The possibility has existed, and been anticipated by many, since the NFL outfitted its officials with wireless communication last year. In a world where conspiracy theories erupt by the minute, it was easy to wonder: Who is talking to the referees? What are they saying? And why?
This week the NFL codified a limited expansion of communication for the postseason between referees and members of the league's officiating command center in New York. In a press release, the league said vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, or his designee, will consult not only on replay reviews but also on "administrative" issues "regarding the correct application of playing rules" such as penalty yardage and clock operation.
It insisted that Blandino "will not call or change a foul or become involved in on-field judgment calls beyond what is already part of the replay review process," but here's a dirty little secret: Many people in the officiating community aren't buying it and remain highly suspicious of the true purpose and use of the wireless communication system.
The theory has been advanced by none other than Mike Pereira, one of Blandino's predecessors who now works as an analyst for Fox Sports. In an interview this week, Pereira reiterated his belief -- which he first voiced in September -- that Blandino or a member of his staff has been whispering in the ears of referees for some time.
The league has denied it, but Pereira -- still highly respected in the football community -- said: "Of course they're going to say that publicly because it was against the rules."
Pereira added: "There's really no context in the rule book [before this week's expansion] for allowing the replay official or New York to give any input [beyond replay], so it's not something they would acknowledge. But really, to think that it wasn't happening is probably being very, very, very naive."
The upside of this week's announcement is that it will minimize the possibility of an embarrassing mistake in a playoff game. If a referee loses track of downs, as Pete Morelli's crew appeared to do in a Week 12 game between the Cardinals and 49ers, Blandino could catch and correct it. If a clock operator allows time to run off in error, Blandino could restore it. From my perspective, as discussed in September, this expansion provides a painless safety net for the most correctable errors.
The bigger question: Where could this modification lead? Questions of consistency, accountability, motive and transparency grow more complicated upon the introduction of a new dynamic.
"I would hope they'll limit this to correcting only the most egregious of errors," said retired NFL referee Gerald Austin, now an ESPN analyst. "I don't want to sound critical, but there have been some inconsistencies in the decisions that New York has made on replays this year. So what would you be doing? Would you just be shifting the inconsistency you may perceive on the field for the inconsistency from New York?"
On a philosophical level, Pereira said, the questions grow more basic. Officials are in place to be the objective, uninfluenced third-party administrators of games. What would it mean to introduce the possibility of, in essence, a wizard pulling levers behind the curtain?
"Everything up to the point of putting the earpiece into the referee's ear," Pereira said, "has been accountable. It was what you saw on the field. A conversation with someone in New York, that's the unknown. I would understand a coach being concerned about that. How do you know what's being said? How do you know they're only covering the plays that are reviewable? And what are you left to think if they have that in place and still miss something?"
Said former NFL official and supervisor Jim Daopoulos: "If they're going to be in the ears of the officials, how do you determine who is accountable? Say an official makes a call on the field and the flag is picked up, as happens from time to time. Is it picked up because the crew got together and decided it needed to be, or was it because someone in New York doesn't like the call?"
Indeed, nearly every NFL fan base -- and some team owners -- have taken turns assuming the league plays favorites. (The issue was covered extensively in this ESPN investigation into Deflategate.) Blandino already has experienced the assumptions caused by the most minor of mistakes -- TMZ cameras caught him last year exiting a bus owned by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during a night out in Los Angeles -- and Pereira believes the wireless connection during games will only fuel future concerns.
"Basically, what it looks like is that the league office is making decisions on who possibly wins or loses the game," Pereira said. "You could go back to the old theory of the conspiracy of the Raiders, that the league didn't like [former owner] Al Davis and all the stuff that went along with it.
"All of a sudden, decisions that were being made on the field or in the stadium, all of a sudden are being made in the league office. That seems to be the wave of where this is going. Things have changed so much, but this ... strive for perfection really isn't attainable. I wish I could be effusive in praise of all of the changes and the technology, that it can make things better.
"Maybe I will someday."