Former NFL spokesman Greg Aiello once responded to fans and media complaining about officiating.
“Every year at about this time we start hearing about how bad [officiating] is. It’s an annual event, like Groundhog Day,” Aiello said — in 1997.
Twenty-two years later, the cycle repeats on a continuous loop: Every year the NFL institutes new rules or points of emphasis, and over the first two months everyone howls about the game being ruined and officiating being broken.
“I’m close to 40 years [at the NFL] and I think there’s always a two- or three-week period when there’s an intense focus on it,” commissioner Roger Goodell said this past week at the owners’ quarterly meetings.
This year, the problem seems to be a little bit of everything — too many flags are being thrown, the crews are too inconsistent, and director of officiating Al Riveron refuses to use his instant replay powers to change a pass interference ruling on the field. Last Monday night’s Packers-Lions game was a disaster, with the officials calling multiple ticky-tack fouls on the Lions’ Trey Flowers to give new life to the Packers, but missing a blatant foul on the Packers for having 13 defenders on the field for one play.
“You never want to see a game where we’re talking about officials afterwards,” Goodell admitted. “It’s tough to be in that situation, so we have to do everything to continue to improve officiating.”
The numbers certainly bear out everyone’s frustrations. Per longtime NFL reporter Rick Gosselin, penalties have climbed from 11.8 per game for 97.3 yards in 2009, to 13.2 per game for 111.1 yards in 2014, to 14.9 per game for 124.5 yards this year. Offensive holding penalties are up from 2.1 per game to 2.7 per game this year, or about 150 more this season if the pace continues.
And of the 38 coach’s challenges of pass interference calls, Riveron has only overturned four (10.5 percent). Riveron is maintaining a “clear and obvious” standard, basically telling coaches that the play has to be as egregiously missed as the call in the Rams-Saints NFC Championship game for Riveron to overturn it.
“We’re not re-officiating these plays,” Goodell said. “If it’s something close and there’s not obvious and clear evidence, it’s going to stay with whatever is called on the field.”
This is not what the NFL’s head coaches expected when they strong-armed the competition committee and the 32 owners into approving this new rule in March.
“I have no idea what I am going to do moving forward, because it appears to be a moving target,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, one of the 10 people on the competition committee, said earlier this month.
The pass interference/replay rules were approved on a one-year conditional basis, and competition committee chairman Rich McKay said the league won’t make any judgments until after the full season has played out. But McKay was pretty firmly against the rule before it was passed, and he would rather replay be reduced, not expanded.
“One thing about replay that served us well is when it’s in an objective world — whether the two feet are in, whether the ball crossed the plane,” McKay said this past week. “Even then we can begin to argue at times, but there is objective standards. When you get into the subjective world, we knew that would mean it would be open for discussion.”
But while the NFL is doing everything it can to minimize the use of instant replay in calling penalties, the cries for instituting a “sky judge” have reached a fever pitch following Monday’s Packers-Lions game.
“Let’s embrace technology,” said former referee John Parry, now an analyst with ESPN. “I was not for a sky judge weeks ago. At this point, I think we have to embrace technology and we have to find a way to fix the egregious error.”
But not everyone believes that using a sky judge would fix the issues. Most penalties are still judgment calls. And there’s a matter of finding qualified officials to man the replay booths. Most of the instant replay officials at games are not NFL-trained officials.
“I think the concept of a sky judge is really good, but I think the problem is who are the 17 guys they are going to get up there to go and do that?” said Jim Daopoulos, the NFL’s former head of officiating for 12 years. “It seems like an easy fix, but they don’t have the people to put into those positions.”
As for the increase in penalties, and the inconsistent performances of officiating crews such as in the Packers-Lions game, Daopoulos believes it is the result of unprecedented turnover among officials in the last few years. A handful of the top officials, such as Parry and Gene Steratore, left for TV gigs, while other longtime veterans have retired. The new officials replacing them are well intentioned but short on experience.
“It takes at least four years to really get a feel for the game,” Daopoulos said. “And the other thing you need is mentors. I was so fortunate to have older officials. The problem is you don’t have many older officials to work with these young guys.”
But complaining about the officiating is as old as the NFL itself. The penalty numbers will regress back to more normal levels as the season progresses, and coaches will get a better feel for which pass interference plays they can challenge.
And while no one wants to see the officials decide the end of games, like they did in Packers-Lions, the good teams still know how to overcome bad officiating. “We can’t blame it all on the refs,” former Colts coach Tony Dungy said on Twitter. “Lots of procedural penalties, jerseys being grabbed & bad technique. You don’t see Patriots with huge penalty numbers. Coaching matters.”
Patriots are good at creating space
A handful of Patriots notes:
■ One way to avoid getting robbed by the officials? Win by at least two scores. The Patriots lap the rest of the league when it comes to doing so.
Since 2010, the Patriots have won 119 regular-season games, and 77 have been by at least 9 points. Second on the list is Seattle with 57 such wins, and Green Bay is third with 50. On the other end of the spectrum are Cleveland (15 wins) and Oakland (18).
Put another way, the Patriots have played 150 regular-season games in this decade, and have won more than half of them (51.3 percent) by at least two scores.
■ The Patriots lead the NFL in scoring at 31.7 points per game, but the 6-0 record and a defense that leads the NFL in turnovers and sack yards have masked some troubling stats from the offense.
The Patriots are 10th in the NFL in percentage of drives that end in touchdowns (25.7 percent), and 15th in drives that end in points (37.8). They have really struggled in the red zone, where they are tied for 20th in touchdown percentage (50 percent) and 23rd in score percentage (80.8 percent).
All this despite the Patriots having the third-best average starting field position in the NFL (32.6-yard line). The defense is getting extra opportunities and great field position, but the offense isn’t getting it done.
■ One other trouble stat: The Patriots are 27th in the NFL in first-and-10 rushing, averaging just 3.68 yards per carry. The Patriots run the ball 54 percent of the time on first and 10, but may need to adjust their strategy if they can’t start running the ball better.
■ Two stories I’m surprised didn’t get more attention: The Patriots skipping the White House celebration this year, and Michael Bennett staying in the locker room during the national anthem for every game this season.
Elway, Broncos have lost way
Not sure who had less fun on Thursday night — fans watching the Broncos’ dreadful offense or Joe Flacco leading the dreadful offense. Flacco looked disinterested in the Broncos’ 30-6 loss to the Chiefs, showing no emotion or urgency as he chucked passes out of bounds and ran out the clock.
The loss dropped the Broncos to 2-5, and should end any talk about the Broncos getting their act together. This year should mark the fourth in a row that the Broncos don’t make the playoffs, following their win in Super Bowl 50. And while Flacco is taking plenty of ridicule for his play, the person who should be on the hot seat is John Elway, who has made a string of bad decisions the last few years.
Most notably, Elway keeps swinging and missing on his quarterbacks. Brock Osweiler had a few moments but never developed into a capable starter. Trevor Siemian was decent for a seventh-rounder but wasn’t a starter. First-round pick Paxton Lynch was a bust. And free agents Case Keenum and Flacco have flopped.
Consider it the Curse of Tim Tebow — the quarterback who led the Broncos to the 2011 playoffs, but then was tossed overboard by Elway after the season.
Elway’s coaching hires haven’t been great lately, either. Vance Joseph went 11-21 in his two years. Now Vic Fangio starts off 2-5, and his team looks disorganized and overmatched. In most organizations, that kind of track record with quarterbacks and head coaches will get you sent packing.
Osweiler calls it quits
Speaking of Osweiler, he announced his retirement this past week after seven NFL seasons and 30 starts, 14 of which came with Houston in 2016.
Osweiler never developed into a starter, but he sure did well for himself, making more than $41 million, including $36 million over two seasons from Houston and Cleveland.
But Osweiler’s retirement is another reminder of how fascinating the 2012 draft was for quarterbacks:
Pick 1-1: Andrew Luck. Generational talent who retired after seven years because of injuries.
1-2: Robert Griffin III: Instant sensation and Rookie of the Year who blew out his knee and was never the same.
1-8: Ryan Tannehill: Made the playoffs once in seven seasons in Miami, now starting in Tennessee.
1-22: Brandon Weeden: Played for four teams over seven seasons, now out of the league.
2-57: Osweiler: Career 37:31 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
3-75: Russell Wilson: Been to two Super Bowls, won one, and front-runner for 2019 NFL MVP.
3-88: Nick Foles: Won a starting job, lost a starting job, bounced to three teams, almost retired, won Super Bowl as a backup, got big contract to lead the Jaguars.
4-102: Kirk Cousins: Drafted as a backup but eventually beat out the prodigy, developed into a 4,000-yard passer, got a massive free agent contract from the Vikings, now struggling.
Undrafted: Keenum: Caught on as a backup, bounced between three teams, had breakout year in Minnesota, signed by Denver and Washington as starter.
More work to do with concussions
The NFL made a top priority this year to try to reduce concussions during training camp and preseason, most notably by banning several dangerous head-on contact drills, such as the Oklahoma Drill.
This past week at the owners’ meetings, the NFL reported a decrease in the number of concussions occurring in training camp practices — 30 this year compared with 45 last year. But the number of concussions increased in preseason games — 48 this year, up from 34 a year ago.
“In the games, we saw a slight increase and that is something that we obviously don’t want to see, so we have to evaluate that further and try to understand a little bit more the circumstances,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We got some early data, so I think we need a lot more.”
NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills said that about two-thirds of the concussions in preseason games were to rookies and players who didn’t make a final roster.
The mixed news comes after the NFL had a positive 2018 season, with concussions dropping by 29 percent overall.
“So we know there is more work to be done there,” Sills said.
Are the Dolphins tanking or not? Is this season about evaluating Josh Rosen or not? Coach Brian Flores can’t seem to decide on either. He looks like he badly wants a win, as evidenced by his decision to bench Rosen in the fourth quarter last Sunday and put Ryan Fitzpatrick back in. Fitzy led two touchdown drives, but the Dolphins still came up short in the loss to the Redskins. Had Flores made the move sooner, Fitzpatrick would have had more time to stage the comeback. Now Flores is going with Fitzpatrick this Sunday in Buffalo, putting the Rosen evaluation on hold, but also harming the Dolphins’ chances of getting the No. 1 overall draft pick. The Dolphins’ extreme tanking strategy is putting Flores in a horrible spot. He is the only one that gets hung with the bad record . . . I realize the Rams gave up a ton for Jalen Ramsey — their next two first-round picks, plus a fourth-rounder — but I like the deal for the Rams as much as I do for the Jaguars. The Rams just got a big, strong, elite cornerback for Wade Phillips, whose defense thrives with this type of player (think Aqib Talib in 2014-15). The Rams also have Ramsey under control for two seasons (2019 and 2020), which gives them better leverage in contract negotiations . . . Per the Washington Times, Redskins quarterback Alex Smith told a group of medical professionals at an event last month that he has had 17 surgeries on the gruesome broken leg he suffered last year. In addition to breaking the tibia and fibula, Smith had several procedures to deal with an infection in the leg. If you ever hear anyone complain about NFL players holding out or making too much money, remind them about Smith . . . The 4-2 Ravens sure know how to play from ahead — in six opening drives this year, the Ravens have four touchdowns and a field goal. And the 49ers sure know how to make halftime adjustments — they have scored a touchdown on all five of their opening second-half drives this season . . . The Bills are 17-point favorites Sunday against Miami, their highest pointspread since a 1992 game against the Jets . . . Teams are 0 for 18 on onside kicks this year. Last year, the first year that the NFL changed the onside kick rules, the success rate was about 7 percent, down from 20 percent the year before. If onside kicks are going to be this difficult to recover, the NFL needs to institute the fourth-and-15 play instead next year.