Before Tuesday’s election, there was already a fan base somewhere in America overwhelmed with frustration: fans of the Buffalo Bills. Not so much because of the 31-25 Monday night loss in Seattle, but because of the abominable job the officials did on several pivotal plays that directly affected the outcome of the game. The contentious results of the Bills’ game reignited a conversation about the quality of NFL officiating and what can be done to ensure that correct calls are made.
No proposed plan will be perfect in theory or practice, but if the NFL is truly committed to both the accuracy of its officials and the safety of its players, it could start by making certain penalties, like personal foul calls, reviewable.
Player safety is the main reason the NFL should consider making personal foul penalties reviewable. These penalties include fouls such as roughing the passer or kicker, unnecessary roughness and hits to or leading with the head. The NFL has always taken such fouls seriously and has fined players who commit any one of these fouls during a game.
Moreover, given that the NFL added a new rule this season to eject players if they commit two personal fouls in one game, it would make more sense for these calls to be reviewed. Doing so would not be unprecedented. College football allows a review of targeted penalty calls. The flag itself may not go away, but officials are allowed to review the play in question to determine if a defender truly did target and lead with his head in initiating contact.
Reviewing penalties would also allow officials to better protect quarterbacks. The Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton has been outspoken for his consistent claim that referees refuse to call penalties on defenders that hit Newton in the head. Newton has already suffered a concussion this year and some sources report that the NFL has missed over 10 roughing penalties committed against Newton in the past few seasons.
While some quarterbacks have had more missed calls against them, it speaks to a larger problem about officials missing calls that directly relate to player safety and can change the way a defense will play. If defenders know their conduct is subject to review, they very well could hit less aggressively or put extra emphasis on legal tackling to avoid these problems altogether.
Officials are in the business of getting calls right, and even if they are correct an overwhelming majority of the time, there are still areas in which officials can improve. Adding an additional element of review could provide officials a layer of insurance, as there are times when they may not see or perceive every detail of every play. All plays are already reviewed and taped by the league, so an independent reviewer in the replay booth could simply flag a questionable play and the process could ensue.
If the league fears this will slow the game down excessively, the coach’s challenge could be used as a fair compromise. Coaches could use one of their two challenges to force officials to review a particular play and risk a timeout should officials determine a flag is not warranted. This would limit the number of overall reviews, while still allowing coaches and players an outlet to ensure that officials do not miss these vital calls.
Some are wary of expanding replay in football, but it is easy to avoid the slippery slope of making every judgment call reviewable. Unlike false starts or holdings, personal foul calls almost always involve physical contact and a high risk of injury. At this point, the NFL has a legitimate interest in ensuring that the proper call is made because it affects future play and has the potential to make the game safer, even if it does slow the pace of the game down occasionally. If time is really that much of a concern, it is possible to argue that the time spent reviewing plays will be saved if serious injuries decrease as a result.
There is no perfect solution to the problems of NFL officials, but that is not an excuse for inaction. Allowing replay on personal fouls has the potential to improve player safety and ensure that the right call is made on the field. If the NFL is serious about its commitments to both its teams and its referees, then it should look into making this a permanent feature of its evolving game.
Michael Ippolito is a senior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.
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