The NFL Has A Referee Problem And It Reared Its Ugly Head During Both Games On Championship Sunday

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The NFL’s Conference Championship Sunday has come and gone. As usual, there were plenty of fireworks by the teams … and by NFL referees.

Seemingly no NFL game is complete these days without some kind of monumental and controversial decision by game officials.

It started early on Sunday, too, with the referees missing an incomplete pass on a fourth down from Jalen Hurts to DeVonta Smith. Officials ruled it complete, the Eagles got a first down and scored two plays later. They never trailed in the game.

Replays showed NFL officials blew a massive call on a fourth down play for the Eagles against the 49ers (Image credit: Screenshot/FOX Sports)

Though the game was hardly decided entirely by that call, it certainly affected the outcome. We could play the “what if” game all day long, but there’s no need.

And, that was hardly the only poor referee decision in the contest, but since the game got out of hand rather early, most people probably didn’t notice the others.

Then, in the second game of the day, more officiating problems. NFL referees awarded the Kansas City Chiefs a “do-over” on a failed third down because of a clock issue that only one official noticed. No one heard that official stop the play and the game went on.

Then, the play was effectively cancelled and the Chiefs were given another shot. And the Bengals got called for a penalty on the “do-over” which awarded the Chiefs a first down, even though Mahomes got sacked.

Later, refs missed TWO blatant block-in-the-back fouls against the Chiefs on the punt return that set them up for the game-winning drive.

First, the one on Chiefs special teamer #23, Josh Williams:

Then, a second one on #47, Darius Harris. Neither called.

On Patrick Mahomes’ scramble that ultimately got the the team into field goal range — thanks to a late hit penalty — Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown held Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson not just once, but twice.

No call.

An argument can be made that Trey Smith held BJ Hill, too, but the Hendrickson no call was more egregious.

The NFL has a referee issue

This may sound like sour grapes from a Bengals bettor (guilty), but I spoke to friends and family who watched the game. Most of them had no rooting interest, but all relayed a similar sentiment: “Boy, it seems like the NFL and/or the referees want the Chiefs to win.”

Is that true? I don’t know. But #NFLRigged trended on Twitter after the AFC Championship game. Is that fair? Probably not.

But when we’re talking about millions of dollars at stake in these games, even the idea floating around that it could be true is a problem for the NFL.

And, I’m not a professional lip reader, but Bengals head coach Zac Taylor appeared to mouth “it’s rigged” after the Chiefs game-winning field goal. He may not have. But it does look like it.

Decide for yourself:

Head coach Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals was furious with referees during the AFC Championship Game.
Head coach Zac Taylor of the Cincinnati Bengals was furious with referees during the AFC Championship Game. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Time to institute the Sky Judge

Putting into place a Sky Judge position on every NFL referee crew is one potential solution.

Essentially, every game would have an unaffiliated official in the stadium whose sole purpose is to watch the game and replays and immediately let on-field referees know of a mistake.

That would addresses a couple problems. First, it would help alleviate some of the concerns about fairness. Second, it would expedite replays and mitigate the use of the coach’s challenge.

Instead of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan having to throw a challenge flag on a play occurring 50 yards from where he’s standing, the Sky Judge would alert the crew to pause the game because DeVonta Smith may not have caught the football.

One look at the replay could have changed the course of that entire game.

The Sky Judge idea has been raised several times, but always either gets voted down or withdrawn from the table. It’s unclear who is against the idea, or why.

They need to allow that referee to adjust blatant penalty calls, as well, including roughing the passer.

Unhappy coaches as a result of poor NFL referees is becoming far too commonplace in the league.
Unhappy coaches as a result of poor NFL referees is becoming far too commonplace in the league. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Not the first consequential games affected by NFL referees

The Seahawks Week 18 victory that knocked the Lions out of playoff contention also had its share of officiating controversies.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that several of his highly-connected sources within the league complained about the refereeing in that one.

One of his sources said it was the “worst officiated game of the year.” Another said, “There’s a real groundswell of unhappiness with officiating that is much deeper than I’ve seen and frankly, I haven’t seen in this league in years.”

The NFL has an officiating problem. They can’t solve it in one offseason.

But they should at least look like they’re trying.

Follow Dan Zaksheske on Twitter: @OutkickDanZ

Written by Dan Zaksheske

Dan began his sports media career at ESPN, where he survived for nearly a decade. Once the Stockholm Syndrome cleared, he made his way to Outkick. He is secure enough in his masculinity to admit he is a cat-enthusiast with three cats, one of which is named “Brady” because his wife wishes she were married to Tom instead of him.


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  1. The block in the back on #47 was right at the point of attack, so even if the ref was ball watching it would be really hard to miss. The back half of the 4th quarter of the game was atrociously refereed and if I were a conspiracy theorist, there is some pretty low hanging fruit to go after. If I were a Bengals player on the fringe of the roster or getting ready to retire, it would have been worth flattening a ref at the end of the game. Looked worse than an NBA game or any baseball game called by Angel Hernandez. I was waiting for Jim Ross to hop on the mic & talk about doing things when the refs back was turned.

  2. “…an unaffiliated official…” ???????? The definition of “unaffiliated” must be a doozie! Howsabout a 10-minute replay delay after EVERY call and EVERY No-Call … followed by an audience poll ala American Idol. OR … lets have Nancy Pelosi pick game officials … like she did for her J6 Kangaroo Court … THAT would be cool!

  3. People are amazed that the NFL is just now fixing games. WTF have people been watching? The NFL is about as corrupt an organization that exists.
    They’ve been fixing games for decades. Anyone REALLY think that the “Tuck Rule Game” was an accident? The fix was in for the Patriots.
    The Houston Oilers got screwed the year they were going to beat the Steelers to get to the Super Bowl.
    NBA has actually had referees go to jail for fixing games.
    MLB, two words, Angel Hernandez.
    I want to think that college sports are immune, but…

  4. The NFL need to make the refs full time ‘professional’ refs working for the NFL….5 days a week, all year long. Their jobs should pay them very well, and their employment based on their professionalism, and performance. Hired based on competence, not Wokeness!
    All the blown calls are more then valid to criticize….but at the end of the day, #58 caused the Bengals to lose that game. Another typical, immaturely aggressive moron. And that’s another issue, a lot of these player, come to the NFL, never having to be responsible for their behavior, as kids, or as “college students”. The league should keep track of ‘personnel fouls’, and those that rack’em up should be suspended for a game or two. Maybe that would get their attention to start acting like the pros, and role models the are, or are suppose to be.

  5. You could call holding on every play. On one of his long receptions Higgins pushed off the defender. The Bengals could have ended the game by scoring when they had the ball. KC was the home team and the crowd was loud. That led to missed calls and a certain amount of home field advantage.

    When James Harrison was with the Steelers the OT always had him around the neck when he was rushing the passer; just like the Brown hold.

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