Two decades in officiating have taught Dean Blandino to expect and accept criticism, a staple baked into the profession. Now the NFL’s vice president of officiating, Blandino understands the implicit pact referees make, that even perfection likely will enrage half the participants. He still has not seen anything like the siege NFL officials find themselves under this season.
“I’m not really too worried about getting fined: I thought those refs” stunk, San Francisco offensive lineman Alex Boone declared after the 49ers lost this Sunday to the Cardinals. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski tweeted his agreement with a reporter who opined officials had targeted Gronkowski for pass interference calls. Screenshots and Vines of missed calls circulate on social media every Monday morning, talking points as much as highlight catches and breakaway runs.
Recently, a former NFL head coach called Blandino to tell him, “Hang in there.”
“It’s just indicative of how much interest there is in the NFL, and ultimately that’s a good thing,” Blandino said Wednesday in a phone interview. “I think a lot of it has to do with a couple mistakes in some high-profile games, and we certainly own those and we want to correct those. I think that has led to more intense scrutiny than ever before.”
The rash of crucial missteps has prompted a search for both root issues and potential solutions. At the NFL owners meetings Wednesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell asked the league’s competition committee to examine ways officiating can be improved, including clarifying rules, training methods and how crews are assembled.
“Our officials do an extraordinary job,” Goodell said. “What we see now is that through technology we see things we could never see before, but what it does is it validates the quality of our officiating.
We all recognize that officials are going to make mistakes. What we need to do is try to avoid those mistakes as much as possible, train them differently, improve the quality of the officiating and use technology to help them whenever a mistake does occur.”
Despite the high-profile failings, Blandino said the overall performance of officials has remained steady compared to the prior 10 or 15 years. The NFL reviews every play of every game, and through Week 11, Blandino said, officials had committed 4.5 mistakes per game over the course of roughly 160 plays.
The most frequently identified culprit is a sudden experience drain. Over the past two seasons, the NFL added 23 new officials, and 18.5 percent of officials are in either their first or second season.
Blandino said the league needed to improve a largely static roster of officials. In 2013, only one NFL official had one or two years of experience. In 2012, there were two. It now has an officiating corps that’s in better physical condition but lacks experience.
The NFL pulls new officials from the college ranks and places them in an “advanced development program,” Blandino said. Officials participate in offseason practices, training sessions with older officials and preseason games. The league lost a valuable training asset when NFL Europe folded in 2007, and it has discussed partnering with the Canadian Football League to train officials, Blandino said.
It might not be enough. Longtime official Mike Carey, now the NFL rules expert for CBS, compared the difference between officiating in college and the NFL to the difference between officiating Pop Warner and college games.
“As soon as you come up from Division I, the rule book is far more intricate,” Carey said. “The speed of the game is almost logarithmically faster. It is that dramatically different. You’re used to seeing it on TV. Live at full speed, it is frightening how fast everybody is and how big the collisions are. It takes two or three year to get used to it, and another two or three to be good at it. It’s hard to cover that inexperience.”
“If you think a guy’s a pretty good college official, and that means he’s going to come in and be a good NFL official, it’s not a realistic expectation,” said former VP of officials Mike Pereira, now an analyst for Fox Sports. “This game is faster, and it’s more complex. There’s a reason they don’t let a guy work a Super Bowl until he’s had at least five full seasons. Does that mean officiating will start to improve as this new group gets older? Maybe. There are some good officials in this wave. And there are some guys that are struggling.”