Despite unrelenting criticism, Roger Goodell doesn’t think NFL officiating 'has ever been better'

PHOENIX — In what amounted to one of his lengthiest defenses to date, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell brushed back criticism about the league’s officiating and said the on-field performance of calling games is as good as it has ever been.

Goodell’s defense comes in the wake of complaints that have proliferated across multiple layers of the game, from the coaching ranks to players, analysts and even one former league executive in recent days. It also comes on the heels of what appeared to be an unprecedented moment in the AFC championship, when a clock management error resulted in the Kansas City Chiefs being allowed a “do-over” on a third down during the fourth quarter of their 23-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. While that moment aided Kansas City in continuing a drive that didn’t ultimately result in points, it became the latest flashpoint this season filled with rebukes about the state of NFL officiating.

Goodell said Wednesday that the criticism is unwarranted and that the league is at a high point in the history of officiating.

“For us, when you look at officiating, I don’t think it’s ever been better in the league,” Goodell said during his Super Bowl “state of the league” address. “There are over 42,000 plays in a season. Multiple infractions could occur on any play. Take that out. Extrapolate that. That’s hundreds if not millions of potential fouls. And our officials do an extraordinary job of getting those. Are there mistakes in the context of that? Yes. They are not perfect and officiating never will [be]. But we’ve also had obviously replay and other aspects that help us address those issues to make sure they’re not something that we can’t correct on the field.”

While officiating is regularly a hot-button issue for the NFL, there have been a handful of seemingly unique and eyebrow-raising moments this season. In October, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel caused a stir in the league office when he replied to a weekly officiating email with an overarching — albeit softened — frustration about the training and consistency of the league’s officiating. While that in itself wasn’t unique in the history of the NFL’s officiating department, Vrabel took the unusual step of including every head coach and general manager on the email.

“I was just trying to make my point or say my piece,” Vrabel later told reporters. “Just striving for a level of consistency each and every week. Things that look like fouls are fouls and things that aren’t aren’t. Making sure you’re not seeing one thing on TV one week and seeing something different the other [week].”

Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday he doesn't think NFL officiating has ever been better, despite a number of flashpoint moments that have called it into question this season. (Photo by Peter Casey/Getty Images)
Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday he doesn't think NFL officiating has ever been better, despite a number of flashpoint moments that have called it into question this season. (Photo by Peter Casey/Getty Images)

Vrabel wasn’t alone in his complaints about consistency over the course of the season. Multiple star players like the Dallas CowboysMicah Parsons and Los Angeles ChargersJoey Bosa — among many others — had strong comments about various elements of calls during the playoffs on social media and in interviews with reporters. And none may have topped Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy, a centerpiece analyst on NBC’s "Sunday Night Football" package who repeatedly blasted the NFL’s state of officiating during the season while appearing on broadcasts and on social media.

Then came January, when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers pointed a finger at what he believes could be a root cause of some of the issues: a talent drain due to major networks paying significant salaries to feature some of the game’s veteran officials or officiating executives, which ultimately removes them from the league’s talent pool. Three in particular have crossed over after long careers reffing games, including Gene Steratore and John Parry (who both retired in 2018), and Terry McAulay (who retired in 2017).

“The best refs we’ve had in the league are on TV now,” Rodgers said on "The Pat McAfee Show" in January. “They’re not working in the league office. They’re on TV. Gene Steratore — my favorite ref of all time. I think one of the best guys at understanding how to interact with guys and how to communicate with them, and then how to control a game without being a part of it. Gene was incredible at that. But Gene is on TV now. Why? Because they pay more.”

Rodgers’ criticism raised eyebrows initially, but got new life Tuesday when Mike Pereira — who held multiple executive-level officiating jobs in the league office — appeared to back the quarterback during Fox Sports’ Super Bowl media availability. Pereira, who will be utilized as the officiating expert during Fox’s Super Bowl broadcast, said he views the league’s officiating executives as an “underappreciated” asset in the league office.

“I liked [Rodgers’] logic, but it didn’t apply to me because I was already off the field and in the league office,” Pereira told the New York Post. “He has a point. I do feel that officiating is underappreciated from the standpoint of the league. I think the job I had [as head of officiating] is the second-most important job in the league. I give Roger Goodell the No. 1 job, but I think what happens in officiating and the integrity of the game, I think that position is so important that if you get the right one you should do everything to not let them get away.”

Goodell seemed to take issue Wednesday with that line of criticism, particularly from the standpoint of on-field officials being taken away by networks. In his defense, Goodell appeared to suggest that on-field talent losses were decisions made at the ends of careers rather than money drawing away key officials.

“Are we losing people from the field to the booth? There are some that never even officiated on the NFL field,” Goodell said, appearing to reference Pereira and former NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, who is also a Fox Sports analyst. “So we didn’t lose anyone. We may have lost some from our [league] office, but we didn’t lose them from officiating on the field. Others are taking on that responsibility at the end of their careers. So I do not think that’s a factor at all — zero.”

Goodell added that the league will continue to work with its officiating executives and the league’s competition committee to fine-tune the quality of the product, but added “[I]t will never be perfect.”

“In addition, I think we all have to realize through the quality of what we see on our broadcasts, you’ve never been able to see the kinds of things that you can see today,” Goodell said. “You see it in super slow [motion], you see it where you can actually stop it. Sometimes that distorts a call potentially. But the reality is our officials are held to an incredibly high standard and I think they meet it. Will we try to get better? You betcha.”