The past seven days have brought more grist for the NFL officiating debate than any similar time period in recent memory. Three high-profile mistakes on Monday Night Football, all of which the league eventually acknowledged, sparked a barrage of controversy that continued through the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football.
Bracketed by an inadvertent whistle and an excess timeout, this spell crystallized the public's sense -- as well as some within the game -- that officiating is worsening as scrutiny intensifies. It included an intriguing explanation from a retired NFL executive, which I'll get to in a moment, and a half-dozen instances that alone would have amounted to little but viewed collectively create a damaging image.
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians suggested that referee Pete Morelli's crew "can't count to three" and used the military acronym "FUBAR" to describe the mess it made. The crew that missed an unusual clock runoff in Week 5 and a false start on the final play of a game in Week 10 also made a highly debatable roughing the passer call on San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Quinton Dial, who appeared to hit Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer legally in the chest. Earlier, the crew lost track of downs after penalizing the 49ers for having too many men on the field and required what I timed to be nearly a four-minute delay -- one play later! -- to revert to the correct down.
Referee Walt Coleman's crew made two mistakes on one field goal attempt in the fourth quarter of the Indianapolis Colts' 25-12 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It penalized Bucs safety Chris Conte for leaping, a rare penalty that had been called only three times since the start of the 2014 season, and missed Conte running into holder Pat McAfee. Conte's leap actually was legal because he didn't use a teammate for leverage and didn't land on any of them. But the hit to McAfee should have been penalized for roughing the holder.
Referee Walt Anderson's crew went to review to determine whether Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Markus Wheaton made a legal catch. The replay left retired referee and current CBS broadcaster Mike Carey convinced that it would be upheld as a catch. It was ruled incomplete after a slight bobble delayed possession. This was the kind of play that never would never have been noticed, much less questioned, before this era of officiating scrutiny.
Whenever officiating questions arise, it's crucial to incorporate the human element into any conclusions. Mistakes will happen. We also must take into account the complexity of the NFL rulebook. Who knew, before Sunday night, that the clock would restart after an injury timeout with less than two minutes remaining? (Kudos to referee Tony Corrente's crew for getting that one correct late in the fourth quarter at Sports Authority Field, an accomplishment that NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino felt compelled to note late Sunday night on NFL Network.)
But there seems little doubt that the frequency and impact of mistakes are in a crescendo as the final month of the regular season approaches. Speaking Sunday morning on Fox, former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira attributed the situation to the significant personnel turnover among officials during Blandino's tenure -- a trend I noted last spring.
The chart, based on the NFL's public roster of officials, shows that there are 23 with two or fewer years of experience in the NFL -- about 19 percent of the full staff. It was believed to be the largest period of officiating turnover in at least 13 years, and has created two segments of officials: Those with high levels of experience and those with little. Pereira noted that the NFL requires five years of experience for Super Bowl assignments, a benchmark for what it takes to reach high-level performance, and alluded to Blandino's emphasis on physical fitness for officials in today's faster-paced game.
"You wanted younger officials," Pereira said, "and you got them."
The smoking gun of Pereira's theory is second-year head linesman Ed Walker, who incorrectly wound the clock on the final play last week of Monday Night Football. (Buffalo Bills receiver Sammy Watkins was not touched and fell out of bounds, meaning the clock should have stopped.) But the theory can't be connected directly to other high-profile mistakes this season.
Side judge Rob Vernatchi, who was suspended after missing the clock runoff in Week 5, is a 12-year veteran. Back judge Greg Wilson, who missed an illegal bat call in Week 4, has eight years of experience. Head linesman Ed Camp, the closest official to the uncalled false start in Week 10, has been with the NFL for 16 years. The line judge responsible for the inadvertent whistle last week, Gary Arthur, has been with the NFL for 19 seasons.
It's possible that a trickle-down effect of inexperience is causing some veterans to overextend themselves, as can happen among NFL players. An alternative view suggests that officiating needed the kind of accountability that this turnover has brought and that its rewards must be viewed in a longer horizon.
But the short-term impact seems undeniable. A craft that comes with unavoidable mistakes is under unprecedented scrutiny and is struggling to perform. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes or obvious solutions. The NFL and its officiating department have little choice this season but to ride out the ebb and flow.