sort the men from the boys.”
And yet, Rice added, “it has one glaring drawback. The game is built largely upon constant rule-breaking.”
Quite the observation, huh?
You can go back all the way to when Walter Camp first began to differentiate American football rules from rugby’s in the early 1880s and find example after example of officiating controversies. And attempts by generations of football’s college and pro flame-keepers to address the following conundrum: That while nobody wants a penalty festival, everybody wants every obvious foul called on the opposing team — an unrealizable balance that has eluded anybody empowered to strike it.
History books are jammed with proof.
Start with this: the first Notre Dame touchdown scored in 1888 was brought back by penalty.
Or this. In 1923, a college referee who cost the University of Wisconsin a home victory was engulfed on the field afterward by hundreds of charging, enraged fans. Punched in the head, the ref seemed in mortal danger.
Only when a heroic school official arrived waving a pistol at the mob could players from both sides escort the poor man to a dressing room, then to a getaway car.
One of the more memorable early NFL officiating controversies set up the biggest blowout in league championship-game history. It wasn’t one officiating call in particular; just the number of them.
In a 7-3 loss to the Washington Redskins in November 1940 the Chicago Bears were reportedly penalized 180 yards — an outrageously high total back then. The Bears and their owner/head coach George Halas complained so bitterly that Redskins owner George Preston Marshall called them all “crybabies” in the days leading up to a rematch in the NFL championship game. The Bears weren’t crying after annihilating the Redskins 73-0.
On and on has it gone.
In his 1954 book, Rice quoted college coaching icon Fielding H. Yost as saying “football’s big weakness” is that so many rules transgressions take place, and that so many go uncalled.
The answer through the second half of the 20th century was to keep throwing more officials onto the field. At first, three-man crews (referee, umpire, linesman) worked NFL games, from 1920-28. A fourth official (field judge) was added in 1929, a fifth (back judge) in 1947, a sixth (line judge) in 1965.
A seventh was added in 1978 (side judge). Did that finally do the trick?
Ha. Of course not.
Games were so marred by seven-crew gaffes early in the 1978 season that exactly 41 years ago this week Sports Illustrated magazine — in its heyday as the unofficial weekly record of sport — ran a front page photo of Pittsburgh Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw pleading with a referee, behind a special-report headline: “THE REFS: UPROAR IN THE NFL.”
The feature’s own memorable headline inside read: “It’s open season on the zebras.”
Writer William O. Johnson cited examples of numerous embarrassing errors. Such as penalties being walked off in the wrong direction, or for the wrong yardage. An early whistle negating a turnover. A non-fumble fumble. Etc.
Seven-man crews got their acts together.
Today, crews still comprise seven officials (two of 122 in 2019 are women: down judges Dana McKenzie and Sarah Thomas).
Earlier this decade the NFL experimented with eight-person crews in the preseason, adding a “deep judge” to assist further with downfield pass-play observation. After 2014, however, that idea finally was scrapped. Seven officials it remains.
Result? It remains open season on the zebras.
* * *
Is it just a matter that the game of American football — as tens of millions have come to know and love — is just too damn difficult to fairly and instantly officiate, in real time, by a small group of zebra-shirted experts at field-level, even if backed by another small group of experts watching simultaneously on high-definition screens at a million-dollar command centre?
“It has become very difficult,” Blandino agreed. “There are times I’m amazed.
“But if you watch a game in the press box, there are times when you invariably say, ‘How did an official miss that?’ And then you go down on the field, and you watch it at field level, and you say, ‘How do they get ANYTHING right?’ It’s amazing how good they are.”
And yes, the more officials you add, the more infractions they’re collectively going to see and flag.
“One-hundred percent,” he said. “If there are only three officials and there’s 22 players, they can only see so much. Now there are seven officials, and most college conferences are using eight. You have replay now. You have so many more opportunities now to see infractions, more sets of eyes. But like I said, the crazy thing is from 1975 to 2006 penalties were right in that 16-fouls-per-game total, and that’s what we’ve seen the last four or five years, the same numbers. And that’s with more eyes, and more opportunities. We still want to wind up at the same fouls per game.”
Is that annually a discussed thing by the league, with officials, to have a certain fouls-per-game target within that very range?
“Well, in an ideal world the two teams are deciding how many fouls there are during a game, so you’re not trying to manufacture or manipulate that number,” Blandino said. “But over time, that seems to be the sweet spot — eight fouls per game on either team.
“And remember, fouls are important because they allow the game to be played fairly and safely, they don’t allow a team to gain an unfair advantage, and they keep players safe from any unnecessary risks. So you have to call fouls.
“(A colleague) at the league office for a very long time was a mentor of mine, and who still does work at the NFL, he always told me, ‘Which highway is safer? The highway where there are no state troopers anywhere giving out speeding tickets? Or the highway with a state trooper every 10 miles that you always have to be aware of?’ Well it’s always going to be the highway with the state troopers. So penalties are necessary and a part of the game, but you certainly don’t want to see a game that is completely overrun by too many fouls.”
The number of fouls called per game so far in 2019 (18.69) is quite alarming, Blandino said. What are the causes?
“I think you’re looking at a couple of culprits,” said Blandino, who’s privy to the raw, infraction-by-infraction data. “Offensive holding is up significantly. Defensive holding is up significantly. Defensive pass interference is up significantly. Illegal hands to the face — these are the fouls that have the biggest increases compared to last year.”
Back to the unsettling math of it all.
The more proficient officials become, and the better training they receive, doesn’t it necessarily mean the more penalties they’re ultimately going to call?
Blandino does not disagree.
“I think about how officials are trained and evaluated today, compared to even when I first started at the NFL 25 years ago,” Blandino said. “It’s night and day. The resources they have — the video, the technology, the reps. Officiating is getting better, as you say.
“And you also have the added dynamic of there are just way more fouls in the rule book today than there were 30 years ago. When you talk about the number of player-safety changes alone that have been implemented — we didn’t have all the defenceless-player rules, all chop blocks being a foul — so there have been more reasons, more opportunities, to call fouls.
“But the remarkable thing if you look at history over the course of the last 30 years, penalties have been roughly the same — pretty much between 15 and 16 a game. So even with more fouls and more opportunities to call fouls, the officials have stayed in that range, although there’s been that uptick this year.”
How much is a rise in penalties owed to the intensive grading of officials’ work back in New York? Are they subject to too much criticism, even punishment, for missed calls? Do they throw that holding flag opposite the play, even if it had no material impact on the result, because they don’t want to get pilloried for missing it?
“That certainly is a factor,” Blandino said. “There’s no question that how officials are evaluated — how they’re graded — impacts how they officiate games.
“If an official throws a flag for whatever it is — holding, pass interference — and that call is graded as correct, then they are going to continue to call that foul. But if that call is graded incorrect, they’re gonna not call that a foul anymore.
“And so if you (as head of officiating) assign a whole bunch of ‘no-calls’ — those are infractions that should have been called — to an officiating crew after a game, then the next week they’re probably going to call more fouls. That’s just a reality of the evaluation/grading system. And it certainly is a factor as it pertains to these penalty numbers.”
To that point, Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians three years ago told reporters at the NFL annual meeting that he and his then Arizona Cardinals coaches would scout each week’s assigned officiating crew “as much as we do the other team,” and even held a 30-minute weekly meeting to discuss that crew’s tendencies with players.
Is the league aware teams do this, even to the extent of planning for, say, a natural bounce-back the week following a game when the assigned crew called fewer than normal infractions?
“No question,” Blandino said. “I would say if not all, almost all teams are scouting the officials in some way, shape or form. I’d be shocked if there was a team that wasn’t doing it. They look at the crew coming in, they look at the foul numbers.
“For example they might find this week’s crew is calling more holding calls than any other crew, so they’ll instruct their players that we’ve got to be careful in that area. Or maybe they’re more liberal with holding and they can get away with more. That’s something that teams are really focused on, with all of the data and analytics that are now a part of scouting. It’s such a big part of what teams do during the week to prepare for their game.”
In that Sports Illustrated feature 41 years ago, legendary CFL and NFL head coach Bud Grant was quoted as arguing for full-time officials. So that notion is age-old. And still advocated for.
“I think that’s a misnomer, in that NFL officials are as ‘full-time’ as any other professional sport officials,” Blandino said. “When a major league umpire isn’t working a game, it’s not like he’s ever at a practice with two major league teams and getting reps that way. They just work the games they’re assigned to.
“Well football is a different sport. It’s traditionally a once-a-week sport. So historically game officials had to have other jobs. They weren’t going to sit around and do nothing; the compensation wasn’t enough for them to do that.
“But I think with full-time officials, the challenges are what are they doing during the week to get better? You have people say, ‘Well they should be working practices.’ The way practices are run today there isn’t a lot that would even come close to game speed, or mimicking what happens on game day. And you don’t want officials getting too familiar with certain clubs, because that could create problems.”
Already, some officials with weekday day jobs spend up to 20-25 hours a week preparing and studying, Blandino said.
“During the season I’m not so sure what more they can do.”
Lastly, there’s the rulebook itself. Know how thick it is? The 2019 version contains some 58,000 words of rules alone. Fifty-eight thousand! That’s streamlined from the 67,000-word version of eight years ago.
With so many rules, sections, articles, sub-articles, etc., is it any wonder the officiating crises come flying at the NFL like chocolates down a conveyor belt to Lucy and Ethel? If you haven’t seen that classic I Love Lucy TV clip from the 1950s, she and friend Ethel are wrapping chocolates as they slowly come at them on a conveyor belt. But then the conveyor belt speeds up, to the point Lucy and Ethel are jamming chocolates down their tops, into their hats, into their mouths, anywhere, in an attempt to address each individual chocolate crisis.
Well, sometimes it feels as though that’s what the NFL is doing with its officiating crises, instead of stopping the conveyor belt and starting over with a fresh new approach.
Occasionally one hears that the NFL might some day soon rethink and rewrite its entire rulebook. Is it warranted? And what could it achieve?
“We’ve got to be careful,” Blandino said. “There are ways to simplify some of the language in the rulebook. Football is a very complicated game at times. Sometimes the rules do get complicated. I do feel like the approach to rules changes should be very big-picture. I don’t believe we should change a rule based on one isolated incident that may or may not happen in the next 10 years. I think we may end up with bad rules when we do that.
“I also don’t think you need to change a bunch of rules every year. That requires reeducation that officials need to do and get used to, and players and coaches getting used to it. That’s how we end up with confusion and inconsistencies.”
So here we are, on the eve of the NFL’s 100th anniversary, with an evermore complicated game officiated by a group of evermore prepared experts — but with fans, coaches and players seemingly more angry and frustrated than ever.
In the years ahead expect more, not less, help from technology.
“The human eye hasn’t gotten any better,” Blandino said. “We’re going to see more use of technology as it improves. I think that’s ultimately where we’re going to see the next biggest changes.”
* * *
Grantland Rice blamed the rash of fouls ruining football in the early 1950s not on game officials themselves. Nor on the powers-that-be who oversaw the sport. Nor even on players.
Rather, Rice blamed the coaches.
“Football is loaded with fouls which coaches invent,” he wrote.
“Most of the people connected with football — college or pro — are decent citizens … The keenness to win — the will to win — is important. But the desire to win, even illegally, is too great. I’ll admit I have hammered on these points for over 40 years without making much of a dent.
“But if big changes, critical changes, are not made soon, football will die through its unwillingness to face up to its greatest mistake.”
Sixty-five years later, we can say that football leaders have tried their darnedest to face up to that mistake. And still cannot correct it.
Alas, forehead-punching by coaches and fans probably will continue until the sport itself passes from existence.
One of the great characters and quote-givers in football history, coach John McKay, won multiple national championships in the college ranks at Southern Cal in the ’60s and ’70s before concluding his career in the late ’70s and early ’80s with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In that 1978 Sports Illustrated feature he seemed as exasperated as anyone with the ‘zebras.’
“I had always thought that the best-officiated games were those when you weren’t aware the officials were on the field,” McKay said. “You sure are in the NFL. I don’t know; I don’t pretend to understand. I just stand and watch, and when I hear the crowd booing, I boo, too.”
How NFL officiating crews have grown
A chronology of the growth of NFL officiating crews:
1920-28: three-man crew (referee, umpire, linesman)
1929-46: four-man crew (field judge added, ostensibly to help observe pass interference and illegal blocks).
1947-64: five-man crew (back judge added, ostensibly to help oversee downfield passing).
1965-77: six-man crew (line judge, ostensibly to ensure mobile QBs do not release throws beyond the line of scrimmage).
1978-present: seven-person crew (side judge added, positioned 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, ostensibly to more closely observe pass interference).
2010-14: NFL experiments in preseason games with an eight-person crew (adding a deep judge, to help with downfield pass observation).
2017: NFL changes title of head linesman to down judge.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019