PHOENIX — Roger Goodell seemed a bit defensive.
Sure, we’ve seen that position before. This time, during his annual Super Bowl media set, the NFL commissioner put up the Shield in defending NFL officials in the wake of some pointed criticisms … and, well, some of the mess witnessed by mega millions during the conference title games.
“I don’t think it’s ever been better,” Goodell declared of the quality of the league’s officiating.
Of course, that’s what you’d expect Goodell to say as the biggest game of the year looms, even if it’s not a universal opinion.
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No question, NFL officials handle their business well. As Goodell noted, there were more than 42,000 plays during the season and multiple infractions could occur on any play. Way more often than not, the NFL officiating crews will make the right calls. They act quickly, decisively and typically correctly as all sorts of mayhem that could include warp speed or big bodies unfolds around them. And replay reviews usually settle disputes when plays are red-flagged by coaches challenges or subject to automatic reviews.
Yet that big, fourth-down reception by Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith early in the NFC championship game sure didn’t look like a catch (shame on the San Francisco 49ers for not challenging it). And on the play near the end of the AFC title game when a scrambling Patrick Mahomes drew a late-hit penalty that set up an easier game-winning field goal, did the officials miss an apparent holding penalty by Orlando Brown against Trey Hendrickson?
Add a questionable intentional grounding flag and a replay of a third-down by the Kansas City Chiefs after they were apparently stopped, and it’s no wonder the Cincinnati Bengals left Arrowhead grumbling about the calls.
Goodell tried to clear up one of the suspect sequences from the AFC game, insisting (conspiracy theorists, take note) that there was no communication from the NFL’s command center in New York (even though there’s a “replay-assist” component available) that suggested the presumably stopped third-down play in the fourth quarter be replayed. Referee Ron Torbert explained that the play was ruled dead because the play-clock hadn’t been properly reset.
“That was stopped appropriately because the clock was running, by an official on the field,” Goodell said. “That happens frequently in our game. That’s not an unusual thing to have that happen.”
Even when the officiating has never been better. Hmmm.
Goodell knows. Nobody’s perfect.
He suggests that the scrutiny, though, has intensified because of technology that includes hi-definition television.
“It will never be perfect,” Goodell said. “We all have to realize the quality of our broadcasts, you’ve never been able to see the kinds of things you can see today. You see it in ‘Super Slo-Mo,’ you see it where you can actually stop it. Sometimes, that distorts a call potentially, but the reality is that our officials are held to an incredibly high standard and I think they need it.
“Will we try to get better? You betcha.”
Goodell pushed back hard on the buzz generated by Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers recently, which contended that the NFL has lost too many talented officials to network television jobs. Fox Sports lured two former officiating directors, Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino; CBS hired former referee Gene Steratore (who also refereed college basketball games) and ESPN uses former referee John Parry for Monday night games.
While Goodell argued that there is no significant talent drain at work, Rodgers’ larger point, which has been raised in previous years, is that the NFL seemingly under-values the impact of top officials – and the top administrators. The theory is that with better pay from the NFL, they won’t leave.
“I do not think that’s a factor at all,” Goodell said. “Zero.”
One thing for certain: The crew headed by referee Carl Cheffers, working his third Super Bowl, will be in the perfect position on Sunday to make Goodell’s case – or not.