No matter how many spectacular plays Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson made, officiating overshadowed the NFL this season.
Regardless of the record stream of receptions by Michael Thomas, the sacks by Chandler Jones and long field goals by nearly every kicker, the headlines regularly were about referees, linesmen and field judges.
Oh yes, and about coaches challenges for pass interference calls.
Pro football had all sorts of newsworthy topics in 2019. Mobile quarterbacks running dynamic offenses should have been the lead item. Or maybe the fact that teams don't tank, as Miami winning four games displays; forget Cincinnati, the Bengals just are that bad.
A strong rookie crop on both sides of the ball. The re-emergence of Green Bay and San Francisco as championship contenders. Spectacular finishes, many involving the Niners. The flops by the Bears and both Los Angeles teams.
More career records for Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Strong TV ratings.
NFL initiatives in its 100th season that ranged from volunteerism to fundraising to salutes to the military to the innovative My Cleats My Cause campaign.
Even some other negative issues could have pushed the criticism of officiating aside. Such as the plethora of injuries, with 384 players on injured reserve with a week remaining, which is 26 higher than last season. The mediocre (to worse) level of early-season play because of the wasteland the preseason has become. Myles Garrett's helmet swinging, the deepest wound in another Cleveland Browns meltdown year.
Nope. In 2019, officiating was on the front burner. A white-hot burner, too.
The problems are many:
—The speed of the game that many on-field officials can't keep up with. The league prefers experienced officials, meaning some have all the knowledge they need, but not the physical ability to be where they need to be.
—Far too many rules. Take the phone books for all NFL cities and combine them and it might approach the size of the league's rule book. Those rules are filled with tangents and offshoots that create something of a maze. Even some coaches aren't up on everything; think Sean Payton on a fake punt play by the Saints that did not draw an interference call because the rules don't allow for one in that situation.
—Video technology has far exceeded the officiating formula in all sports, with football hit perhaps the hardest.
—A monumental blown call, in the NFC championship game last January, led to a rules adjustment that has caused more consternation than contentment. Indeed, of 40 coaches challenges on defensive pass interference not called on the field and now allowed in a one-year trial, eight calls were reversed. Of 15 coaches challenges for offensive pass interference, one has been reversed.
Overall, there have been 98 replay reviews of pass interference and 21 reversals.
As Raiders coach Jon Gruden joked (we think): "We are challenging things that we think are plays that are going to be overturned, and we are going to trust the process. But so far, I've been given the Heisman. I've been stiff-armed. I'm 0 for 27, I think.”
All of which has caused confusion everywhere: on the field, the sideline, the stands, in the broadcast booths and anywhere people watch the NFL.
“Not only has it affected officiating, but it has affected everybody watching the game because everybody’s flummoxed by it,” former NFL officiating chief Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, told 670 The Score radio this season. “And I understand that. I’m frustrated with it also. It’s typical of the league, and I was guilty back in my day — you overreact to one play and you put in a new rule without really understanding what the unintended consequences are. That’s what has happened here.
It makes no sense to anybody — and that includes me — that you basically have two standards when it comes to pass interference, whether it’s offense or defense. It’s the standard on the field the way the officials call it and then it’s the standard in New York and how New York calls.”
Rest assured that officiating will be a major topic when NFL owners meet in the offseason.
Enough with the striped shirts.
The remarkable turnaround of the 49ers from 4-12 to potential top NFC seed needs to be lauded. No team has had more excitement in its games, either.
There's the return to postseason form of the Packers, who also have a shot at home-field advantage in the NFC. The continuing resurrection of the Bills under Sean McDermott. The resilience shown by the Seahawks, Eagles and Steelers in the face of mounting injuries and upheaval.
Baltimore's rise as an offensive powerhouse as Lamar Jackson perhaps sets the pattern for the future NFL quarterbacks with his arm, legs, innovation, know-how and total brilliance.
New England's unending domination of the AFC East — 11 straight division titles? Are you kidding us — built not on Tom Brady's mastery but on the league's stingiest defense.
The ever-spinning coaching carousel in which newcomer Matt LaFleur became a front-runner for top coaching honors and Ron Rivera, considered among the NFL's best, was fired in Carolina.
And the final days of the Black Hole in Oakland. Maybe the Raiders will bring it along to Las Vegas.
With the playoffs upon us, perhaps the spotlight will shine on Jackson and Wilson, who doesn't always get his due credit. On Thomas and the other Green Bay Aaron, running back Aaron Jones. On Stephon Gilmore, Earl Thomas and Nick Bosa, all stars on defense.
Or maybe the focus will still be on the folks blowing whistles.