NFL Poisoned by Awful Officiating

Jack Nelson, Staff Writer

“Refs, you suck!” was a familiar chant heard at Gillette Stadium during the Patriots’ Week 14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. These hateful sentiments were shared by millions of Pats fans watching the game at home, and they quickly took to social media to express their anger–with good reason. Three key mishaps by the officials arguably cost their team a win in one of the most important games in the Patriots’ regular-season schedule. Despite some deeming it to be the worst officiated game of the season, it’s merely the latest installment in a pattern of questionably-called games:

Week 6 – Lions at Packers – Packers win 23-22

Lions WR Kerryon Johnson makes a clutch 3rd down catch in the 4th quarter, but the ball is knocked out by a Packers’ defender upon contact and rolls out of bounds. The officials initially ruled it as an incomplete pass, yet the replay shows that Johnson maintained possession of the football for several steps prior to the ball being knocked out. This ended a key drive for the Lions and forced them to punt.

Lions QB Matthew Stafford throws a deep ball to WR Marvin Jones to put the game out of reach for the Packers, and the pass falls incomplete. However, as Jones put up his hands to catch the ball, he was interfered with by a Packers’ defender, and the replay demonstrated it was a textbook case of pass interference. The officials didn’t call it, and Detroit lost a chance at heavy yardage.

Lions DE Trey Flowers is called for an illegal hands to the face penalty in the 4th quarter. The instant replay showed that Flowers’ hands were on the collar of the other player’s jersey and never touched the player’s helmet. The penalty set up a key TD for the Packers and pulled them within striking distance.

Trey Flowers is AGAIN called for an illegal hands to the face penalty in the 4th quarter. The replay clearly showed that Flowers’ hands touched the other player’s shoulder and didn’t touch the helmet. The call allowed Green Bay to burn the clock down to 2 seconds, setting up a game-winning field goal.

Week 6 – Seahawks at Browns – Seahawks win 32-28

RB Nick Chubb receives a pass from QB Baker Mayfield for an 11-yard gain, but the officials flag WR Jarvis Landry for a blindside block, negating the positive yardage. In instant replay, it can be seen that Landry is facing upfield rather than toward or parallel to his goal line, which already makes him ineligible to be called for the penalty. It’s also noteworthy that the Seahawks defender initiated contact with Landry, and you have to initiate contact in order to be called for a blindside block. As a result, the Browns went 3-and-out rather than advancing for the first down.

In the midst of a Browns red zone drive, Chubb runs toward the end zone on 4th and 1 and is tackled for a 1-yard loss, turning possession over to the Seahawks. A close-up look at the play reveals that a Seahawks defender should’ve been flagged for grabbing Chubb’s facemask, but the officials missed it. This halted Cleveland’s momentum right as they were about to score a key touchdown.

Browns DB Morgan Burnett chases down Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, forcing him to throw the ball away, but the officials call a horse-collar tackle penalty on Burnett and give the Seahawks a 1st down in Browns territory. When looking at the play, Burnett only grabs the jersey near the bottom of the nameplate, which is not grounds for said penalty. Burnett also didn’t pull Wilson to the ground with the grab, which one must do in order for the play to be considered a horse-collar tackle. The flag allowed the Seahawks to continue what would become their game-winning drive.

Week 14 – Chiefs at Patriots – Chiefs win 23-16

Patriots QB Tom Brady throws a deep pass to WR Phillip Dorsett in the 4th quarter, but as Dorsett reaches out for the ball, the defender holds back his arms and prevents him from making the reception. The pass interference penalty would’ve put the Patriots within 10 yards of the goal line but was missed by the officials, and they were forced to go for it on 4th down.

Chiefs TE Travis Kelce catches a pass from QB Patrick Mahomes in the 4th quarter and is hit by Devin McCourty, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore had a clear path to the endzone for a scoop-and-score, but the officials already ruled Kelce down by contact and whistled the play dead. Bill Belichick threw the challenge flag, and the video review revealed that Kelce did, in fact, lose possession prior to hitting the turf. Although the call was overturned, the Patriots lost a chance at a touchdown or at least heavy yardage.

On the drive resulting from the fumble, the Patriots get down to the red zone, and Brady throws a pass to WR N’Keal Harry, who weaves through several defenders and tiptoes his way toward the end zone, staying in bounds and stretching the ball over the pylon. The officials ruled that Harry stepped out of bounds at the 3-yard line, but the instant replay showed that Harry actually stayed inbounds the entire play, clearly a touchdown. However, the Patriots had already been forced to use up all of their challenges and couldn’t overturn the ruling. Brady was sacked 3 plays later, and the Patriots were forced to settle for a field goal.

Terrible officiating is far from a new development: NFL referees have been under heavy scrutiny ever since they missed a blatant pass interference call in the 2019 NFC Championship between the Saints and Rams. The no-call arguably cost the Saints a Super Bowl berth and caused so much outrage that one Saints fan even started a petition demanding that the NFL replay the game. As a result, the league added a new rule in the offseason that would allow head coaches to challenge pass interference calls (or the lack of them) during games. As great as this sounded initially, the success rate of pass interference challenges so far this season has been pitiful. Through Week 12, only 15 of 77 reviews of pass interference were overturned. Right now, the only thing clear to NFL coaches about the definition of pass interference is that it’s unclear, and it exposes how far officiating has fallen in recent years. The plethora of technological resources that referees have access to only makes their mistakes more foolish.

Sure, a missed call here and there is understandable; human error is inevitable, and we can’t expect referees to get every single call right. However, when it continues to occur in a way that negatively impacts the outcome of a game, changes must be made.

These botched calls would be at least semi-acceptable if the league was actually doing something about them, but that’s the problem–no action has been taken. The pressure is building on Commissioner Roger Goodell, yet he has remained suspiciously mum on the topic of accountable officiating. Thus far into the season, no referees have been fired, no statements have been made, and no intentions for improvement have surfaced. Goodell’s deliberate ignorance of an important aspect of the game is concerning, and his apparent satisfaction with the currently horrible review system indicates incompetence. If the league really wants to maximize the NFL experience, perhaps it starts with a change in office.