On the third play of the Minnesota Vikings’ 21-20 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football, the Vikings ran a trick play where Josh Dobbs got the ball running to the edge, trying to convert third-and-one. He was stopped by the hit from Broncos’ safety Kareem Jackson seen below, which is a blatant penalty:
That hit merits a flag because Jackson lowered his head and made forcible contact with Dobbs with the crown of his helmet. Per the rule, it doesn’t matter that Jackson appears to hit Dobbs in the shoulder before some contact with Dobbs’ facemask. What matters is that he lowered his helmet. Jon Runyan, former Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive lineman and the NFL’s VP of Football Operations, outlined that in the letter he wrote to Jackson regarding the suspension he received before the hit:
As outlined in the release above, this was not Jackson’s first offense. He had already been fined four times for a total of $89,670 in the first seven games he had played, and the league had suspended him for two games after his fourth infraction in Week 7.
Even if it gets missed in the game, correcting this penalty by issuing a fine to first-time offenders and suspending repeat offenders is a solid step to help increase player safety, something the league does not have a great track record of doing.
However, for many Vikings fans, getting it right after the game won’t be enough. Dobbs lost a fumble on the play above. Correctly assessing a 15-yard penalty for impermissible use of the helmet would have allowed the Vikings to keep the ball and given them a first down.
Instead, the Broncos got the ball in FG range and ran a drive that got only one first down before kicking a field goal. Even the Vikings punting on that drive would have taken three points off of the board in a game the Broncos ultimately won by a single point. The NFL had ample time to review the play, given that it was a turnover. However, because the officials didn’t throw a flag on the field, their hands were tied. The rulebook allows for a replay official to penalize and eject players, but only on a play where a penalty is already called. The clause below, which allows for the replay official to assess a penalty, is mostly meant for on-field fights where the refs may not note all players involved:
Other referee mistakes
The Vikings have been on the wrong side of a number of questionable refereeing decisions this year. Against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5, CB L’Jarius Sneed was flagged for a penalty that the officials later picked up. You can legitimately argue whether or not the play should have been penalized, but what happened after is clear, per the rules. Sneed took off his helmet on the field of play to argue with the refs, which is an automatic 15-yard penalty. The ref can be clearly seen in the video telling Sneed to put his helmet back on.
Ultimately, the penalty would have been applied after the Chiefs gained possession of the ball, so it probably did not impact the outcome of the game. But the fact that the league fined Sneed for the infraction after the fact is a clear admission that this should have been flagged.
Against the New Orleans Saints, there was another clear example of a penalty that was missed by the officials. Danielle Hunter got called for illegal use of hands on a play where the opposing tackle, Andrus Peat, ripped Hunter’s helmet off by the facemask. Hunter legitimately committed the foul, but it should have been offset by an additional penalty on Peat.
These issues are certainly not unique to the Vikings, and the Vikings have also benefited from missed calls, like this play where Harrison Smith was fined but not penalized:
A difficult job
Officiating a game is undoubtedly difficult. The NFL rulebook is massive and complicated. An officiating crew has seven members on the field, while there are 22 players, all in motion simultaneously. Plays develop very quickly, and often in a pile of bodies, without the benefit of slow-motion replay. Officials watch various alignments pre-snap and then are assigned to position groups post-snap. The referee and umpire will watch for false starts and penalties on the OL/DL and QB. The down judge and line judge are responsible for watching the LOS and monitoring players going out of bounds. The side judge, field judge, and back judge are generally responsible for the WR/DB action on passing plays.
NFL officials come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Officials hold a wide range of occupations. Some are teachers, engineers, salespeople, company executives, or firefighters. That’s right, NFL refs are not full-time employees of the NFL. You can check the occupation for each official at Football Zebras.
While officials’ salaries aren’t public, they were slated to make an average of $205,000 in 2019 per a press release on the end of the lockout in 2012. The NFL has more than enough money to retain officials as full-time employees, but they choose not to for some reason. In the offseason, the NFL holds only two clinics for officials to go over new rules and then assess their knowledge of the rules and mechanics of the game. Officials also attend team OTAs and training camps to get reps.
SMALLER LEAGUES SHOW THE WAY
Given the rate and severity of the misses, the officials clearly need more help. NFL officials are highly trained and do their jobs at an expert level. If you don’t believe me on that second part, watch a college football game and see the difference. However, humans aren’t perfect. They are going to miss calls, as outlined above.
The NFL currently has a system to review and overturn calls, with major limitations. The league automatically reviews scoring plays and turnovers, and the replay assistants can review and overturn any play within the last two minutes of either half. Outside of those parameters, though, head coaches only have two challenges a game to review plays. On top of that, only certain aspects of a play are reviewable. A challenge also opens a play up to a full review rather than just a specific aspect the coach is challenging. Vikings fans learned that when Kevin O’Connell challenged a Romeo Doubs catch that got overturned into an incompletion. However, it also ended up revealing a 12-men-on-the-field penalty for the Vikings.
That 12-men penalty is one of the few penalties that is reviewable. Much-maligned calls like roughing the passer, pass interference, and the Kareem Jackson hit and other missed penalties shown above are not reviewable aspects of a play. Well, pass interference was reviewable in 2019, and that was an abject disaster because officials and the replay review booth clearly wanted it to fail. Other aspects of a play like forward progress and a play that’s blown dead aren’t reviewable either. Still, at least that makes sense because the whistle should mean players stop trying.
Even when a play is eligible for review, NFL replay as it exists is clunky, with the game going to a TV timeout whenever a team or the league calls for a replay. The amount of time it takes to execute a replay may have been necessary when replay first started, but now broadcasts and officials have instantaneous access to every angle of a play.
There’s a simple solution to this major problem, and multiple smaller professional leagues that have cropped up in recent years, like the AAF and XFL, have shown the solution. Both leagues have an official, either at the game or in a control center, in direct communication with the officials on the field. Take a look at the below play from an AAF game:
Because the thought process is transparent to the viewer, the presentation humanizes officials. You can see Terri Valenti struggle with the question of whether or not the ground caused the ball to move in real-time before eventually coming to the conclusion of catch, overturning the rule on the field. Having this window into the decision-making process helps inform fans better than former officials getting called in to speculate on rulings, and it also gives them an explanation for the decision rather than a proclamation from on high.
With former NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino taking on that same role, the XFL also used booth-assisted review, and the results are impressive. In the video below, you can see Blandino communicate with the official and give all of the information needed to continue the game in about 30 seconds once the call is determined, for a faster review than you would see in any NFL game.
The public sentiment in response to both the AAF and XFL replay system was clear: Fans loved seeing the transparency in the reviews. It’s long past time that the NFL upgrades the system in a way that both gives fans a peak behind the curtain to inform them about decisions and gives the officials on the field a helping hand.