Why NFL’s terrible refereeing controversies are unlikely to subside

Super Bowl LVI - Los Angeles Rams v Cincinnati Bengals
NFL referee Ron Torbert at the Super Bowl

NFL referees are in a thankless position. They almost never receive praise or rewards when they officiate a game flawlessly. The same can't be said for the opposite. When referees make costly or questionable calls during the course of any NFL game, they are sure to receive plenty of criticism for their apparent mistakes. The backlash comes from all angles, including from fans, players and coaches.

The integrity and legitimacy of the NFL officiating crew has been called into question following the 2022 AFC Championship game. They made several controversial calls throughout the game, especially in the critical fourth quarter of an extremely close game. The call also appeared to be one-sided, eventually helping the Kansas City Chiefs earn a victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.


One of the main requests from many around the league is that the referees don't do anything polarizing that directly affects the outcome of the game, unless the call is clear and obviously a penalty or otherwise. That's not how this year's game played out. Inconsistencies are often another frustration with officials, as demonstrated by the defensive holding call on Eli Apple in the fourth quarter, despite similar plays being allowed all game long.

The referee also called for a strange intentional grounding penalty on Joe Burrow. Samaje Perine appeared close enough to an incomplete pass to avoid a penalty. The officiating crew also flagged the Bengals for a roughing penalty on Patrick Mahomes that allowed the game-winning field goal to be moved 15 yards closer.

Perhaps the most controversial call of the game occurred when the Chiefs failed to convert a third-down attempt, but were given another chance to do so. The referee claimed the play was whistled dead before it began and the Chiefs successfully converted on their redo.

It's unclear exactly why their appears to be some serious failures in officiating NFL games over the years. Perhaps it's because of the constant rule changes every year, or possibly because the league mixes and matches crew during the NFL Playoffs. The constant changes could potentially lead to confusion resulting in controversial calls.

This is a major problem that the league must address to protect the integrity of the game. Making things even more difficult to solve is that referees don't technically work for the NFL. They have their own independent labor union that is contracted by the league to call their games. This limits each side's ability to come together on certain issues.

Whatever has to be done to find more consistency and competency in the way games are offciated, needs to be done immediately. The 2022 AFC Championship game is just the most recent example. These issues have been alarming over the years, especially in the playoffs during the modern era.

Referees making controversial calls during the NFL Playoffs has become increasingly concerning

Roger Goodell
Roger Goodell

Over the past several years, many calls during the NFL Playoffs have become increasingly questionable. Last year, during the 2021 Wild Card round, Joe Burrow completed a touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders. It was called back because a referee incorrectly blew his whistle, wrongly assuming Burrow stepped out of bounds when he didn't.

The 2019 NFC Championship game is another classic example of a terrible officiating call directly impacting the outcome of the game. Drew Brees threw a pass late in the fourth quarter of the New Orleans Saints' game against the Los Angeles Rams. His wide receiver was clearly interfered with as the defender hit him long before the ball arrived. The referee decided not to throw a penalty flag.


Perhaps the most classic example of a controversial call is the infamous Tuck Rule game. Tom Brady clearly appeared to fumble the football against the Oakland Raiders in the 2001 Divisional Round, which would have basically ended the New England Patriots' hopes of victory. The officiating crew decided in favor of the Tuck Rule, negating a seemingly obvious fumble.

These are just a few of the many examples of controversial calls that have potentially changed the course of NFL history. Had the game been called correctly, the outcome may have played out differently than it had. Mistakes happen, but at this level, it can sometimes be completely unacceptable when weighing the stakes in particular situations.

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