When fans and media are talking more about the officiating than what Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, LeSean McCoy and Brandon Boykin do to get their teams in the playoffs, there's a problem the NFL would rather not be confronted with.
The regular season closed with some wild playoff chases, and even more uproar over officiating. It has not been a great year for the zebras, with fans in Pittsburgh now screaming about being robbed of a playoff berth because of a rules gaffe.
As the playoffs begin, the highest-rated officials at each position will earn assignments. The very best, according to the evaluations of league officiating chief Dean Blandino and his staff, will wind up in the Super Bowl.
But when highlight shows concentrate as much on the men with whistles as the heroics by the Packers and Eagles to win their divisions, it's no wonder viewers wonder whether there are enough efficient officials to go around.
On Monday, the NFL acknowledged that referees should have penalized the Chargers for an illegal formation on a missed 41-yard field goal by Kansas City's Ryan Succop with 4 seconds left Sunday. Had the proper call been made, Succop would have had another chance. If he hit the next kick — well within his range — San Diego would have been eliminated and the Steelers would own the final wild-card spot.
"I think the one thing you need to do when there are critical mistakes is be transparent and admit it," former NFL officiating director Mike Pereira told The Associated Press. "You can't hide behind the shield.
"In Dean Blandino, the league has a guy capable of explaining it, and he understands the need to do so, and he is media savvy and explains it clearly."
The problem is Blandino has had to explain far too much this season. Such as:
—Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn't get penalized for impeding an opponent's kick return. The next week, the NFL fines him $100,000 and admits a flag should have been thrown.
—The down markers and chains are moved when they shouldn't be in the final moments of Washington's home game against the Giants. The NFL says the next day that play should have been stopped to correct the error, which was confusing and somewhat costly to the Redskins.
—Late in Sunday night's play-in game between the Eagles and Cowboys, Dallas loses 15 seconds on the play clock because of an inaccurate reset. Instead of giving the Cowboys 40 seconds to get off a play, they are given 25. No on-field official notices, and Dallas is handed a 5-yard penalty.
Although the Cowboys wind up scoring a touchdown on the drive, it's yet another example of inefficient officiating.
With the airwaves scorched by Steelers fans shouting "no fair" about the non-call in San Diego, at least the players and Tomlin were more level-headed. If they were angry or appalled, they hid it well.
"Shoulda, woulda, coulda, but that's not going to change the outcome," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We've got to learn from this as a team. And like I've said before, we can't rely on other teams to do it for us. We've got to win our games."
"What transpired yesterday was unfortunate for our hopes moving forward. We'll have to find a way to accept that and move forward. I'm not going to lose any sleep over something that happened in a stadium that we weren't even in."
There will be top officials in the stadiums during the playoffs — at least the ones who top the league's tiered ratings. Pereira calls NFL officials "the very best in the business" and has faith in their abilities.
But he's also troubled when they mess up on such things as dead-ball fouls, offsetting penalties and relatively simple rulings.
His solution — one the NFL has considered on a very limited basis — is to have many more full-time officials.
"My personal belief is the 17 referees all ought to be full time," says Pereira, now a commentator for Fox Sports. "They need to explore that notion because having only one full-time referee and umpire and line judge and the others makes no sense. It would not achieve to me what having all 17 full-time refs would, because they should be involved with everything. Be involved in proposals of rules changes and teaching their crews and working with the teams in the offseason."
For this postseason, scrutiny will be very heavy on the men in stripes.
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this story.
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Posted on Tue, December 31, 2013