NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino put his employees on notice last spring, letting them know that subpar officiating wouldn’t be tolerated.
“We are going to do a comprehensive review of the entire staff every year, and if an official isn’t performing up to the standard, they won’t be a part of the NFL,” Blandino said at the time. “We take it very seriously and we want the best officials.”
But the officials have been one of the top story lines of the 2015 season, and not for the right reasons. There have been egregious mistakes in high-profile situations, most of which the NFL has admitted to:
■ Missing a false start that would have negated the Jaguars’ final play in a 22-20 last-second win over the Ravens.
■ Missing a blatant “illegal batting” call against the Seahawks in the final two minutes that would have given the Lions the ball inside the 1-yard line and a chance to win.
■ Several calls in Monday’s Patriots-Bills game, including an inadvertent whistle that ended a potentially big play for the Patriots, and mistakenly using the college football rule to run the final two seconds off the clock even though Sammy Watkins had gotten out of bounds.
■ Allowing 18 seconds to run off the clock in the final minutes of the Steelers-Chargers game.
■ Calling a penalty on the Ravens for an ineligible receiver, even though Ravens lineman John Urschel checked in with referee Ronald Torbert and identified himself as eligible.
Officiating in the NFL is a tough, thankless job, in which the good calls go largely unnoticed and the bad calls get magnified. But they’re highly paid professionals making, on average, more than $173,000 per year (plus a 401k plan) working 14 or 15 games per season (plus playoffs), so expectations should be high.
NFL officials are part-time employees; most have day jobs during the week as teachers, lawyers, referees of other sports, and so on. In late 2012, Carl Johnson was named the league’s first full-time official, and commissioner Roger Goodell said at the recent Packers-Vikings game that the league is open to hiring more officials on a full-time basis.
“We believe that at least on a limited basis it could be very much a positive for officials, for our clubs, obviously our fans to bring that consistency level up,” he said.
But this season is not just a case of the zebras getting worse at their jobs. The NFL has implemented several significant changes over the last several years, and they may be having an adverse effect on the game.
The most significant change is with the instant replay system, in which Blandino and a couple of ex-officials watch every game from league headquarters and communicate with referees during replay situations. Multiple officiating sources say this has mostly caused the officials to question their calls on the field and rely on Blandino and the league office for guidance.
Many officials also wonder whether Blandino is the best person to be guiding replay calls and officiating in general, as he has never been an on-field official in the NFL. Blandino joined the NFL’s officiating program as an intern out of college in 1994, and has worked in the league’s video and instant replay departments his entire 20-year career. He was promoted to director of officiating in 2012 and vice president of officiating in 2013.
“They have this multimillion-dollar command center that oversees everything, so it takes it out of the officials’ hands,” said another officiating source. “Nobody knows what a catch is anymore. It’s caused a bunch of confusion, and probably some hesitation.”
The NFL also has had a lot of turnover among its officials in the last two years. It hired 23 new officials and swapped out 20 over the past two years, which a third officiating source called “an unusually high number.”
“A lot of youngsters and new people; probably not the best of all environments,” another officiating source said. “There’s nothing like experience. That was the reason for the last and final questionable call [in the Patriots-Bills game] when the kid tried to get out of bounds.”
The NFL grades its officials on every call made every week, rewarding the highest-graded officials with postseason games. But the grading system perhaps isn’t as transparent or communicated to the officials as well as it should be.
“Ask some officials and they’d say, ‘What grading system?’ ” one of the officiating sources said. “Sometimes it causes more confusion than answers questions.”
Blandino explained that officials are graded and ranked into three tiers, with the third tier being the worst performers. Physical fitness has become a major requirement for officials.
“Once they enter Tier 3, then we give them an enhanced training regimen and we focus on them and their development,” Blandino said. “If we still don’t see improvement the following season, that’s when we seriously consider moving on.”
The NFL also has changed how it identifies and develops officials. The league has a regional network of 92 officiating scouts looking for potential candidates from the high school and college levels, which has led to a pool of about 2,000 officials that were invited to apply to the league’s Officiating Development Program.
The NFL then tracks their performance and chooses about 20 officials to be in the Advanced Developmental Program, where they are groomed to be NFL officials and are the first people called when there are vacancies.
But the officials aren’t getting enough in-game, live training of NFL rules, which leads to situations like the official in the Patriots-Bills game calling a college rule instead of an NFL rule. There has been a lot of talk about the NFL needing a developmental league to help the players, but the league could also use one to help its officials.
“The elimination of NFL Europe made a big difference,” one of the sources said. “I don’t want to bash the NFL too much, but I just don’t think the recruiting program has done what it should have done in the last three to five years.”
Keenum incident was inexcusable
A month before the movie “Concussion” hits theaters, the NFL picked a bad time to have yet another concussion issue.
The league opened an investigation last Monday into why Rams quarterback Case Keenum wasn’t removed from the game after showing obvious signs of a concussion late in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s loss to the Ravens. And the NFL held a conference call Tuesday with the head trainers of all 32 teams, many team physicians, and NFL Players Association medical director Thom Mayer to discuss the Keenum incident and make sure each team complies and implements the concussion protocol.
The concussion spotter is taking a lot of the blame for not removing Keenum from the game, and the NFLPA wants the spotter and potentially the Rams to be disciplined if the league’s investigation determines a breach in the protocol.
But this was a strange confluence of events, and many have blame.
Keenum was writhing in pain after the back of his head slammed into the turf, and was clearly disoriented as he tried to walk it off. It was obvious enough to backup quarterback Nick Foles that he put his helmet on and prepared to enter the game. And Keenum’s offensive linemen could tell he was disoriented as they tried unsuccessfully to pick him up off the ground.
But Rams coach Jeff Fisher apparently didn’t see Keenum wobbling around, nor did the Rams’ head trainer. As the officials discussed a potential penalty on the play, the Rams trainer was seen talking to Keenum on the field and pointing to his head.
At this point the concussion spotter most likely didn’t feel the need to stop the game and alert the Rams’ training staff because he sees the trainer on the field and assumes he’s taking care of it. But for some reason, the trainer returned to the sideline, Keenum didn’t leave the game, and two plays later he fumbled the football to the Ravens.
“You cannot, in these circumstances, place blame on anybody,” Fisher said.
Instead, let’s place the blame on everybody — on the trainer for not identifying a potential concussion, on Keenum’s teammates for not alerting anybody to the severity of his condition, on the concussion spotter for not stopping the game once Keenum entered the huddle on the next play, and on Fisher for being the man in charge.
The NFL’s concussion protocol won’t work unless everyone is committed to the same goal.
Kelly not likely on the hot seat
The Eagles are a dumpster fire of late, losing by a combined score of 90-31 the last two weeks, with a date against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium up next. Chip Kelly made a bunch of controversial roster moves last offseason, and with the Eagles at 4-7, his job security is the No. 1 (and only) topic in Philadelphia these days.
Some are speculating that owner Jeffrey Lurie will fire Kelly, and some speculate that Kelly will jump ship and head back to college football. But I’m having a hard time seeing either of those things happening.
Kelly is the subject of constant speculation that he’s going to ditch the Eagles and take a college job at a place like Southern Cal or Miami. But he has everything he could want in Philadelphia: total autonomy of a cornerstone franchise at the highest level of football. What could USC or Miami provide him that he doesn’t already have with the Eagles? And if Kelly bolts for college, he will be forever stuck with the “good college coach who couldn’t cut it in the NFL” label, and I’m not sure Kelly’s ego would allow that to happen.
“Chip isn’t going anywhere — I promise you that,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis told reporters. “Not kind of committed. All-in committed. I know it. He is a fighter. He don’t run.”
And Lurie, a Newton native, has shown a lot of patience in his 22 years as owner. He gave Ray Rhodes four years as coach, Andy Reid got 14 years, and Kelly is only in his third year. While this year is not going well, Kelly did go 20-12 in his first two seasons.
Lurie also just gave Kelly control of the entire football operation last offseason, and has allowed him to make several unpopular moves, such as trading LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles and cutting DeSean Jackson.
Kelly is in the middle of rebuilding the roster, and it would be out of character for Lurie to give Kelly the power, allow him to make wholesale changes, then fire him just one season into the project.
Rams making travel plans
What to make of the Rams’ decision to play a home game in London next year? The Rams are eyeing a relocation to Los Angeles, and while losing a home game to London isn’t the best way to cultivate a new fan base, playing overseas would be more palatable if the Rams know they’re going to be playing in a temporary stadium in Los Angeles next year.
At the same time, moving to LA is no shoo-in, as several owners (most notably the Panthers’ Jerry Richardson) support the Raiders’ and Chargers’ Los Angeles stadium plan. And if the Rams stay in St. Louis next year, the London game will violate the contract the Rams have with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which owns the Edward Jones Dome.
The Rams have until Jan. 28 to re-up with the dome for the 2016 season, but the CVC appears to be playing hardball with the Rams.
“We have had no formal discussions with the Rams about their 2016 intentions or a London game in 2016,” the CVC said in a statement. “But if they do play in the dome in 2016, the terms of the lease remain in effect and provides that all Rams NFL home games [other than preseason] will be played at the facilities.”
Decisions won’t be difficult
After signing Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, and Josh Kline to contract extensions during the season, the Patriots don’t have many tough decisions to make on impending free agents.
The Patriots’ unrestricted free agents after this season: Ryan Wendell, LeGarrette Blount, Tarell Brown, Nate Ebner, Tavon Wilson, Akiem Hicks. Their restricted free agents: James Develin, Sealver Siliga, Brian Tyms, Rashaan Melvin.
Their biggest decisions will be to pick up Rob Gronkowski’s $5 million option (which isn’t really much of an option), and what to do with three star defensive players: Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, who are under the Patriots’ control with the fifth-year options for first-round picks, and Jamie Collins, who will be entering his contract year.
And don’t be surprised if the next contract extension goes to Ebner, a core special teams player.
If Washington and St. Louis finish in the same spot in their divisions, they will face each other in London next year, and Washington will become the first team to play multiple games in London in one season. Washington would play back-to-back in London, with another scheduled game against the Bengals . . . The Bears are on fire. After starting 0-3 (with losses to the Packers, Cardinals, and Seahawks), the Bears are 5-3 with road wins at Kansas City, San Diego, St. Louis, and Green Bay, and three losses by a combined 8 points. Adam Gase’s work with Jay Cutler and the Bears’ offense should have him at the top of the list of head coaching candidates this offseason . . . The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced 25 semifinalists for its 2016 class. My five choices from them: Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Alan Faneca, and Ty Law, plus Ken Stabler as a senior nominee . . . Peyton Manning says he wants to play next year, and I think a team will be desperate enough to sign him. My money for now is on the Texans, who have a great roster outside of quarterback . . . ESPN really should have disclosed in its broadcast Monday night that Ray Lewis had given a speech to the Bills on Sunday night. Lewis played for Rex Ryan for 10 years in Baltimore . . . Gene Steratore and his officiating crew have this weekend off, but I’m told it was scheduled and had nothing to do with their performance in the Patriots-Bills game.
Carrying the load
Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin ran roughshod over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, piling up 235 yards on 27 carries. However, he failed to rush for a touchdown, becoming just the 14th player to run for more than 200 yards without a score. Here’s the company he joined:Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.