When Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal lowered his head and, at full speed, rammed Jordan Matthews early in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 24-15 victory Sunday, he did three things.
He bent the bars that masked Matthews' face, eliminating any doubt about whether Neal, intentionally or not, had delivered an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit. He bifurcated Matthews' upper lip, which caused Matthews to stand on the Eagles' sideline for several minutes after the play, spitting blood. And he inspired Eagles coach Doug Pederson, every member of the Eagles' organization, every Eagles fan, and most of the media covering the game to ask the same question at the same time: Why didn't the refs call a penalty? The officials reportedly determined that the contact between Neal's helmet and Matthews' face was incidental and, as such, not an infraction, though it's unlikely that, minutes after the game, Matthews would have found that argument persuasive.
"I don't know what they saw out there," he said. "I don't know if they were watching the football game, if they were thinking about going to Chickie's [and Pete's] later. I don't know."
Matthews' was the natural, knee-jerk response whenever an official in any sport makes an egregious error. We say it all the time. How could the ump miss that one? How could the referee swallow his whistle like that? What was he looking at? But the answer to that last question was obvious Sunday. Everyone at Lincoln Financial Field, the officials included, was looking at Neal and Matthews and their brutal collision. That hit wasn't a block in the back behind the play or a would-be holding penalty unseen amid the hulking men grappling along the line of scrimmage. It was the focal point of the entire sequence. I think Matthews had it exactly wrong. The problem isn't that NFL referees don't see enough of what they should. It's that they're asked to see so much, which is why we're likely to continue to see them miss calls with some frequency for a while.
Before the 2016 season, the NFL's competition committee made recommendations to the league's 32 owners for rules changes - all of them, according to the NFL's website, for the purposes of "protecting its players from unnecessary risk, while keeping the game fair, competitive and exciting." Those are laudable goals, and the owners voted to change eight rules permanently, amend two rules on a trial basis this season, and add six new "points of emphasis" for officials.
Those points were not simple, declarative sentences, however. They comprised 706 words worth of definitions, descriptions, and explanations that officials had to assimilate into their expertise of the rule book, their preparation for each game, and their routines and practices during each game. Under the heading "Crown of Helmet" alone, there are two paragraphs and three bullet points detailing the criteria an official should use to determine whether, say, Neal illegally tackled Matthews. (The league probably should have used the term "prose of emphasis" instead.) It would seem a lot for any official to master, but Art McNally, formerly the head of NFL officiating, said it shouldn't be.
"You're geared through all your years of experience," McNally said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "They've been through this over and over and over again. If something unusual happens, there's pressure. But as an official, you're under all kinds of pressure, and you learn to live with it. They say, 'I call plays the way I see them,' and nothing will influence them."
McNally's idyllic vision offers a stark contrast to the universal belief that NFL officiating this season has been at best uncertain and at worst downright poor (which in turn has contributed to an overall decline in the league's quality of play and entertainment value). That belief is logical and in a way self-evident, given that instant replay applies such rigorous scrutiny to every call during every game. But McNally's complete trust in officials' instincts and abilities also flies in the face of some scientific research and findings that account for how human beings can change their behavior.
By piling more responsibilities on its officials' plates, the NFL has done something that author Charles Duhigg wrote about in his best-selling book The Power of Habit. The league, in Duhigg's words, has inserted "new routines into old habit loops." Just like the athletes whose games they oversee, officials rely on specific cues and training to perform well. They want to react automatically and unfailingly. They don't want to have to think, because they don't want to hesitate. Consider what Duhigg wrote about former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who transformed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from one of the NFL's bottom-feeders into a Super Bowl contender by simplifying things for his players, including Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks:
Players mess up when they starting thinking too much or second-guessing their plays. . . . Dungy's innovation was to use these keys as cues for reworked habits. He knew that, sometimes, Brooks hesitated too long at the start of the play. There were so many things for him to think about - Is the guard stepping out of formation? Does the running back's foot indicate he's preparing for a running or passing play? - that sometimes he slowed down. Dungy's goal was to free Brooks' mind from all that analysis.
The NFL did not free its officials' minds. It shackled them. It weighed them down. No one should be surprised at the results.