Why Are NFL Referees Worse Than Usual This Year?

It’s not easy to be an NFL referee. You have to do your job with literally millions of eyes on you — those in the stadium and those at home. There’s a lot of pressure to get calls right, and one missed or made call can have cascading impacts on a team’s season.

As hard as it can be, that doesn’t excuse refs when they get the calls wrong. For whatever reason this season, it seems as if the refs have never been worse. What’s going on with the NFL’s officiating? 

An NFL referee makes a call during a game.
Referee Alex Kemp officiates a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks | Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

How NFL referees are evaluated

NFL referees are evaluated on a week-to-week basis. The majority of refs are assigned to a crew, with a crew chief and multiple other judges on each one. There are 17 officiating crews in the NFL.

The NFL reviews the performance of each official each week and lets the crew chief know how well each one performed. Every play is looked at. At the end of the season, the best officials move on to the playoffs. 

Typically, NFL referees receive little to no punishment for poor performance beyond not getting selected for playoff duty. In rare instances, particularly egregious calls lead to dismissals. Referee Hugo Cruz got the boot after missing an obvious false start penalty in a Chargers/Steelers game in primetime. 

An example of bad officiating in 2019

One of the best examples of bad officiating this year came during a Monday Night Football game between the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. The refs made several horrendous calls against the Lions. While at the end of the day, the Packers made the plays they needed to make to win the game, the consensus was they were aided in no small part by the officiating. 

Here’s how the New York Post summarized it

“No one, least of all the zebras, seems to know what pass interference is anymore, and we watched the Lions get robbed in Green Bay because the men in stripes twice called hands to the face penalties against DE Trey Flowers when a national television audience could see, with or without replay, how blatantly wrong they were. And there were other calls that screwed the Lions.”

It was hard to find anyone following the game, outside of the most loyal and strident of Green Bay fans, that didn’t think Detroit got a raw deal.

The call that really showed how bad the NFL’s officiating has gotten, however, came last year in the NFC championship game. A missed pass interference call the allowed the Los Angeles Rams to advance past the New Orleans Saints caused big changes.

This season, the NFL ruled that pass interference calls (and non-calls) are reviewable in response to an uproar following that call. It’s been controversial, to say the least. 

Why the NFL referees may be worse than usual this year

The NFL refs have drawn criticism for not overturning most of the challenged pass interference calls this season. As USA Today described it in a piece on the NFL’s officiating problem

“We also know the league will make a snap judgment to suddenly make pass interference calls reviewable, only to rarely overrule them in what feels like a fraudulent cover up in an attempt to make it look like they actually cared about what happened to the Saints in last year’s NFC title game.”

The referees have been so bad at overturning clear pass interference calls, it’s unclear whether they’re too proud to admit they messed up or too incompetent to see a penalty.

Either way, the NFL needs to clean this mess up before the playoffs, as it may cause some team and fan base serious damage come January.