A stunning, backwards and yet completely believable event occurred Monday night at 10:33 p.m. ET. At that moment, most of the world received formal NFL confirmation of an obvious officiating mistake during a game -- still in progress -- between the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks.
Among the few people who didn't have access to the message: the seven officials on the field who were responsible for the error.
How could NFL senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tweet out a quick admission but fail to communicate with referee Walt Anderson soon enough to prevent the blunder? The answer lies in an NFL philosophy that has resisted any substantive shift of officiating away from the field.
But as the Canadian Football League has shown, reasonable offsite intervention is nothing to be afraid of. To me, the events of this week should spur the NFL to take a closer look.
As you know by now, Anderson misjudged the contact between the Seahawks' Richard Sherman and Bills place-kicker Dan Carpenter. Sherman jumped offside, ran through the whistle and should have been called for unnecessary roughness. (That he touched the ball first eliminated roughing the kicker as a penalty, but a foul for contact after the whistle still was merited.)
Then, as the Bills lined up for another field goal attempt, Anderson compounded the error by failing to notice that the play clock was running down while another official stood over the ball. Instead of resetting the clock, as protocol required, Anderson allowed it to expire and penalized the Bills five yards for delay of game.
In May, NFL owners approved very limited communication between officiating supervisors and referees to assist in administrative matters. As a result, Blandino and his assistants -- perched in the league's New York offices -- had direct headset communication Monday night with Anderson. They saw both mistakes immediately, but the policy prohibited them from telling Anderson what Blandino would soon confirm via social media.
Why? Neither of Monday night's instances are covered under the rule, which reads:
"The Replay Official and designated members of the officiating department at the league office may consult with the on-field officials to provide information on the correct application of playing rules, including appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, proper down, and status of the game clock."
For now, the NFL is committed to limiting judgment calls, and most administrative matters, to on-field officials. The competition committee, which guides most of the on-field product, does not want to create the impression that games are being officiated (and their outcomes therefore affected) by people behind the scenes.
But there is a middle ground where, at the very least, issues such as an incorrect delay of game penalty can be corrected without a collapse of the republic. The CFL has found it in their video official, an addition to their 2016 operation that serves as a safety net for the kind of avoidable mistakes that disproportionately affect the public credibility of officiating.
I spent an evening this summer in Toronto observing the CFL's video operation inside its Command Centre. On that evening, the video official watched games live via a DVR-enabled console. He confirmed the spot of the ball, identified the correct number of a penalized player and ensured proper timekeeping.
At one point, he informed a referee in real time that the ball had been placed on the wrong hashmark. The referee received the message and spotted the ball accurately. The video official also has the authority to overrule penalty calls if they were in obvious error, but that did not occur while I was there.
Glen Johnson, the CFL's senior vice president of football, said the video official is a natural response given the technology now available.
"We are starting to service a group [of fans] that has much greater expectations on levels of accuracy based on what they see," Johnson said. "I fundamentally believe that when you're watching the game at home, you don't care about, 'Oh, yeah, the official is out of position. Rats. Oh well.' It's, 'I just saw, on my fancy, expensive television, that the call is clearly wrong. I don't understand why they can't fix it. I don't get it.' So that's what we're focused on here."
Monday night in Seattle, a video official might not have had the authority to penalize Sherman for his late hit. But, even modestly empowered, the official would have been able to tell Anderson that the play clock needed to be reset. For many, that mistake far outweighed the missed judgment of Sherman's contact.
Some people with close connections to the NFL's officiating community believe, as I wrote last year, that referees occasionally receive clandestine hints and suggestions via their headsets. That might be true, although it quite clearly didn't happen Monday night. Formalizing that possibility, with appropriate authority and limits, seems more than reasonable. If Monday night didn't provide a convincing enough argument, I don't know what would.
Below, as always, is our weekly officiating update complete with game assignments and penalty frequency data. Anderson and crew were previously scheduled to be off in Week 10. They have been downgraded in their postgame evaluation for their performance, but according to ESPN's Adam Caplan, they are unlikely to be disciplined.