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Is NFL Officiating Ruining the Fan Experience?

In recent weeks, social media pundits have been overly critical of the Kansas City Chiefs, and their perceived affection from NFL officials.  In fact, some still believe JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t being held in Super Bowl LVII. Over the weekend, we saw numerous games decided by blown calls. Through six weeks of the regular season, this might go down as the worst officiated week in NFL history.

The NFL prides itself in giving the fans a show every weekend. So much so, that they go to great links to play games overseas, start the week with a Thursday Night battle, and for decades have extended it via Monday Night Football. This year we get our first Friday game after Thanksgiving. As fans, we can’t get enough NFL football. From the months of August through the Super Bowl, we are diligent in not only loyalty to our teams but also the sport itself. 

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Thanks to the NFL Sunday Tickets Package we are spoiled.  Four games one screen, one TV. For those diehards such as myself, with another TV or Laptop in proximity, I can turn my Man Cave into NFL central for the noon games.

Yet, I can also watch the blunders being made by officials, who are now more than ever, deciding the outcomes of some (not all) NFL games. It’s become so apparent that the mechanics of officiating are broken, that the sport is beginning to suffer.

Every NFL game matters. If you’re one of the elite teams, losing to a bad team, because you had a bad day is one thing. However, when an official throws a questionable flag that gives the underdog another chance to win, that’s not good for the sport. On the flip side, when an official holds onto the flag that benefits the big dog, as was the case on the final play in Buffalo last night, well that’s not good for the sport either.

When the NFL and the Officials extended their CBA in 2019 it was a bitter 18-month battle. The NFL wanted more control over the officials when it came to qualifications, and most importantly the age of some of its members. The union budged forcing the retirements of its older members, and those involved in constant conflict to their integrity overall, but they didn’t go far enough in that regard.

Going right for the jugular of the issue, you can’t have zebras trying to catch cheetahs. The issue with some officials is not just age but a lack of individual athleticism. NFL players are the finest athletes in all of sports. They play the most brutal sport, where even with security measures in place to protect the athletes, as we saw again last night in Buffalo with Bills Running Back, Damien Harris (who appears to be ok today), this is a physical sport where an inch here or an inch there can end a career.

That aside, the same can be said about officiating. The problem with officiating in the NFL is they have too much power. The NFL brass, and those who bargained with the union, can’t do anything publicly to criticize the men in stripes who steward the game on the field.

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What’s happening in some games they are steering wins and losses and that’s not their job. Listen I get the Chiefs have been the benefactor of some questionable calls this year. However, as a Chiefs fan, they’ve also been called for some that were simply not penalties at all. With so many TV angles, nothing is missed.

I won’t get into specifics of the weekend because all games are called inconsistently. Case in point, what is roughing the passer? If you asked 16 referees their definition is likely different. If you ask 16 referees what is holding, their definition is likely different.

That’s the problem. Officials are part-time employees. They all have careers outside of the NFL, and though they are paid handsomely, this is not their full-time gig. Yet, as we can see with our own eyes, calls are inconsistent, and though NFL replays work to some degree, it’s the subjective calls that are hurting the sport. As full-time employees who work year-round with the NFL rules committee to ensure every crew member understands the rules and the intent of those rules.

Blown calls are part of the DNA of the NFL. That’s never going to change no matter how much we complain. However, when 16 sets of officials don’t call things the same way, how are the athletes supposed to play the game at the level of equality the league wants for the sport? To be fair, most officials do their jobs correctly, but some of the senior members have developed egos, and that’s not good for their objectivity.

Now, to be fair, if you’re upset about officiating in any NFL game, it’s likely because your team wasn’t good enough to defeat their opponent. However, in 2023 teams are more evenly matched than at any time I can remember.

There is no longer a powerhouse in the AFC (sorry Chiefs fans) or the NFC (sorry San Francisco and Philadelphia fans). Now there is certainly some separation from the top ten teams in the league with the other 22 members, but on a day the Jets upset the Eagles, the Browns beat the 49ers and the Giants nearly upset the Bills, one can argue the completive balance has never been tighter.

To that point, fans love the upsets, but do they love the sport when so many bad calls exist within the game itself?  Sadly, they still do. Yes, the men and women on the field make mistakes, but some of the horrors we see every weekend can be fixed with relative ease.

Regarding roughing the passer penalties, adding another back judge on each side of the field would increase clarity that a foul occurred.  It’s impossible for an official to call a penalty of any kind from the opposite side of the hashmark when the play is moving away from them.  Further, the side judge who might be in view of the play, has his assignment and eyes elsewhere. Thus, there are no overlaps of assignment or common-sense components in place to remain fixated on the ball – regardless of where it is on the field.

Lastly, with all the technology that exists today, the league should adopt a rule that all penalties of 15 yards or more are reviewed via instant replay in New York. Yes, that would elongate the games, but I’d rather watch another Travis Kelce commercial or two if the game is officiated with more consistency.

As great as that suggestion might be this morning, the NFL has no power to show up the officials who make game-altering mistakes. Oh, they send a letter to teams if there is a mistake, but generally, they can’t hold the officials accountable, but they will fine coaches and players who talk ill about the officiating. Further, as fans, the fact we know the names of these officials in unison with all 32 fan bases, is not a good thing either for the NFL.

As stated, until we get younger, faster, and more athletic officials, and they are committed to their craft full-time, year-round, the Zebras will always win this conversation. The CBA remains in place through the 2026 season so the same old might remain a hot topic. Until then unless the NFL decides to break the union, and bring up more from the collegiate ranks, only then can they control the narrative beginning in 2027.

Until that occurs buckle up your seat belts, because as parody continues to expand, officials remain the central figures of some, not all, wins and losses. That means as fans, we have little choice but to accept their decisions on the field, because our addiction to watching NFL games each week outweighs our rage at the blunders we see with our own sometimes objective eyes.

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