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NFL Needs to Reduce Amount of Subjectivity for Officials

December 10th, 2011 at 8:00 AM
By Chuck Chapman

The beauty of sports is that the "scoreboard doesn't lie." Perhaps one of the more appealing aspects of playing sports or cheering as a fan is the wonderful objectivity sports provide. Whether it's baseball, basketball, or football, there's something special about the consistency of home run, a basket or a touchdown. We all know what they are and how much they're worth. And at the end of the day, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. Nothing fuzzy there, unlike the "real world" in which each minute is filled with countless subjective situations. 

Wouldn't we all love the idea of living and working in a world where we knew without a shadow of a doubt that if we moved that oblong ball across the thick white line, we would receive six points? Every single time? Would that our bosses, spouses, children and friends gave us such consistent feedback.

Of course sports are played, and more importantly, officiated by human beings so subjectivity and judgment does enter in on occasion. There's no avoiding that. But the degree to which a sport can reduce human error affecting the outcome is directly proportional to its popularity with fans due to the consistency of the results. Baseball continues to struggle with the many strike zones presented by various umpire interpretations, and in basketball, I'm still not sure if any two referees can explain what constitutes a foul. 

Football has been remarkably different… until recently. Whether it's the increases speed of the game or, ironically, the advent of video replay, the subjective rulings of game officials are having more of an impact than ever before on the outcome of games. This should not be. As much as is possible, the actions of the players should determine the results of the games with officials becoming involved only when the rules clearly make it necessary. To that end, I propose that the NFL competition committee take up the following items this off season and either clarify or simplify the rules as to make the officials' judgment easier and less impactful on the game.

1. Adopt the college rule for pass interference, except in blatant circumstances. Last week against the Steelers, Chris Crocker and Mike Wallace bumped into each other downfield as Ben Roethlisberger attempted to complete a pass to Wallace. The result was a pass interference penalty against Crocker and 45 yard pickup in field position for the Steelers. First, the call could have gone either way. On most pass plays the official has way too much to consider. Was there contact? Was the contact intentional? Was the ball catchable? Was it interference, which is a spot foul, or just holding, which is a five yard penalty and a first down? 

How officials respond to these questions can turn a game on some pretty flimsy evidence. How many times have we seen a team throwing the deep ball simply hoping to pick up a flag. Receivers have become quite adept at "flopping" like soccer players in order to draw the flag. Why not? What other penalty in the game can net your team half the field in one play. Or if it's in the end zone, set your team up with a first down on the one yard line?

In college football, pass interference is a 15 yard mark off and an automatic first down. Changing to this rule would clearly discourage the "flopping" by wide receivers and wouldn't put an official in the position of making a game changing call simply because two players got their feet tangled. The only thing I would add to that would be to add the possibility of a "flagrant foul" into the mix to discourage beaten defensive backs from simply tackling receivers to save a touchdown. That would still be a spot foul.

While what's flagrant is still a subjective judgment, it's far easier to decide than under the current system. It would operate similar to how basketball officials determine flagrant fouls. If a defensive back clearly tackles a receiver while making no play on the ball, then a flagrant foul could be called and a spot penalty assessed. Anything else would be just a fifteen yard variety. To further clarify, like in basketball, video replay could be expanded to allow officials the opportunity to view the evidence. Those replay challenges would be under the same rules as the current replay challenge system.

2. Clarify what is a catch. The current rules require a receiver to possess the football with both feet in bounds, make a "football move," maintain control of the ball "through the catching process" and to receive a notarized letter from the NFL league office authorizing the catch. OK, that last part isn't true, but can you see the problem here? I don't envy NFL officials trying to decipher these ambiguous standards. It's not that hard, really. If the receiver, in the eyes of the official, comes down with the ball in real time, then it's a catch. The only thing video replay should be able to overturn is if the ball touches the ground or if the receiver doesn't get his feet down. Everything else gets distorted by the frame by frame nature of the replay. So what if the ball "moved one inch" as a receiver went to the ground, as happened in Baltimore to Jermaine Gresham a few weeks ago. If it's not discernible to the naked eye, then it's not a "bobble" in my book.

3. Bring back "spearing." Enough with the "helmet to helmet" language. There's helmet to helmet contact on every play in football. What's really needed to clarify what should be flagged and/or fined is the return of an old term: spearing. We've seen plays where defenders have come in on a quarterback or receiver (why running backs don't seem to get any protection is a mystery) where the defender had his head up, but still made contact with the helmet or face mask and drew a flag and a fine. That's ridiculous. Meanwhile, players like Pittsburgh's James Harrison clearly duck their heads, and launch themselves as missiles, leading with the crown of the helmet. That's a penalty and an egregious one as witnessed in Thursday night's game between the Browns and Steelers.

One factor leading to these hits is the generally poor tackling form practiced by many NFL players. Looking to make a highlight reel instead of a tackle, they lead with the helmet or shoulder instead of "breaking down" and form tackling with the entire body. There, the head should always be up, ideally planted between the numbers of the ball carrier, but always seeing what's being hit.

The NFL should flag players who lead with the helmet or shoulder, regardless of whether they make contact with the head or not. Any hit like that is dangerous to both players. How many defenders have we seen lost to shoulder injuries because they tried to hit instead of tackle? Likewise, if a player comes in with his head up and is "breaking down" then no flag should be thrown, even if helmets do collide. If the offensive player ducks, then it is he who is "creating" the helmet to helmet contact, not the defender. 

These three rule changes are quite simple and would return the game to the players. It would enhance the quality of both offense and defense as well as provide increased safety for the players. They would also likely shorten the game as the nature of any challenges or judgments would be more cut and dry. Most importantly, we could depend on the performances of the players being the reason for winning and losing and not the decision 

Tags: Cincinnati, Cincinnati Bengals, Football, NFL

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