On booth umpire, Competition Committee advocates a half-measure

The Ravens want to do a cannonball. The Competition Committee wants to simply dip a toe in the water.

At a time when the Ravens have proposed an eighth member of the officiating crew who would be in the replay booth and assist the seven on-field officials based on the available camera angles, the Competition Committee has proposed a watered-down version of the rule that simply enhances the game-day obligations of the replay official, allowing that person to assist the officiating crew with certain objective decisions, like whether a pass was completed.

It’s a mistake, for multiple reasons.

First, it fails to close the gap between the things the seven officials see on the field and the things that millions see at home. For years, we’ve argued that the league needs an extra official who sees what we see and who helps and supports the seven people who don’t. The eighth official ensures that any and all major blunders will be fixed before they become controversies — like, for example, the notorious non-call of defensive pass interference in the 2018 NFC Championship.

Under Baltimore’s prior proposal, the booth umpire would be able to fix that mistake. Under the Competition Committee’s proposal, the replay official would not be able to fix that mistake.

Second, and as a source with extensive knowledge regarding the NFL’s overall officiating function told PFT, the replay official already has a lot to do. The source believes that the booth umpire/sky judge should be utilized in order to avoid adding to the replay official’s obligations. The source also believes that a booth umpire/sky judge should be utilized, even if that person only has the power to help with matters like 15-yard fouls for safety infractions (like illegal contact on a defenseless receiver) and pass interference calls and non-calls, with the possibility of limiting pass interference intervention to the later stages of a game or overtime.

Third, and as the source explained it, the NFL’s current officiating department does not support anything more than limited expansion of the duties of the replay official. That’s a huge mistake. The officiating department — from top to bottom — should want to have any and all devices available to avoid a controversy that would make those mistakes the focal point of media coverage and fan consternation into the following week. As more and more states legalize sports betting, the NFL and its officiating department must embrace, not shun, opportunities to avoid errors. There’s no better opportunity to do that than to have an extra member of the officiating crew, who would have the same power to caucus with the referee as the on-field officials currently have.

Fourth, and as the Ravens pointed out in the documents related to their proposal, the booth umpire/sky judge eventually will be adopted. That will happen, at the latest, after the next 2018 NFC Championship-style debacle, whenever it may be. So why not just accept that reality and do it now?

Legalized gambling demands that the NFL do all it can to ensure that all calls are gotten right. The Competition Committee, perhaps appropriately given the context, is opting to gamble with the cheaper option of adding more work to current employees and to assume that it will be enough to sidestep the next big officiating controversy.

But anyone who knows anything about pro football knows that the next big officiating controversy is always coming. If it would happen with a booth umpire/sky judge in place, the league could at least say that it’s doing everything in its power to avoid those outcomes.

The good news is that the Competition Committee doesn’t have nearly as much power and influence as most think it does. The owners ultimately decide on the rule changes that will or won’t be made. And the owners need to realize that, both for the good of the game and for the broader business protection against the eventual establishment of a federal agency aimed at providing oversight and regulation of pro football and other sports on which legalized wagering occurs, they must do everything they can to avoid the next Rams-Saints non-call nightmare.

The next logical step toward that end is adding a booth umpire or sky judge, who can help the seven people who don’t have access to a TV monitor fix any and all things that they fail to notice, while primarily trying to avoid being trampled by the players.