Perspective Of An Average Steelers Fan: NFL Officiating Is A Clear Problem


As an Average Steelers fan, I know that Roger Goodell’s squad of blind, striped flying monkeys always look for ways that their flags can interfere with the Pittsburgh Steelers winning a game. The reality is that the average football fan knows that NFL officiating is a problem. Even New England Patriot fans complain about the officiating and all NFL fans know the referees favor Tom Brady and his team.

Muzzling the Players and Coaches

If officiating is a problem, why don’t players & coaches speak out about it? Well, as Clay Matthews and Baker Mayfield found out the NFL will fine them for opining on the quality of refereeing unless it is in a positive tone.

Clay Mathews earned his fine with this tweet:

Similarly, Mayfield gave up $12,500 for remarking “I’ll probably be fined for saying this, but it was pretty bad out there.”

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is known for measuring his words very carefully and frustrating some fans by never actually saying anything in his conferences. Even measured Mike Tomlin was fined in 2018 for venting his frustration with substandard officiating. His wallet was lightened by $25,000 for describing some of the calls as “a joke.” He continued, “These penalties are costing people games and jobs. We got to get them correct, and so I’m pissed about it, to be quite honest with you,” This was after a victory over Atlanta.

NOTE: NFL darling Tom Brady tweeted that he switched a Thursday Night NFL game off because the officials were calling “ridiculous penalties.” While I agree with Mr. Brady, he was able to tweet this comment without incurring a fine. Yet another inconsistency in the NFL’s application of punishments for speaking out.

NFL Knows Officiating is an Issue

The League know it has an officiating problem. In response to criticism and to enhance player safety it established an oversight office in New York City to conduct the replay reviews instead of the referees in the stadium. The NFL’s view is that “every NFL game has a third team on the field.”   Al Riveron is the NFL’s Senior Vice president for Officiating.

Back in the 1950’s. Bert Bell who was NFL Commissioner at the time stated, “The league … realizes that if a fan attends a game and goes away without remembering the referee, umpire, field judge or linesman, that a game must have been expertly officiated.” Roger Goodell through his actions if not his words, has the opposite perspective.

The reasonable person knows that the first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging. There is an officiating problem, but Roger sees the solution as even more replay and oversight by even more officials who are not even in the stadium that games are being played.

Switching Horses in the Middle of a Stream

Officiating is needed to ensure a fair competition in any sport. Very few sports have rules that are not open to interpretation. Gymnastics and diving rely exclusively on judges. In boxing or MMA, a knockout or tap out is objective, but a majority decision is based on judging. In all sports including football, good coaches factor officiating into their preparation of athletes in competitions. For example, in wrestling a coach may direct his wrestler to be more aggressive in the top position rather than riding an opponent out if the referee is known for calling stalling quickly.

In many sports, the officials meet with the coaches or team immediately prior to a game to review their points of emphasis and conduct safety equipment checks. In boxing, you often see this just before a match with the referees giving some brief instructions. In rugby, a referee will check the boots, any padding or braces, and jewelry to ensure that it is legal to have on during the match. They will also go over any specific laws that they intend to strictly enforce closely such as high tackles.

I don’t know if NFL officials meet with the teams or coaches before games other than idle chats. However, I am sure that teams keep a “book” on officiating crews and how they call games.

Take pass interference for example. There is a certain amount of contact and handplay that is permitted between a receiver and a defender. Players and coaches are very aware how much leeway different referees give in this regard. The problem is that players on both teams may play up to what they expect the referees to call during a particular time. But then at a critical time, a red flag can be thrown by an opposing coach and a new official is now called upon to decide whether the contact was legal or not. Therefore, game officials who may have been allowing a defender to place his hand on a receiver’s back to gauge distance and not throw a yellow flag may be overruled. The opposing coach asking for a replay from an official in New York may be rewarded with a stricter interpretation of the contact.

The more times the NFL switches from the on field officiating crew to officials outside the stadium, the more inconsistency we will have in how penalties are adjudicated. This makes it exceedingly difficult for players to judge what contact is permitted and what is not. The uncertainty of players leads to less decisive playmaking, which in turn lowers the overall quality of play. Over officiating is not good for the game.

NFL Fails Reasonable Person Test

There are many examples, but I will give just two. I borrow the reasonable person test from the judicial system since officiating is a series of judgments.

In the Steelers recent loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Earl Thomas literally knocked Mason Rudolph out of the game on the Steelers third offensive play of the second half.

Clearly this was a penalty for roughing the passer. The referees delayed throwing the penalty flag but eventually they did as Mason Rudolph lay on the ground. If rugby laws were applied, any schoolboy or girl rugby player (they play by the same rulebook as at the professional level) in over 100 countries could explain why this would be an illegal rugby tackle. The tackler went above the shoulder line and made the tackle without attempting to grasp or wrap the player with their arms.

Those same schoolboys or girls similarly could explain why this next image is a legal tackle.

Ola Adeniyi has wrapped the opposing player with his arms and did not launch himself torpedo fashion. While, many of the rugby laws are not suitable for American football, I bring them up since players, coaches, and spectators can clearly articulate what is considered dangerous play and what is not in many different languages. The reasonable rugby person, if such a thing exists, would throw the flag in the first example and not the second.

The problem with the NFL is that neither players, coaches, nor spectators really can grasp the nuances of how officials justify or rationalize some of their calls.


Following Tom Brady’s comments regarding poor officiating, it was reported that Riveron held a conference call with NFL referees to discuss the frequency with which holding was called. That Sunday, holding calls were called an average of 2.9 times a game versus 5.7 times the previous three weeks. Does Tom Terrific really have that much influence over NFL officiating? Many would say he does during his Patriots games.

It just highlights how subjective these penalty calls are and how ridiculous that reviewing even more plays in New York City is somehow the solution. You are just switching the decision making from the officiating crews on the field to anonymous officials in some cubicle. I doubt Riveron is the one making each replay call, he is just the scapegoat the NFL uses to deflect criticism. The integrity of the game is in question and making the officiating crew the “third team” on the field just feeds into the notion that the crews are being used to make the games more “exciting” or even decide outcomes. I’d like to go back to Bert Bell’s edict and let the players decide games and leave the referees invisible.

How to do this is a difficult problem to solve.

One step is simplifying some of the more complex rules. The other is to deemphasize replays. I know this causes a commercial problem for the NFL but sitting there watching referees in a meeting that you cannot participate in is boring. Furthermore, the meetings are redundant since the decisions on replay are now largely in New York by anonymous officials who may have different interpretations of what they are seeing. Finally, slowing the film to a fraction of a second to decide whether a penalty occurred or not is just not reasonable. Perhaps in scoring plays or spotting the ball it may make sense. But to decide whether a player had time to hold up from making contact in a frame by frame analysis is not the answer in my book. Holding and pass interference can be called on many plays but is not to keep the flow of the game moving. So, it is already established that referees decide which penalties to enforce and which to ignore.

The NFL should recognize that getting calls “right” is subjective if all infractions are not called during a game. Therefore, replay should be limited to egregious misses by officials.

Many may disagree with my points, but I believe most would agree that NFL officiating must be improved.

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