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Sport: Upon further review, NFL officiating in ‘decline’

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For all the talk surrounding the Texans and Kansas City Chiefs as they play Sunday for a chance to progress toward Super Bowl XLIV, neither group will be more scrutinized, criticized and second-guessed than the third team on the field at Arrowhead Stadium.

Clete Blakeman standing in front of a crowd: Texans coach Bill O'Brien, meeting with referee Clete Blakeman (34) and side judge Joe Larrew (73) before a recent game, said the team receives full reports on the referees and their tendencies.© Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle / Staff Photographer

Texans coach Bill O'Brien, meeting with referee Clete Blakeman (34) and side judge Joe Larrew (73) before a recent game, said the team receives full reports on the referees and their tendencies.

We refer, of course, to the men in stripes, the eight-person officiating crew — the referee, umpire, down judge, back judge, field judge, line judge and side judge — who, along with the replay official, could play an indelible role in whether you celebrate or mourn your favorite team’s fate on this playoff weekend.

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The zebras, alas, are nobody’s favorite. Collectively and individually, they have been subjected to an increased barrage of criticism.

“There has been a decline this season, and that’s tough to say as someone who has been a part of that world,” said John Parry, the retired NFL referee who presided over last year’s Super Bowl and now works for ESPN.

“I have watched every football game in 2019, and I see mistakes in positioning, simple calls that are not made correctly and incorrect mechanics. There are many issues. There is a decline.”

Each week brings a new controversy. While there were minor kerfuffles in the Texans’ wild card win against Buffalo, the biggest controversy was in New Orleans, where the Minnesota Vikings beat the Saints in overtime with a touchdown pass on which some observers, including Parry, thought the Vikings were guilty of offensive pass interference.

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The NFL this season amended its rules to make pass interference subject to instant replay review after a blown call that involved the Saints last year. A replay review that would not have been possible last season was available this year, but the play stood, and the Saints were eliminated once more.

To be fair, even the NFL’s harshest critics acknowledge the difficulty that officials encounter. Given the presence of just seven officials amid a fast-moving swirl of 22 athletes, mistakes are inevitable.

“It’s a tough job,” said veteran Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph. “They’re asked to watch a lot, and now they’re being asked to watch even more. They have to be exact, and there’s a lot riding on what they do.

“If they’re wrong, somebody has something to say, and if they’re right, somebody has something to say. They take a lot of flak, because we’re all competitors, and when it’s in the moment, you want things to go your way.”

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Sunday’s Texas-Chiefs referee is Shawn Hochuli, a second-generation NFL official who will be calling his first playoff game as a referee. He will be joined by two members of his regular-season crew plus four others ranked by the NFL among the league’s best at their respective positions.

“It’s a big step (for Hochuli),” said Parry, himself a second-generation NFL official. “The playoffs are different. You feel the pressure. You feel the fans. the stadiums are louder. Shawn will be ramped up, I’m sure.”

Just as the teams and the league office track players’ every move, officials are scrutinized in similar fashion. Texans coach Bill O’Brien said the team receives a weekly report from Alberto Riveron, the league’s director of officiating, that includes video of calls from the previous game and how officiating decisions were made or not made.

“We also get reports on each crew’s statistics reports during the season — this crew calls a lot of offensive holding, that crew calls a lot of defensive pass interference, whatever it may be,” O’Brien said.

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Joseph and other Texans players said studying the reports are a standard part of each week’s game preparation.

“As professionals, we should always know which crew is working the game and what they’ve been known to call,” said receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

The public also has a wealth of statistical information to peruse, including reports on the number of penalties called by each officiating crew — Hochuli’s regular-season crew, for example, ranked eighth of 17 crews in the number of penalties called and ranked 11th in number of penalties accepted and 12th in penalty yardage. It also ranked fourth in the number of pass interference flags called and accepted.

Those regular-season tendencies are muted in the playoffs, since each game is called by an all-star crew of officials selected in accordance with regular-season grades. Parry said officials generally need accuracy rates of 96 percent or higher to make the cut for playoff assignments.

Even single-digit error rates, however, are enough to draw the ire of players and fans, particularly when they involve game-changing plays, as they always seem to do. It is that area, critics say, that the shortcomings of NFL officials become most evident.

“Those mistakes are up, and that concerns me,” Parry said. “Sometimes I think officials almost react in a paralyzed state rather than making a judgement and sticking with their mechanics and being in position to where they need to make the call. Sometimes, you have the wrong official making the call.”

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As an example, the Bills last Sunday were briefly awarded a touchdown because of a miscommunication about the kickoff rule regarding end zone touchbacks. Parry said that miscommunication occurred in part because an official was not lined up in proper position to make the correct call.

Bills partisans, meanwhile, believe Buffalo’s chances to win in overtime were overturned by a penalty for an illegal blindside block. Two former NFL linemen said in social media posts that they did not believe should have been called as a foul.

However, Buffalo apparently caught a break on a late-fourth quarter completion that was ruled as a first down and, while being reviewed, enabled the Bills to get their field goal team on the field for a game-tying kick that sent the game into overtime.

The one-year trial run of a replay review for pass interference has been this year’s most significant flash point.

NBC Sports rules analyst Terry McAulay, who worked three Super Bowls as an official before retiring after the 2017 season to work for NBC, said he suspected the interference replay rule would be tough to implement because of the “high subjectivity of whether a player has been significantly hindered or not,” and that has proven to be the case.

“Also, they have often used a different standard for what is and what is not a foul in replay versus the standard used on the field,” McAulay said in an e-mail. “So there has been some confusion for those watching. … Ideally, a system that consistently reverses a clear and obvious error on field is the goal, but that is extremely difficult.”

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Parry said the interference replay rule has been applied inconsistently, which creates doubt in officials’ minds about what is and what is not a foul.

“There has to be a clear bar. You should never have your mind cluttered as to what is a foul,” he said. “That was evident in the (Vikings-Saints game). Why wasn’t it reversed? The only one who can answer that is New York (site of the NFL’s officiating control center).”

The Washington Post reported that 24 of 101 interference-related calls were reversed during the regular season —21 of 74 in which interference was not called on the field, and three of 27 cases overturned when interference was called on the field. There were 13 coaches’ challenges of defensive pass interference, and none were overturned. Included in that group was O'Brien's challenge of a play in the Texans-Ravens game involving Hopkins and Ravens defender Marlon Humphrey. Pass interference was not called on the field, and the play was not reversed on review.

Shawn Hochuli’s presence at the head of a playoff crew is another example of a trend that concerns veteran former officials.

Seven referees have retired since 2018, including Ed Hochuli, Shawn’s father, and veterans Parry, Gene Steratore and McAulay, who now work for ESPN, CBS and NBC, respectively, as on-air rules analysts. All had Super Bowl experience and were well-regarded among the league’s 17 game referees, and their experience will require time to replace.

“When I came to the NFL, I had 18 years’ experience as an official,” Parry said. “Today there are people who have eight years. And we have older officials as well. This game is about quick reaction, and reaction time slows as you age.

“But there are other cultural, systemic issues. We are seeing the fruits of labor and training issues that began eight, nine, 10 years ago. Training is non-existent. When I was there, we had eight or nine trainers. This year, (the NFL) had two.”

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Parry said he, Steratore and current NFL referee Walt Anderson, who lives in Sugar Land, are among current and former officials who work with colleges and with grass-roots officials to bring new talent into the officiating pool.

Attracting new officials, however, has its challenges, including low pay and the same cantankerous spirit among fans of grade school and amateur football that fuels the NFL fans.

“The sportsmanship from parents is brutal,” Parry said. “We have social media critics in the NFL, but it’s no different at the (amateur) level. I have a son, a teenager, who is an official, and what comes out of people’s mouths at sixth- and seventh-grade games would amaze you.

“To take that, and to put in the time, it’s tough to get people to buy into this avocation.”

Parry and others, though, are hopeful for future improvements.

“The NFL will have a top-down look at that (officiating) department in the off-season, and I anticipate big changes with training and recruitment. The league knows they have problems,” he said.

The NFL declined comment this week but referred questioners to comments at the December owners’ meetings by Troy Vincent, its director of football operations, during which Vincent said, “There’s a cloud around (pass interference). Then we had Week 1 through 3, where there was a substantial amount of holding penalties that causes the penalty count to spike.

“We’ll look at everything, all the data, when the competition committee meets in February. That includes where we are from a people standpoint, process standpoint, how we faired amongst crews and amongst referees.”

McAulay said the pass interference rule should be judged in the same fashion as the frequently debated rule on what constitutes a catch: Absent “clear and obvious” evidence on replay, the decision by officials on the field should stand.

NFL coaches last year lobbied without success for the addition of a “sky judge,” stationed in the press box that could make calls that the on-field crew missed.

Texans coach O’Brien likes the field judge idea, and he also noted that the NFL during the playoffs employs two alternate officials on the sidelines who can help with questionable or missed calls.

“Maybe we could start there,” O’Brien said. “Whatever it is, we’re trying to get the call right. The coaches are on the right path with some of the suggestions that have been made over the year, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

As for Sunday’s game, there may well be mistakes by Hochuli’s crew, and they could come at critical junctures. Odds are, though, that a vast majority of calls will be spot on.

“There are more than 40,000 plays in an NFL season,” Parry said. “We spend a lot of time dissecting and complaining about, maybe, 50 of them.

Some things get missed. Fans don’t like it, and officials don’t like it. It eats at your craw.

“Some officials are struggling. Some need to be replaced. For some, time may have passed them by. But given the speed at which they have to work, any time you can get 97 out of a hundred calls correct, that’s pretty good.”

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