The National Football League has found itself potentially losing in a big way on their gamble to continue locking out the unionized referees of the National Football League Referee's Association. In games featuring the top-ranked San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, the replacement officials have been subject to more scrutiny than most officials have in recent history.
While it is traditionally par for the course for fans to cry foul when it comes to poor officiating or questionable calls, the national outcry for an unusually high number of controversial calls on primetime television in close games in Week 3 of the NFL season has put even more pressure on Roger Gooddell and the owners to negotiate a final agreement with the NFLRA.
The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLRA expired at the conclusion of the 2011 NFL season, and the two parties had not agreed to a new contract by the beginning of the preseason or regular season. The NFLRA is demanding an increase in pay—commensurate with an estimated $100,000 increase in costs for each team, complete resumption of benefits, a shorter, six-year deal and a ratification bonus that covers the time they spent locked out.
In lieu of their services, the NFL is employing officials from Divisions II and III of the NCAA, the Arena Football League and even the Lingerie Football League. This is a relatively large gamble for the NFL, given that their most recent reported earnings were upwards of $9 billion, with tertiary markets for both direct outcome-based gambling and the fantasy football market.
While former San Francisco quarterback and current ESPN analyst Steve Young is somewhat correct that the NFL is relatively "inelastic for demand" in regards to quality of product, it's also clear that the NFL can lose quite a bit of money on the margins. As Gregg Easterbrook constantly warns, there's no law mandating that the NFL stay popular. Hurting the quality of the product on the field has real implications for fan experience, and could depress attendance at games, which further depresses ad revenue per NFL's blackout rules.
Consumers exist at the margins of nearly every decisionmakingprocess to purchase one of the NFL's many products, including upgrading television packages for NFL Red Zone, Sunday Ticket or the NFL Network. Decisions to purchase tickets compete with other priorities, and the popularity of the sport does not always drive consumer dollars.
Given the number of opportunities for fans to swing another way on a purchasing decision, the NFL could actually lose a substantial sum of money with a consistently poor product. It may seem absurd from a big picture perspective that a few blown calls could affect such a large revenue stream, but casual fans vastly outnumber dedicated fans who are willing to follow football teams come hell or high water. The expansion of fan bases and subsequent revenue boost for succesful NFL teams is proof enough; teams that fall from grace consistently lose revenue—a good indication that the experience for a casual fan is integral to the continued sustenance of the league.
Even gambling markets are feeling the pinch, as replacement officials had already moved "hundreds of thousands of dollars" with how they've been officiating games, and there's fear that the additional unpredictable element of poor officiating may drive bettors away from the NFL betting market.
More than the outcome of games, the NFL may have to deal with suits from players. Officials have done a notoriously poor job calling penalties on potentially injurious plays and therefore creating an unsafe environment. The players and the players union have expressed that the replacement referees could pose a danger to player safety, and the NFL has been surprisingly unmoved by an appeal to one of their stated short-term goals. Given that their largest casualty insurer pulled out, the nonchalance the NFL has approached this with has been surprising.
The threat of player suits and mounting costs from player injuries is not a drop in the bucket for the NFL. While it may seem like exaggeration when some commentators predict the death of the NFL because of this litigation, there are real concerns from sports economists that the league is playing with fire when it comes to player safety—the NFL is not invulnerable.
While some have been diligent about recording officials' mistakes over the course of the year, none of them come close to the catastrophe that was third weekend of regular season play.
On Sunday night, the officials on the field had played a relatively mistake-free first half, but followed it with inconsistent rulings on holding penalties, offensive and defensive pass interference calls and was highlighted by the referees seemingly flagging Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh for calling for a timeout in his game agaisnt the New England Patriots. An unusual 24 penalties were called in that game, including several drive-changing calls with potentially momentum-changing delays while officials discussed the penalties. Beat reporters for the winning team described it as the worst officiated game they had ever seen.
Earlier that day, officials were the subject of attention in Minnesota, when officials erroneously awarded the San Francisco 49ers an extra timeout by curiously granting the team an extra challenge after the conclusion of one called timeout (teams must have remaining timeouts in order to challenge a ruling on the field). The 49ers received the benefit of the timeout, won the challenge, and were able to use the timeout to challenge an additional ruling late in the game. By some counts, this would constitute two additional timeouts and two challenges.
Naturally, the ruling after the challenge in question was controversial as well, when officials declared that Vikings running back had turned the ball over after the play was whistled dead.
At the same time as the Vikings game, officials consistently (or inconsistently) marked off the incorrect yardage for penalties in the Detroit Lions game at Tennessee, and the Cincinnati Bengals game in Washington. Both occurred in critical situations, with the Lions losing 12 yards in overtime and the Redskins losing 10 yards in the final seconds of play on what was itself a controversial call.
Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III spiked the ball to stop the clock with seven seconds left in the game, but a false start penalty moved the team back five yards in a critical third down situation. Then, the officials incorrectly asked the official timer to run off the clock an additional ten seconds—an act that would end the game prematurely. Because the previous play stopped the clock, NFL rules dictate that no time should be run off.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and a number of players ran onto the field to celebrate the win, while head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan yelled at the officials to correct their ruling. Enforcing a league memo to penalize coaches for berating referees, the officials called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Redskins while the Bengals were on the field. They tacked the penalty onto the false start, but then inexplicably added five yards to the play, forcing the redskins in a third-and-50 situation instead of third-and-25.
The yardage problems with the Detroit game were not the only issues, with officials sending conflicting signals on what should have been a completion-and-fumble by Lions receiver Nate Burleson. One official signaled a change of possession before another ran up and called for an incompletion. Because it was within the final two minutes of regulation, coaches are not allowed to challenge the ruling on the field—all replays are handled by the officials, and no replay was called.
In Miami, tight end Anthony Fasano was judged to have made a catch near the Jets' goal line, and the play was held up after review, despite the ball touching the ground.
In between the early games and the night game, officials were further questioned for inconsistency in the Denver Broncos-Houston Texans game—incorrect calls for roughing the passer and unnecessary roughness in the Texans' favor were coupled with surprisingly absent calls for additional, more legitimate, roughing the passer penalties to Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
Given the extremely situational nature of football, calls in Houston's favor do not provide parity against noncalls that would have helped them otherwise. Aside from that, a number of dubious calls may have helped encourage the near comeback that Peyton Manning led against one of the AFC's best teams, potentially affecting the outcome of the game.
The hit on a defenseless Matt Schaub may ring familiar for Oakland Raiders fans, as emerging receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was sent to the hospital for a helmet-to-helmet hit from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Mundy around the time the Texans-Broncos game was nearing an end. Heyward-Bey was reported to be in stable condition hours later. Replays showed obvious illegal procedure on the part of the Steelers defender, as the Raiders receiver had not lowered his helmet and was not an eligible runner.
This circus of poor officiating completed with a terribly officiated game in prime time on Monday night, when the Green Bay Packers traveled to Seattle to play against the Seahawks. Once again, the first half of the game was relatively well called by the officials with only a few mistakes, particularly at the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, as the game wore on, the officials lagged behind their responsibilities.
Things started off poorly in the second half, with a dubious roughing the passer penalty against Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner in the first drive of the second half. Baffling defensive pass interference calls against Packers cornerback Sam Shields and Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor foreshadowed a much more controversial call later in the game. The call against Shields was particularly egregious, as Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice pulled Shields down and away from the ball, commiting the much more obvious penalty of offensive pass interference.
The discussion by the officials seemed a farce in retrospect, with the commentators assured that the officials were preparing to call a fairly simple example of offensive pass interference. Instead, outrage exploded in the broadcaster's booth and on the sideline as the men in black and white ruled that the Seahawks could move the ball 32 yards to gain an additional first down. This would have been impactful had it not been for two drops by Seattle receiver Golden Tate's drops in the end zone later in the drive.
More immediate was the issue of the call on Chancellor, whose poorly assigned penalty allowed the Green Bay Packers to advance on a crucial third down, allowing the Packers to set up their final touchdown of the evening, putting them ahead—unwittingly enabling the fiascos that followed.
After being given the benefit of the doubt on their scoring drive, Green Bay wisely attempted to grab two extra points on the point after attempt instead of kicking for one, as it would force the Seahawks to try the same or tie should they score in response. Unfortunately, the favor of the officials quickly evaporated as the high-powered offense from Wisconsin was incorrectly handed the "K" ball for their attempt, a newer football for punters and kickers on special teams plays that is unconditioned by play. The ball is much more difficult to throw owing to the smoothness of the wax still on the ball, and the Packers did not convert their two-point attempt.
This may have all been relatively quiet, had it not been for a 24-yard hail mary pass into the end zone that caused social media platform Twitter to explode. With time expiring, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson lofted the ball into the endzone into the waiting hands of Packers safety M.D. Jennings. During the ball's flight, Seahawks receiver Brandon Tate pushed Sam Shields hard enough for him to fall in order to improve positioning.
Brandon Tate arrived at the ball mere moments later and put one, then two hands on it. Images show that Brandon Tate has a hand on Jennings' arm while Jennings has the ball, well before Tate ends up with a hand on the ball, which would not invoke the simultaneous possession rule that officials used to award Seahawks the final, game-winning touchdown.
More confusing, however, is that one official ruled a touchdown, while another official had indicated that the Green Bay Packers intercepted the ball and advanced the ball on a touchback. The second official was overruled and the call on the field was a touchdown for the Seattle Seahawks. Because the play occurred in the final two minutes, the replay official—in this case, Howard Slavin—did have the ability to affect the ruling, but not as much as some may think.
The replay official is party to a different contract with the NFL and is not a replacement, which would initially cast some doubt on the case that the newer referees were the problem. The play was subject to automatic review, but Slavin only had the authority to determine whether or not the pass was complete or incomplete, not who had possession. He certainly could not make a ruling on offensive pass interference.
This capped an entire weekend of shockingly poor officiating, one that has had players from winning and losing teams complain publicly about the officiating—something players will almost always avoid because of the near certainty of a forthcoming fine. Nevertheless, players (some using colorful language) took to Twitter to express frustration with the play.
Offensive lineman Josh Sitton for the Green Bay Packers used the same epithet that rang throughout the Baltimore stadium when describing his frustration. Fellow lineman T.J. Lang followed suit with a profane tweet of his own, even later expressing that he didn't much care if he drew a fine. Tight end Michael Crabtree was perhaps a tad more clever, and called the struggling replacements the "13th man" in a sardonic reference to the Seahawks' vaunted homefield advantage—often called "the 12th man."
Greg Jennings felt better treating the game like a joke, rather than take what he thought was a farce to be a serious event.
Elsewhere around the league, Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes implied that the referees may have received their uniforms because of another job at Foot Locker, a job that he says they sorely need to return to. The notoriously tight-lipped coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, expressed his displeasure at the presser after the game as well, letting reporters know that he agreed with the unspoken elephant in the room—the game's officiating may have cost Belichick the win. This was preceded by Belichick accosting, and then grabbing, one of the referees at the conclusion of the game.
The Patriots coach wasn't the only coach who will get into trouble for outrage at replacement officials. The offensive coordinator for the Redskins, Kyle Shanahan, followed the referees as they exited the field while yelling profanities. John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens was caught screaming at a referee about the intimate state of affairs between him and his mother. John Fox, head coach of the Denver Broncos, was penalized for his rough treatment of officials on the sideline as well.
Even players who had no stake in the outcomes of the more controversial games weighed in, with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees showing his distaste for the integrity of the game in a tweet, while Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Farrior followed suit.
The defining image of this weekend, and indeed the entire period of replacement referee officiating, may very well be two officials looking at the same players on the same play and deciding on completely different outcomes.