Friday brought an unusual twist to a season full of NFL officiating stories. The league is considering changes to its protocol in time for the playoffs, which begin four weeks from Saturday.
Commissioner Roger Goodell hinted at the possibility during an appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio. A league spokesman confirmed that "there are some items under consideration" but declined to provide specifics. It is extraordinarily rare for the league to alter its on-field procedures during the course of a season, but as most everyone knows, the past three months have not been typical.
Goodell has sprung to action amid a series of high-profile mistakes and ubiquitous public review of every close call. He has said multiple times in recent weeks that he expects officiating to improve and recently announced a committee of former players, coaches and officials to review the controversial catch rule.
NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino released a video defense of the situation last week, blaming the advance of technology for increased scrutiny and saying officials are averaging 4.3 mistakes in a typical 160-play game. It seems clear, however, that Goodell is not satisfied with that explanation. He said Friday that he wants officials to have more access to technology during games.
"[T]he technology is so extraordinary, and we're seeing things we never saw before," Goodell said during the SiriusXM NFL Radio interview. "And we have to understand that and recognize that whether you all as broadcasters or the fans in general get to see things, and we have to make sure our officials have access to that kind of technology in a way that's not overly disruptive to our game, so that they can get the same type of input when they are making decisions and avoid those critical errors.
"We're never going to be perfect on this. You know that. I think we've had over 30,000 plays already this season. The facts are the officials have done an absolutely extraordinary job, but they are going to make mistakes. We need to have that technology there and access to that to help them avoid those critical errors that can be decisive in a game. And we're looking at that even in the context of this year's postseason. We're looking at that, how we can do that on a more regular basis."
It's unclear just how much Goodell can implement in a short period of time. Formal rule changes, including how officials can use instant replay, require debate and a vote among owners -- a process typically reserved for the offseason.
For the most part, the league avoids in-season changes in part because it doesn't want its championship determined within a structure different from the games that led up to it. One notable exception is that the league breaks up its officiating crews for the playoffs, using only the ones that graded the highest and filling in where necessary. But that policy is well-known and in place before the regular season begins.
The most significant addition of technology would be allowing officials to use video board replays or consult with fellow officials who are watching the game broadcast. That approach seems unlikely, given the league's core value of keeping most officiating decisions on the field, but all possibilities appear under consideration in these most unusual times. Stay tuned.