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In order to win back fans, the NFL needs to expedite the penalty process

mdmellow
BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 9: A referee picks up a flag in the first half of the game between the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens at M
BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 9: A referee picks up a flag in the first half of the game between the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens at M /
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The NFL wants to make the game faster for fans. One way to cut down on wasted time would be to speed up the process of penalty calls.

During each NFL offseason, team owners around the league hold meetings to discuss what changes are needed in order to

make more money

make the game more exciting for fans.

We all know the same old statistics – NFL games take (roughly) 3 hours and we only see (roughly) 11 minutes of real action. We’re painfully aware of that.

So now, spurred by declining TV ratings and poor game attendance, the focus in the owners meetings has largely been on shortening the length of games.

The aim is to increase viewership and ticket sales by not letting games drag on, which forces fans to endure, rather than enjoy.

Nov 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; A San Francisco 49ers fans reacts from the stands during the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; A San Francisco 49ers fans reacts from the stands during the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

One idea put forward by the competition committee was to cut overtime periods from 15 minutes to 10, but that was rejected by the owners.

Another more successful change now ensures that all replay reviews are examined externally by league experts instead of on-field officials.

The effect of that should be two-fold; cutting down on time and improving the accuracy of calls.

But the circus that is NFL officiating doesn’t only rear its ugly head during replay reviews.

Penalties are a huge part of the modern game. And as much as people love themselves a bit of Ed Hochuli (I’m personally more of a Jerome Boger guy myself), the less you see of the refs in a game the better.

CHARLOTTE, NC – SEPTEMBER 27: Referee Ed Hochuli during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 27, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC – SEPTEMBER 27: Referee Ed Hochuli during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 27, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

There are few things more irritating than to have the flow of a game interrupted by a five minute debate between the refs over a penalty call.

Okay, five minutes might be exaggerating a bit, but that’s what it feels like. It can stop a team’s momentum, and can definitely turn fans off if it happens multiple times in a game.

For every call, the ref has to throw the flag, jog out to the middle, make his announcement, then jog back to set up the next play.

SEATTLE, WA – SEPTEMBER 24: The referees confer after a pass interference call against the Green Bay Packers during the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on September 24, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. Cornerback Tramon Williams
SEATTLE, WA – SEPTEMBER 24: The referees confer after a pass interference call against the Green Bay Packers during the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on September 24, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. Cornerback Tramon Williams /

There were 4166 penalties called last year according to NFL Penalty Tracker. Let’s say (very generously) that every one of those took 20 seconds to complete – to throw the flag, announce the penalty, then get back in position. If we do some quick maths, that accounts for 1388.67 minutes.

In other words…

NFL fans collectively watched 23 hours and 8 minutes of penalty calls in 2016.

And that’s the absolute best case scenario. In reality, once the flag is thrown, the officials can take as long as they want to discuss the call between themselves.

Then it’s up to the head ref to announce the call, which as we’ve all seen is an entirely different kettle of fish…

(Sorry Jerome).

Don’t take what I’m saying the wrong way.

I think NFL refs do an exceptional job. Fans ought to commend them for accurately (most of the time) officiating one of the world’s most complicated games. The rule book becomes more convoluted each year and it’s astonishing that anybody is able to keep up.

It’s the systems that need to change if the NFL is to keep its promise and work to speed up the games. 

So how do we fix the penalty problem?

The league needs to become more tech-savvy. The new replay review process is a big step toward that goal, but more needs to be done.

The review system now involves the ref watching the replay on a tablet device and explaining the nature of the challenge – the who’s, where’s and what’s – to the experts in New York (who are watching the same footage).

Why not have a similar system for penalties?

We could have experts watching a live All-22 feed externally, and they could relay information in to the head ref when necessary.

Once the head ref knows what the infringement is, they can simply give the signal of the specific penalty.

SEATTLE, WA – OCTOBER 18: Referee Terry McAulay
SEATTLE, WA – OCTOBER 18: Referee Terry McAulay /

After it’s accepted or declined, details like the infringing player’s number and the down-and-distance changes can be flashed up on the stadium video boards for fans, and on the broadcast for viewers.

This should (in theory) have the same two-fold effect as the new replay review system. There’s no need for confused huddling by the refs in the middle of the field, cutting down on game time.

And there’ll be less chance of a botched call or a stammering explanation, leading to happier fans AND players.

Penalties will always be a part of the NFL. So let’s figure out a way to streamline the process.

What other suggestions do you have to help speed the game up? Let us know in the comments.

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