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NFL Officiating: Why a Tech 'Fix' Isn't Enough

In this week's column, Bob explains the increasing role tech plays in officiating and why training and education are keys to meeting challenges with this core football process.


Lost in the ongoing bashing of officiating is a short sentence from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell when asked about problems facing the league after a number of controversial calls.

"We need to train them differently," he said of officials but did not elaborate.

The last thing you do in an increasing complex job, that's changing annually is throw tech at the challenges in the absence of training and education and expect instant success. Those workers involved need to understand what they are using, changes in processes like instant replay and know how to handle new rules and rule changes as well.

So before NFL refs are thrown under the bus by angry fans, let me ask: Do you remember the days before challenge flags, cameras that provided views in standard definition, a link back to NFL HQ in New York and fans knowing who Dean Blandino was?

Instead of blaming refs for officiating you don't like, how about looking instead for a moment at the fast-paced technology implementation designed to help them .  Combine that with vastly expanded use of the instant replay system which is changing the very processes that had stayed largely the same until the last few years.

And the refs aren't the only ones seen to struggle with officiating change. Some head coaches still don't know when they can and can't throw a challenge flag (what plays can be reviewed and which can't).  Others need ref calls explained to them. Yet many want to use today's system to review any play. I think it seems at least some believe that too much of a good thing can create problems.


The Tech Affect

Consider this: though tech-fueled and evolving instant replay has given officials and fans the ability to see more than ever before (such as super HD close-ups of player limbs, the football and the field from multiple angles) it has also created much higher expectations for correct calls on the far more plays that are reviewed than ever before.

The league even tested adding an eighth official to select pre-season games this past summer to help out.

The resulting bottom line has become a vast increase in responsibility for game officiating crews who also have to deal with fast-moving change in technology and processes with fans expecting a perfectly called game every game. The no-margin-for-error mindset is unfair and more importantly unrealistic.


Get it Right

The commissioner touched on the genesis of the issue in a reply to a question about challenges with officiating recently. "I think what we see now through technology is we see things we could never see before," he said, touching on the need for ref education in adding that the league need to "train them differently."

That's far easier said than done when you consider the clip at which the league is adding tech to instant replay, continued broadening use of the core system and the addition of rules and rule changes that make it tough for refs to call with certainty what they can actually see with the human eye.

Even with a tech assist, it sure sound like the league need to invest time, money and resources in training officials differently than they do now, according to the commissioner. Whether it's on how to handle new rules, better use tech and/or understand changes to the instant replay process it's a top priority to hit ASAP.

To be fair, the NFL Operations crew continues to test considered changes in tech and processes with the refs be it in exhibition games, pre-season and occasionally in regular season matches. It's unclear what Goodell has in mind with his "train them differently" quote, but I would bet more time learning about change and hands on training are high on the list.

The league is roughly one year into a tech-enabled capability that lets officials on the field communicate with officiating supervisors at HQ in New York before during games.  Introduced last year, the league's NFL Vision proprietary software" enabled officiating supervisors to begin reviewing plays and talk to the stadium instant replay official and the game's referee well before he goes under the hood," according to NFL Operations materials.

Le'Veon Bell, RB - Bell has topped 100 yards in six of the last seven games he’s played in, including games of 170 and 167 yards to open the postseason. His unique patience and running style have been a huge talking point all week, with scout team players trying to give the New England front a proper look in practice to prepare the NFL’s No. 3 rush defense for its biggest challenge of the year.

Get Smart(er)?

The pace of technology change and implementation is seen by most as a good thing. The problem is, however, that those who use it must be equipped and educated to make the most of it.

It seems some in the league don't completely understand the real challenge facing officiating – the rate of technology change and use with officiating has become the problem (not really those using it), with the daunting solution being to either educate and train refs to keep pace.

And with fans wanting improvements yesterday, the NFL may be forced to slowing the pace of tech - and resulting process - change. The pressure and stakes associated with officiating have arguably never been higher, so slowing things down (for a bit) may be just what the doctor ordered for America's game.

There are already far more cameras covering the field than actual eyeballs, with more of the former already in demand for instant replay. More cams along with several more complicated rules (rule changes and additions just from last season) actually make it tougher for refs as they strive to cover more ground.


More Tech on Deck

The NFL has embraced technology, pushing cameras and instant replay to provide referees and umpires the tools to help them get calls correct. The continuing change seems to be too fast for these squads to fully understand and master as they strive to meet a fan standard for performance that's rising toward no margin for error.

Consider the probable change for next season alone: moving instant replays from the under the hood system used along stadium sidelines for decades to a tablet handed to the ref by an assistant that shadows him or her around the field. The league's Competition Committee is testing additional sideline and end zone cameras (beyond pylon cams) to try and cover all angles with video for replays.

Don't forget that the prevailing sentiment at last year's league meeting (less than a year ago) where numerous coaches pushed – and were denied – far broader use of the current instant replay system, including the request to review any play in a game.

The Competition Committee may again have to stave off broader use of the system when it meets early next year until changes to the system are fully embraced and understood by officials and others.


The Bottom Line

Perhaps the biggest game operational challenge the NFL faces going forward is improving officiating. But adding tech without effective training and enough education for those that will likely use it – and then changing instant replay processes - sure seems to be a recipe for problems.

And the goal is to have technology a part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Stay tuned.

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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