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Adding 'sky judge' to NFL referee crew could help alleviate controversial calls

Los Angeles Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman breaks up a

Los Angeles Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans Saints' Tommylee Lewis during the second half of the NFC championship game on Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. Credit: AP/Gerald Herbert

INDIANAPOLIS

Giants president and co-owner John Mara said earlier this week that he is “skeptical” that major changes will be made to the NFL’s replay system to address plays such as the controversial pass-interference call near the end of the Rams-Saints NFC Championship Game. But there still might be some changes to the league’s officiating procedures that could address similar calls or non-calls.

Mara, an influential member of the competition committee, is most concerned about unintended consequences of adding penalties to the replay challenge system. Although it’s likely that no significant action will be taken to adjust the replay and coaches challenge format, the addition of a “sky judge” could help alleviate controversial officiating decisions.

NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said Friday that serious consideration will be given to adding an eighth official responsible for calling penalties that might be missed by on-field officials. The eighth official would be stationed in a booth above the field of play and could decide on a limited number of penalties, including pass interference and personal fouls.

There still could be changes made to the replay challenge system. Vincent said seven teams have submitted proposals addressing the replay and coaches challenge system.

It remains to be seen if any of the plans — or the addition of a “sky judge” — will garner enough support among owners. Any rules change requires approval of at least 24 of 32 owners. The owners will meet next month in Phoenix to discuss replay and officiating.

The idea of a “sky judge” makes plenty of sense. It would give the officiating crew another important set of eyes, a person who could make use of replays of controversial calls and then consult with on-field officials to make a call. In theory, such an official could have overturned the play near the end of the Rams-Saints game that caused so much controversy. The Rams, who won in overtime, got away with an obvious pass-interference penalty, forcing the Saints into a field-goal try instead of giving them a first down near the goal line late in regulation.

Coaches should be afforded the luxury of challenging penalties, something that is not currently in the replay challenge system. There’s no reason obvious officiating decisions such as the one in the Rams-Saints game can’t be corrected. But if there’s still no appetite among the owners to go in that direction, the “sky judge” might be the next-best thing. Especially if that official is given discretion in studying plays from above the field of play and having the use of replays available.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh made a good case in addressing the weaknesses of the current officiating system:

“We got all this technology and the fans actually have a better view of the game from an officiating standpoint than the officials do. So these clear and obvious mistakes that are inevitably gonna get made — it’s not just one play in a championship game — it happens every week, OK, because the job is so tough, it moves so fast and the angles aren’t great. If we can put somebody up there in the box that’s got a better angle that can help officiate the game from up there, let’s do that.

“If we can add more plays into replay, let’s do that. Because at the end of the game, it’s about the credibility of the sport, and we can’t have the other leagues outpacing us in terms of the use of technology to make sure the games are fair and well-officiated.”

Bravo, Coach.

The bottom line for Harbaugh is something we can all agree on.

“Let’s make sure at the end of the day the fans walk out of the stadium and walk away from the TV sets knowing that was a good, hard-fought, well-played, fairly officiated game, and the outcome is as it should be,” Harbaugh said. “That it was correct and the right team won the game.”

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