NFL referees should get help via their headsets -- if they aren't already

Are NFL referees, such as Jeff Triplette, receiving advice on calls via wireless communication while on the field? Kyle Terada/Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Edward Jones Dome was rocking Sunday when St. Louis Rams fans saw Bradley Marquez recover an unexpected onside kick at the start of overtime against the Seattle Seahawks. They groaned when referee Jeff Triplette announced a rekick, citing an invalid fair catch, and cheered again when Triplette reversed the call and gave the Rams possession at the Seahawks' 49-yard line.

What happened in the moments between Triplette's announcements? The play was not eligible for replay review. Did a member of his crew step forward and insist he saw something different, as often happens during a game? Or did Triplette receive a clandestine correction via the wireless headset all NFL officials now wear?

Two former officials who now work in television stepped forward this week to endorse the latter theory, which if true would run counter to NFL protocol but in the end provide a valuable tool to ensure accurate calls. Former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said on Fox Radio that "somebody got into Jeff Triplette's ear," and former NFL officiating supervisor and current ESPN analyst Jim Daopoulos said via telephone: "I think Mike hit the nail on the head there."

Both men suggested this has become a regular, if not common, practice given the complexity of the NFL rulebook, the speed of the game and the microscopic scrutiny on officiating. In fact, they advocated it as a technologically obvious method for minimizing mistakes.

The idea makes perfect sense to me, but absent a formal policy, it raises questions about accountability and transparency. In an industry where so much money and job security ride on the outcome of each game, it would be unsettling to think that an unidentified entity is pulling the levers from behind the proverbial curtain.

For its part, the NFL said through a spokesman that referees speak to the replay official in the press box on "administrative matters" but said they do not receive information or direction on the accuracy of their calls.

In this case, Triplette initially believed that Seahawks place-kicker Steven Hauschka had bounced the kick off the turf -- which according to NFL rules would have invalidated a fair catch opportunity. Because the penalty is not subject to review, Rams coach Jeff Fisher had no recourse when replays showed that the ball did not touch the ground after leaving the tee. Triplette, however, rescued them (and himself) by announcing the reversal.

Triplette told a pool reporter that a member of his crew first said the ball had been kicked to the ground. "Subsequent to that," Triplette said, "another official whose responsibility it was to rule on that, came in and said, 'No, the ball was kicked into the air.' So therefore I went with the official who had the primary responsibility."

That is exactly how NFL referees are supposed to handle such situations. Pereira, however, suggested otherwise. Here's what he said Monday during a conversation about the complexity of NFL officiating:

"I'm going to tell you something. Jeff Triplette and his crew, how did they arrive at this? How did they get from the ball being kicked into the ground, which they didn't expect, to have it not being kicked into the ground? You know those communication systems that you see officials wearing now? He's got the microphone on and the headset? Things have become so complicated. ... They're not going to admit this, but somebody got into Jeff Triplette's ear from the press box and said, 'Jeff, that ball wasn't kicked into the ground.' Then he changed it based on that information.

"That information is coming from the replay official who sees the play, even though it's not reviewable," Pereira added. "And colleges are doing the same thing now. You don't just have the seven people on the field. You have an eighth person in the NFL when you count the replay guy or even New York looking in and watching from New York with communication to the stadium. ... So it's become so much more complicated that this communication system is being used to get things right, which I'm actually OK with."

Daopoulos echoed Pereira's comment when I reached him by phone.

"I don't think there is any question in my mind that guys do that," he said. "There are situations when if you're watching the game with the background of having been an official, you think they have to be getting some information from the press box or somewhere."

These theories raise an interesting question for the NFL, which outfitted officials with wireless headsets in 2014 to facilitate communication among crew members amid the noise of an NFL stadium. The referee also can use it to speak with the replay official in the press box. Members of the league office in New York City can access it as part of their process of assisting in replay reviews, but the NFL has never publicized communication beyond that.

League spokesman Michael Signora confirmed that "the referee will at times initiate communication with the replay official to aid in administrative matters, such as to confirm the correct jersey number prior to a penalty announcement or to verify the time on the clock when a pre-snap penalty was committed, for example." Signora added that "administrative matters do not include accuracy of a call itself."

There is enough gray area here to believe reasonably that Pereira, Daopoulos and the NFL are all within the realm of reality. There are plenty of ways to communicate a message without overtly saying the words. Even if it didn't occur Sunday in St. Louis, the analysis of two highly respected former officiating executives can't be ignored.

The issue, if there is one, is avoiding the appearance that someone removed from the field of play -- be it the replay official or a league official in New York -- might be influencing the outcome of the game without anyone knowing it. I would also imagine a coach wouldn't be happy to know that a replay could be used to correct what is supposed to be an unreviewable call.

In the end, however, it makes too much sense for the NFL not to pursue this approach. There would be few objections, I think, if it were acknowledged publicly. Technology now offers a path to provide a cleaner-officiated game. Who wouldn't want that?